Why You Don't Want Your Novel Adapted Into a Movie

For many authors seeing their work go from fiction to film sounds nothing short of a dream. This appeal is not unfounded – how awesome would it be for more people to come in contact with your story? To see your story brought to life? To hear those biting conversations you wrote and painful exclamations become fully realized?

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However, having your novel adapted into a film isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and it might even be something to avoid.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, especially if you’ve been reading my blog for a long time now – “Wait, Emma. Didn’t you write an article and super in-depth ebook teaching people how to take their novel from fiction to film? Isn’t your entire blog about writing in different mediums? What’s going on?”

Before I get too ahead of myself, I should explain that though it might seem confusing, this very philosophy of mine – that you shouldn’t adapt fiction to film – is not necessarily conflicting with my belief that writers should learn to write in multiple mediums, nor is it conflicting with my advice on how to adapt your own work.

Instead, this belief is rooted in my knowledge of what the adaptation process looks like and what it so often does to books, and my other belief that every storyteller should try to tell a story that can only exist in the medium they are writing in.

Often the adaptation process is done with the best intentions. Take a beloved story and turn it into a movie. The fans will be happy, the producers will be happy – everyone’s happy!

But a lot of times this adaptation process is done without consideration for the new medium the story is being adapted into. And that’s where the problems lie.

A book like The Bell Jar or Catcher in the Rye cannot be adapted into a movie simply because their strengths are so deeply rooted in the voice of the narrator.

However, a bullheaded Hollywood executive might tell you otherwise, then paste some voice-over narration into the script and call it the “same.”

But it’s not the same. It’s drastically different.

And trying to just copy and paste features of a novel into features of a film is like trying to shove a square-shaped peg into a circle hole.

It doesn’t work. 

Why You Don’t Want Your Novel Adapted Into a Movie

Though I’ve already touched on why I’m particularly averse to novels being adapted into films, it’s worth noting that some books can be adapted without a problem or without considering any of the factors I am about to discuss.

Pulp fiction, romance novels, and even to an extent science fiction and fantasy, can often be adapted without a problem if the strength of the story is in the narrative itself, not prose.

If you’re not sure what I mean by that, be sure to download a copy of the Storytelling System to see what I mean when I say “the strengths of prose.”

However, if you’re writing anything in those categories that feature traits I am about to discuss, you’ll want to rethink whether you want your novel to be adapted.

1 | Your Novel is Centered Around Language

If you’ve written a novel with beautiful prose or a narrator with a unique and perhaps unreliable voice, none of these features will translate to a film adaptation.

Even if you opt for the overdone voice-over, audience members cannot savor and reread your beautiful sentences over and over again. They cannot underline their favorite passages and marvel at how you’ve arranged a sentence.

In fact, there is no way at all to communicate the power of your writer’s voice and the words you use in your story other than with a novel. It’s not to say you cannot have a writer’s voice in a film, but that if your novel’s intention is rooted in language – the primary device of prose – then your adaptation will feel incomplete and in many ways, a bit lifeless.

2 | Your Novel Focuses on Internal Exploration

Prose is the only storytelling medium that enables audience members a direct peek into the mind of a character.

While you can explore the internal in films and television as well, the means of doing so are much more subtle and ambiguous.

For some stories, that works very well and very well may be the point.

But if the point of your novel is to tap into the human psyche and really explore the mind of someone, in adapting your story from fiction to film, you’ll be sure to lose that deep study of the internal when your story takes the big screen.

While some films get strikingly close to these deeply internal narratives, such as Black Swan or The Tree of Life, none can offer the insight one might receive in a novel such as A School for Fools, which focuses on the psychological exploration of a man with schizophrenia, or Chronicle of the Murdered House, which explores an entire family’s experiences via diary entries.

For that reason, if your story involves any sort of deep study of human perspectives or the way people think, you’ll like be disappointed in adaptation whose medium can only offer a distant exploration of the same subject.

3 | Your Story is Meant to be Experienced Individually

Part of the beauty of prose is that it is a self-paced, individual experience so that the author often feels they are speaking directly to the reader.

While two people can read a novel side-by-side, both people will do so at their own pace and come from the novel with different takeaways.

With a movie, your audience may all have different reactions and perspectives, but the very nature of a film or television show is that it can be watched with a group of people and is meant to be experienced in that way.

Though that is not a bad thing, this means you’ll lose that direct communication your readers feel when they read a novel because now your story is being communicated to a wide audience.

It is going to inherently feel less personal and close to the people who view your story as a result.

So, if you have a story that is rooted in the direct communication from author to reader, you’ll likely be unsatisfied with a film adaptation of your work, as the communication will feel very watered down by comparison.

4 | Your Novel is Packed With Characters

Many of the greatest novels are over 500-pages long and packed with an enormous cast of characters. A lot of writers might question the necessity of such a long work and even go so far as to say that a simpler story might be better.

And it’s true.

A loss of characters isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we novelists do need to cut down on how many characters are featured in our work so that the truly interesting ones can shine.

But if you’re writing a novel like Infinite Jest, The Brothers Karamazov, or A Tale of Two Cities, to cut out even an eighth of those characters would completely alter the state of the story because those novels thrive on the enormous cast. They’ve built a world, and to strip away the characters strips away the setting.

Novels have the advantage of being as long or as short as they’d like to be, while movies are very limited in their length because they must appeal to a wide audience with varying attention spans.

Because of this, some novels are that much better with their enormous cast of characters. They make the world feel like a huge and lively history that you as the reader are privileged to uncover.

It’s what makes the story unique, and to strip away that cast takes away what might have distinguished A Tale of Two Cities from Les Misérables.

What to Do Instead

So, now you know why you should be averse to anyone approaching you with an adaptation in mind, you’re likely still thinking to yourself how it would be really awesome still to see your novel on the big screen.

There’s absolutely no shame in this desire because let’s admit it, it would be really cool.

And adaptations don’t have to be bad, they just need to be thought out more thoroughly than just copying and pasting the same story into a film. There are a lot of differences between the mediums to be reconciled with, and the more the novelist and screenwriter – if they are separate people – can understand how to translate those differences, the better.

Adapt Your Own Work

One way to ensure your story is adapted the right way – though many advise against this – is to adapt your own story.

The reason you may be advised against this, however, is because many authors have troubles letting go of their favorite elements and may be prone to trying to add in their language or internal exploration to the film in a way that doesn’t make sense.

However, if you can separate your novel from your screenplay, you can very well adapt your own story and ensure it embodies the core elements of your story, yet presents them in a way new that lends itself to the strengths of filmmaking, not novel writing.

If you’re up to the challenge, I suggest looking at my post on how to take your novel from fiction to film, which highlights the key things you need to prepare to cut in going through the adaptation process.

Just keep my advice in mind earlier about why you would want to avoid an adaptation in the first place, in case you may be sacrificing what makes your story so strong.

Re-envision Your Story

To make the adaptation process easier, I find it best to treat novels and their film counterparts as two separate stories altogether.

However, taking words from your novel and turning them into a screenplay is often quite difficult and in many ways, it’s actually easier to start from scratch with your story and completely ignore the novel version.

While this idea may seem terrifying to some, it is the one way I believe you can take a novel story and adapt it into a film that uses the new medium to its advantage.

You can do this using my post on adaptation, or you can work your story through my course, Swank Up Your Script, treating it like an entirely new project and letting your story and process take you to new places.

However you choose to “re-envision” your story, don’t be afraid to abandon everything and just use your characters and conflict as a premise. Create new scenes, new subplots, new internal dilemmas, using the bare-bones of your novel as a jumping point.

Learn the Art of Film

Even if adapting your own work sounds like a total nightmare, the more you understand about what makes film different and unique – to the same extent you understand what makes prose unique – the better you can communicate with the screenwriter or director you are working with.

Whether you choose to rewrite your entire story from scratch or work with what you have, knowing what makes screenwriting and filmmaking so wholly unique is really important.

It will make it easier for you to communicate how you want features to be translated in your story, but also it will help you see the different ways you can take elements from your novel and turn them into elements of film, yet still maintaining the core story and features you were striving for.

Luckily, the key purpose of this blog is dedicated to helping writers and storytellers understand the advantages of the different storytelling mediums.

So, if you want to learn more about screenwriting and film and what makes it so unique, be sure to check out my free ebook, The Storytelling System, which outlines the differences.

Or, if you’re ready to adapt your film with the medium in mind, check out my course Swank Up Your Script for guidance.

Now, of course, there are directors and writers who adapt wonderfully, so I don’t want you to be too fearful of adaptation, but instead to understand the features you need to consider when your work is being adapted.

Because remember – the key goal of any storyteller should be to write something that cannot exist in any form and be equally as good. So, writing a book that can never be adapted into anything or a movie that would be awful if it was turned into a play or book. This is the case because the stories that cannot be adapted are so strongly rooted in the medium that they stand out for their unique nature.

Because in a world where millions and millions of stories have already been told, it’s impossible to do something original, and as a result, you’re better off trying to use the medium at hand than to do something completely “new.”

But if you want to adapt your work, I hope I’ve provided clear enough guidelines for you to ensure it’s done well and in a way that respects the two different mediums.