Films based on book adaptations earn a stunning 53% more at the worldwide box office. But just how does a story go from Barnes & Noble shelves to international silver screens? In this article, we’ll break down the murky middle and take you through the creative process of how to write an adaptation. We’ll put words and facts to what seems like, well, magic.
“Books may well be the only true magic.”
— Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic
How to Write an Adaptation
1. Find the material — the spark
Most book to film adaptations begin with a spark. A printed text typically will have caught the attention of a film producer (you), who then decides to mold this story for the visual medium.
Oftentimes the text that catches attention is linked to recommendations, topical issues, old classics, free content in the public domain, or bestseller’s lists. All of those avenues heavily emphasize an audience’s familiarity or fascination with the work, which better predicts an easy box office success. Major movie studios love that.
In short, the key to how to write an adaptation starts with the material.
DID YOU KNOW?
'90s cult-favorite Clueless was based off of a book you probably read in high school English. That’s right! The lipgloss-toting, high-heel-clicking, Beverly-Hills-centered film considers Jane Austen’s Emma as its original source for inspiration and material. This is a strong example of adapting an old classic for the screen and re-introducing it to a new generation, as Austen published her novel in 1815. The film, a huge success, was released 180 years later in 1995.
SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION RIGHTS
2. Reach out to the literary agent
Once you decide to adapt a book for film, you’ll want to seek out the author’s literary agent with an offer. This is a very bare-bones type of meeting, where normally enthusiasm and your general overall vision are expressed. Typically at this stage, it’s pretty optimistic since no concrete players or creatives have yet to be attached.This is also a chance for you to note and incorporate the input from the literary agent before you set out to craft a creative outline.
LITERARY AGENT DEFINITION
WHAT IS A LITERARY AGENT?
A literary agent is a professional agent who works on behalf of an author. They’re responsible for promoting the author’s works, managing sales, and coordinating all publication and production contracts. An agent is effectively on the front lines for the author’s work and can serve as a nimble guiding light in what can be an otherwise overwhelming process: publishing a book.
Some well-known literary agents/agencies include: Janklow & Nesbitt Associates (represent Joan Didion), Chuck Verrill (represents Stephen King), and Georgia Garrett (represents Zadie Smith).
3. Set your production’s budget
A big factor in securing the film rights of a book rests on the production’s budget. That means, it’s up to you to set an appropriate budget that factors in the pay grades for all your expected cast and crew, as well as expenses for things like camera cranes, soundstage rentals, and/or location permits, and wardrobe pieces.
Figuring your budget out early in the filmmaking process will alleviate a lot of tension later on down the line and will make the following steps run even smoother. We also provide a handy list of the best film budgeting software.
WHAT IS A SOUNDSTAGE?
A soundstage is a soundproof structure, building, or room used for film and television productions. They are specifically suited with acoustic properties to enable the recording of sound. Studio lots, such as the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, CA, are composed of many soundstages. The first soundstage was created in 1928.
Book to Film Adaptations
4. Commission first draft of script
Now that you’ve got your budget and a literary agent that’s potentially interested in your offer, it’s time to set to work on creative mapping. This is often when a screenwriter is commissioned to write a first draft, rewrite, and polish of the script.
Typically, the contracts administered from production companies to screenwriters at this stage will bar the screenwriter from working on other projects. The timeline for a first draft is typically ten to twelve weeks. For the rewrite portion, it’s normally four to six weeks. And the final step, the polish, is completed within two to four weeks. That’s a total of sixteen to twenty-two weeks that the screenwriter will be working solely on your particular project.
“I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker... (Screenplays) are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.”
— Paul Schrader, screenwriter, Taxi Driver (1976)
How to Adapt a Book into a Movie
5. Attach a director
So you’ve got a great script. It’s time to seek out a director, hopefully with some industry cachet, to attach to the project. A reputable, dedicated director will be hugely helpful in persuading the literary agency to sell the film rights of the book you’re looking to adapt, since they’ll be guiding the overall picture.
The Directors Guild of America (DGA) is a great resource in helping you better find the contact information of directors you’re interested in reaching out to. Once you’re in communication with a director-or a few- about the project, you’ll send them a confidential reading copy of the script, and await their final response.
DID YOU KNOW?
Even streaming services love a good book-to-film adaptation! Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was based on a book by authors Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. The women released their historical novel in 2008. It stayed on The NY Times Bestseller’s List for eleven weeks.
Adaptation of the Book
6. Cast talent
We’ve reached the point in the pre-production journey where it’s about to get a whole lot more collaborative. It’s time to put some human faces to these fictional characters.
If you’re looking to secure already-known actors, you can contact their agents/managers to set up an audition. Or, if you’re open to posting casting calls on reputable casting websites. There, you’ll be able to specify exactly what looks and skill-sets your production is looking for.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Notebook’s casting director Nick Cassavetes said that he knew Rachel McAdams was the perfect Allie Hamilton just from her first in-office read with Ryan Gosling. The 2004 film, based off the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same title, went on to be a huge success, earning a total of $115.6 million in the box office, immortalized forever as a classic romance.
Movie Adapted from A Literary Source
7. Assemble a lookbook
After casting your actors, it’s time for you and your director to put together the film’s lookbook. So, what exactly does that entail? A lookbook is a visual reference composed of photographs and mood boards that articulate your vision for the film’s tone and atmosphere.
This is the place to note any film styles you’re hoping to replicate in production, such as Neorealism effects or slapstick comedic wide shots. It’s a helpful way to condense all that important information for the rest of your crew, who are working diligently to create props, costumes, and set pieces that elevate the film’s tone appropriately.
The lookbook keeps you and your team all on one page, artistically speaking.
“I love more than anything looking at a movie scene by scene and seeing the intention behind it. It allows you to really appreciate the hand of the filmmakers.”
— Jodie Foster, actress, The Accused (1988)
How to Write an Adaptation
8. Create the bible
Now that you’re equipped with all your essential information and key players, it’s time to assemble your film’s pitch bible. A pitch bible is a referential document that articulates all aspects of pre-production, from the attached director to potential talent. It’s the written sum of all your hard work from the above-defined steps.
If it’s an animated film, it also includes concept art, style frames, and initial storyboards. When the pitch bible is all finished, you, the producer, will then present it to the literary agent in the hopes of finally securing your book-to-film adaptation deal!
If the literary agency would like to move forward, you’ll get the clearance to move forward. Congrats! A book is now on its way to becoming your film!
Now that you know how to write an adaptation, it’s time to discuss the pre-production process! What exact steps are needed to be taken in order for the cast and crew to succeed in a timely and safe manner? This next article breaks down everything from what pre-production entails to defining its key players.