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Paul FitzSimons

A couple of years back, I suffered from a brief spell of arrogance in relation to a particular branch of writing. Adaptation.

I decided, in a moment of ill-conceived madness, to take my unpublished novel that was staring at me from the middle shelf and turn it into a movie. ‘How Hard Can It Be?’ I thought to myself. I very quickly found out.

‘Of course it’s hard!’ I hear you yell. ‘You’re condensing four hundred pages into one hundred!’ Very true, but what I found out during those mind-blowing months is that it’s even more complicated than that.

Having spent years creating detailed the nuanced characters with dramatic backstories, complex plot, and intricately detailed chapters that make up a novel, I realised that shoe-horning all that intricacy into a two-hour visual medium was as feasible as getting a king-sized duvet into a washing machine – it’s possible but you have to pretty damned committed.

Dwight Douglas, columnist with, recognises the struggle involved in taking the complex, nuanced and detailed piece of writing that is a novel and transforming it into something watchable. He compares it to raising someone else’s child and suggests that, although we want the story to remember ‘where it came from’, it also must be a work of art in its own right. Dwight guides us through the process of bringing a book to cinematic life.

Script Magazine’s Daniel Manus reminds us that the market-place for a novel is very different from that for a film and, to effectively turn one into the other, we need to know about both industries. It’s worth knowing, for example, that there are around a quarter of a million book titles published every year but, in that same period, only around 270 feature films are made.

Daniel also suggests that the key elements of a story must be retained for it to be a successful adaptation. These include the world of the story (something I talked about a few weeks ago), the main characters including the hero and villain, the core conflict of the story and some lines of dialogue that really shine.

A mentioned above, one of the principle challenges of the book-to-movie adaptation is the difference in words-on-the-page– how can we possible condense 400 pages of prose to 100-120 of script and still tell the same story? On, writer and script-editor Lynn Pembroke advices that, in fact, we can’t tell the exact same story in our film script. What we should aim for is to capture the essence and spirit of the book, to determine the main plot and any major sub-plot and then viciously cut everything else.

For those of us considering writing an adaptation of our own novel into a film (yeah, I’m thinking about it again), Writer’s Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino offers us seven invaluable tips for adapting our own novels. He tells us that structure is crucial, that the story must now be structured like a film. He also advises us to think visually, to picture scenes in our head and, above all, to show, not tell.

One sure-fire way of learning how to adapt from a novel is to watch other films that were adapted and to take note what elements were incorporated and which were discarded. Of course, each story will differ (in fact, two adaptations of the same book might be considerably different) but they will almost always aim to retell the overall story with the original characters and create the tone of the original book. Movie magazine TotalFilm takes us through their top fifty movie adaptions, telling us why they worked as adaptations and how each film differs from the book. The list includes Jaws, Silence Of The Lambs and The Godfather.


“An adaptation leads the cinema-goer to the original to find out what they’re missing and if they already know the book, it can still illuminate a theme, a character, an idea.” – David Nicholls

Your Favourite Book. Could It Be A Movie?

On, Dwight Douglas guides us through the process of bringing a book to cinematic life.

“Like raising someone else’s child, you want them to remember their birth parent, but they must become their own work of art.”


Manus Is The Man.

Script Magazine’s Daniel Manus tells us that the key elements of story must be retained for it to be a good adaptation.

“Before you try adapting a book into a screenplay – your own book or someone else’s – you need to know the difference between the markets.”


Adaptation 101.

Lynn Pembroke tells us how to capture the essence and spirit of the book in an adaptation.

“What was I thinking? How the devil am I going to convert this 400-page novel to a 110-page screenplay?”


7 Is The Magic Number.

Chuck Sambuchino’s seven invaluable tips for adapting our own novel.

“If your finished product doesn’t fit the usual mould of what a screenplay should look like, then a producer or agent won’t even consider it.


In At Number 50…

TotalFilm Magazine’s top 50 book adaptations.

“The best from page to screen.”


(c) Paul FitzSimons

About the author

Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.

Paul also runs the Script Editing service Paul | The |

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