Adapting Books for Film

filming-indoors-photography-918281This article is principally aimed at authors, though others, screenwriters/scriptwriters for instance (hereafter collectively referred to as ‘screenwriters’), may also find the content of interest.

Where an author is fortunate enough to have someone interested in converting their book to film they should be looking at how they may assist the screenwriter in the interpretation of their book’s content. They may be surprised to find this is not as easy or straight forward as they may have thought. The following applies equally to any author who decides to undertake the adaption themselves.

Due to the length, consideration was given to splitting this article in two but it was concluded that would be counter productive for those interested in the topic.

Visual Impact

Prior to considering any element of the conversation process the visuality of film, whether mainline or television, must be taken into account. Many aspects that require detailed outlining in the written word may be conveyed within moments in film. This is an important and primary consideration that must be fully taken into account at all stages of the adaption process. Authors need to be prepared for this.

Budget and Time

Film makers in these financially constrained days, whether mainline or independent, have to keep an eye upon costs. They need to have some certainty the project will be a commercial success. It should be remembered it is not just the filming or screenwriter which have to be paid for. There are: producers; technicians; camera personnel; actors; makeup artists; wardrobe assistants; location fees; taxes; transport; accommodation; and so much more, all of which require payment prior to the film being released or bringing any income in. Consequently, it is more than likely producers will insist upon any proposed lavish or intricate scenes being curtailed or cut altogether. Authors need to be aware of this and accept their ‘baby’ may undergo some radical manipulation. Parts may even not be identifiable as having originated from the book.

Another point that must also be born in mind: most mainstream films aim to be between one-and-a-half to two hours in length; and small screen films tend to aim for forty-five minutes unless it is to be serialised. These time restraints will undoubtedly impinge upon how various elements of the book are interpreted.

Core Theme

First and foremost, the author and screenwriter must decide upon what the core theme for the film should be. With some books e.g. true life tales, there may be more than one primary storyline which may be supported in writing however, with film it is not so easy or desirable. Film works best with just one and most producers and directors will insist upon it. It is also what most filmgoers will expect and after all, the intention and need is for the film to appeal to them and to be a commercial success.


This section will look at some of the various elements of a story and consider what needs to be included and what may be, or needs to be, omitted.


Whether; personal, national, international, or global, once the film’s theme has been settled it will be necessary to decide how much of the background, or past, history is required for the viewer to make sense of the tale.

Social Customs

Some decisions here will depend upon where the characters have their roots or upon the location within which the story is set. For example, United States and United Kingdom citizens may have no idea what are important customs within the Indian culture e.g. how and why cattle are venerated. In addition, there may be occasions where the viewer needs to understand a social custom to make sense of why a character behaves in a certain way.

Secondary Characters

As already mentioned, it is important the time constraints of film are constantly born in mind. And, naturally, cutting secondary characters is an attractive means for shortening a book story to film length. However, unless the film is to be exceptionally minimalist and possibly dull and boring, and to make the story realistic, it will be necessary to ensure some of these secondary characters are included. Without them it will probably not be possible to effectively convey a protagonist’s progress whether positive or negative. Authors should have determined which they consider the most important before meeting up with the screenwriter.


Books, especially older ones, frequently contain lengthy descriptions of countrysides; urban settings; universe (space), where the book is in the science-fiction genre; interiors, etc. In film these are omitted because the camera is able to convey them within a couple of frames. Obviously the director will have chosen the physical locations carefully so as to convey the appropriate setting. The author should have decided beforehand if a specific location or the positioning of a tree say, is crucial to the viewer’s comprehension.


Sometimes the structure or atmosphere of a building is pertinent to the flow of a story however, where it is not, the author should be prepared to let the director select where the film will be shot. Of course, if it is crucial the author may point this out but must still be willing to discuss the issue.
It should always be remembered, the camera may convey architectural style and atmosphere within a few shots.


Style, clothing, jewellery, etc., may easily and instantaneously be conveyed in film. Bear in mind these are not always an important element for a story but if they are, the author may notify the screenwriter accordingly but again be willing to consider alternatives which may still provide the same impression(s).


Malevolent, Cruel, Angry, Sorrowful, Sympathetic, Kind, Genteel, etc. In film these, sometimes combined with body language, are how a character’s inner thoughts and emotions are conveyed. In a book these may require paragraphs, perhaps pages, of description. However, in film it is up to the actor and makeup artist to create the relevant characteristic. The camera then conveys them concisely. Again, the author should identify which of these they consider vital for the story and which may safely be omitted without distorting the tale.


Just as secondary characters have to be considered so do subplots. This is perhaps not such an easy area because sometimes the subplot feeds into the main theme. However, frequently, in books, the subplot is simply a nicety and could be omitted without detrimentally impacting the tale. These may therefore be safely ignored in an adaption. Naturally, if the subplot is considered essential to the comprehension of the film the author and screenwriter will have to determine how to incorporate it.


At first the inclusion of dialogue may appear to be a straightforward matter. However, issues frequently arise. As already mentioned, time has to be constantly born in mind. In a book the author may take as many pages as they like to create a discussion, argument or equivalent. In film there is a defined limit that has to be adhered to. A rough guide, perhaps not so rough, for film is that one page equates to one minute of film time. That one page also includes instructions as to location, who is speaking and sometimes, though these should be avoided as much as possible, camera directions. Another area of difficulty is where the book is narrated and therefore usually has little, if any, in the way of actual dialogue. The author can do a lot of preparatory work here by employing their creativity to draft appropriate dialogue in advance of meeting with the screenwriter.


Generally, all stories follow in an identifiable line of beginning, middle, and end. However, it is not always necessary and may even prove laborious to follow this format. Chronology will also be impacted by the decisions previously made as to what to include and what to omit. If there is an occurrence which requires highlighting for the purpose of understanding a current situation or topic, the ‘flashback’ facility could be utilised though considered advice is to avoid too many of these and in some cases not to use them at all. Naturally, the final decision will have to commence with the screenwriter and author and be further considered by the director and maybe even the producer(s) if it impacts upon costs. The important issue is for the film to make sense to the viewer.


It may appear odd to include this but, bearing in mind a substantial percentage of those who visit this website blog are interested in memoirs, it merits mentioning. There is ‘advice’ out there, on the internet and elsewhere, suggesting screenwriters not burden themselves with the ‘truth’ when adapting a true life tale. These consider it fair to substantially fictionalise to the point the end film ultimately bears no resemblance to the life it purports to portray. Though their reasoning (cinematography and commercialism) may be comprehended it is hoped most will consider this unacceptable. Of course, there must be some leeway and it maybe appropriate to fictionalise some elements if the film is to be visually appealing but not in entirety.


Adapting a book to film is by no means an easy task for most authors. After all the book is their ‘baby’ into which they have put endless hours of effort, sweat and possibly tears. Nevertheless, if they really do want to see the story in film, they will have to do some letting go.

All films have a team behind them of which the author may be invited to be part. One thing is for sure, the author has to accept there will be changes: no book is capable of conversation in its entirety, if for no other reason than the different formats. If the author considers an element is essential they will have to argue the point with the team but should accept their voice may be ignored or, at best, filtered.

Throughout this article the screenwriter and author have been mentioned as the people deciding what to incorporate and what to omit nevertheless, they must accept that frequently the final decisions will be made by the producer(s) and director.

Of course, the author has the option of signing over copyright to the corporation in which case they are unlikely to have any input into how the final film will look.

The above is not intended to be a final comprehensive treatise on the topic, undoubtedly there are other elements readers may think of. Nevertheless, it is hoped this article provides a starting point for those contemplating the adaption process.

Once again apologies for the length of this article but for it to serve the intended purpose it is best if all the information is kept together.

2 thoughts on “Adapting Books for Film

  1. Excellent article Tanya. As a scriptwriter for many years, I can endorse everything you say. It’s most unlikely that should an option be taken on your book for a film, once the contract is signed, the author will have little or no impact as you mention. Smile through clenched teeth, bank the cheque and be prepared to cringe at the premier, if you get invited!

    Liked by 1 person

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