Adapting novels for the screen


Books are an enduring source of material for filmmakers, but what makes for a successful transition to film?

It’s doubtful author Raymond Chandler had actor Humphrey Bogart in mind when he envisaged the character of gumshoe Philip Marlowe. If he had, Chandler would have described the private dick as a short, funny-looking guy with stilted delivery and a toupee. As it was, Chandler wrote of his sleuth hero in novels such as The Big Sleep, as a tall, slender, potentially menacing presence.

Nevertheless, when asked what he thought Hollywood had done to his novels, Chandler replied that Hollywood had done nothing to his novels.

“Look,” he said, “they’re sitting right over there on the shelf.”

In language as precise and economical as dialogue he placed in the mouth of his characters (assuming the story isn’t apocryphal), Chandler managed to convey what should be a simple message: novels and film are different media. We negotiate and interpret them differently. They offer different pleasures, require the use of different senses, affect us in different ways.

And yet we persist in comparing and contrasting the adaptation of a book into film, usually unfavourably.

We rate how faithful has been the rendering of the tome, list the important episodes that are absent in the big-screen version, and whether the actors are worthy or appropriate to deliver the lines that were originally written for paper, not multiplex. Writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, William Arnold clearly considered the film version of Snow Falling on Cedars inferior to the novel.

“The book’s poetically precise prose, bold structural devices, riveting delineation of character and heartbreaking tale of anti-Japanese prejudice in 1940s Washington state established (David) Guterson as a major novelist. The film version … goes after these qualities. (It) is visually poetic, non-linear in structure and relatively uncompromising. Even though it’s a big-budget studio release, it’s very much an ‘art’ film. At the same time, it has – perhaps inevitably – lost much of the novel’s drive and originality, and its characters have, to a large extent, been reduced to movie stereotypes. As good as it is many ways, the film is not as emotionally gripping as it should be, and comes off as rather a predictable liberal statement.”

Not content to view a film adapted from a novel as a text in and of itself, we feel compelled to contrast it with the book with which it shares its name – even though the reading of each renders its own, separate rewards.

Consider the example of Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations. In the film starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, the story had been shifted from 19th century England to modern-day Florida and New York. Several of the characters’ names had been changed, including that of the main protagonist from Pip to Finn. In fact, it could be argued that so little did some elements resemble the 19th century novel, including the ending, that Charles Dickens would have a tough time connecting the film with his work.

John Updike has written of experiencing just that when he struggled to recognise any similarity between the film called The Witches of Eastwick and the novel he wrote of the same name.

Similarly, were Philip K. Dick still alive, he might have marvelled at the spectacular visuals of the movie Blade Runner, but apart from a few characters whose names he created, would have struggled to connect it to the novel he wrote called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Obviously readers of books are going to make a connection when a film is made of a particular work, which might explain why John Irving insisted the adaptation of his book, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, alter its name after the makers of the movie departed radically from the plot in his novel.

Consequently Simon Birch was released, more or less without fanfare.

Irving subsequently wrote the screenplay for the recently released film version of his novel The Cider House Rules himself.

US-based film reviewer Paul Tatara says films based on Irving’s books “often feel like two or three different stories sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster,” regardless of who writes the screenplay. Which is not to say that Irving lacks talent, but is a phenomenon that is more a reflection on the nature of his writing, which often weaves wildly disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In his novels, and other books, such a style doesn’t seem out of place. When we’re reading books, we expect them to be meandering, descriptive and elliptical. But in film, story is all, and things that often work on the page seem incongruous or unnecessary in a script.

So what makes a film a commendable adaptation, and is such an occurrence desirable, or even possible? Perhaps the adaptation of The Name of the Rose gives us the most helpful example of a way to understand the relationship between book and film.

The writer of the novel, historian and academic Umberto Eco, said there was no relationship at all. None. One was a book, one was a movie that happened to share the same name. Indeed, the two texts are rather different and after an attempt at Eco’s dense, labyrinthine work, one might wonder how anyone could even contemplate filming it. No such attempt was made. Rather, director Jean-Jacques Annaud made what he called a “palimpsest” of Eco’s book. Kind of like a medieval etch-o-sketch, a palimpsest was a piece of parchment used over and over again.

What Annaud meant was his film offered resonance, lines, traces, characters and plot elements of the novel, but was by no means an attempt to film exactly what Eco had written. Given the scope of Eco’s novel, and the sophisticated ideas and language, such an exercise would simply have been impossible.

In the case of Dickens, one of the complications in an adaptation for modern audiences is the episodic nature and arch style of the writing. Dickens was writing for an audience that was bereft of television, radio and internet. His novels were originally penned in serial form for newspapers, with intricate plots and characterisations. And while Dickens was a prodigious writer and prolific in the extreme, his style, like that of many 18th and 19th century novelists, is not readily converted to big-screen dialogue.

For example, in once describing a character grinning from ear to ear in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote he “exhibited a grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other.”

Like Irving, the very nature of Dickens’ writing – its “writerliness” and its convoluted, episodic form – makes conversion to film problematic.

Jane Campion was criticised for her film version of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady for the most part, it seemed, because she dared, like Cuarón, to attempt (not altogether successfully) to make a film that was relevant to contemporary audiences. Reading James can provide a rewarding experience but it’s not easy-going. He uses long sentences, contrived plots and dense passages replete with internal dialogue. In short, like Eco, he’s a writer who wouldn’t appear to be a natural for film.

Like Annaud, Campion didn’t even try to “adapt” James for the screen. Rather, she presented something of a palimpsest of her own, featuring elements such as contemporary Australian schoolgirls talking about relationships at the start of the film. It was if to say, right from the beginning, “This is not a faithful adaptation.”

And where James was notoriously circumspect when writing about his characters’ sexual exploits (he refrained from writing about the topic altogether), Campion shows Isabel Archer’s (Nicole Kidman) inability to choose between two lovers by having her sharing a bed with both of them.

The best indication of whether a film adaptation has succeeded might therefore be if the film contains something of the “spirit” of the novel, and whether it has entertained, engaged or provoked – rather than how closely it resembles its source material.

Decent films have been made of relatively ordinary books (Gone with the Wind) and vice versa (Catch 22, and many more). Also, adaptations of some novels, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, for instance, have made excellent films only partly because they were based on decent books. Mostly they appeared to work because excellent directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Curtis Hanson, respectively) worked with fine writers, actors, cinematographers, technicians, editors and so on to produce highly regarded movies.

What Puzo, and Irving and others must have discovered preparing novels for the screen is the vastly different roles writers of novels and scripts have. In penning a book, the novelist is screenwriter, cameraman, director, costumier and musician.

But in writing a script the writer is but one contributor in what is a decidedly collaborative process. Further, a scriptwriter provides just enough for actors and directors to work with, not an elaborate set of instructions. And when scriptwriters consider a novel something of a holy text that must be adhered to as much as possible, the final product often doesn’t work.

Speaking at the Melbourne Film Festival following a screening of his film Brown’s Requiem, director Jamie Freeman described the process of turning James Ellroy’s considerably flawed debut novel into a film script. The first step was to go through book and highlight all the parts (passages, characters, plot devices, dialogue) that initially appealed to him. As he fashioned these elements into a workable film script, he cut out the pieces – part by unwieldy part – that couldn’t, or wouldn’t be made to fit in. Characters were lost, plot modified, chunks of dialogue discarded.

Then as the financial constraints really started to kick in (probably about the time he decided to use a significant portion of the budget on an early 60s convertible), Freeland decided he’d ditch one of lead character Fritz Brown’s defining characteristics: his love of classical music.

Yet in attempting to include too many scenes and characters, Freeland made a movie that was both sluggish and confusing. Sure, the lowly budget can’t have helped, but ultimately the result of Freeland’s approach was a film that didn’t come across as particularly Ellroy-esque, nor engaging.

It’s to be expected some fans of certain novelists are going to have their noses put out of joint by films that don’t live up to their expectations of how so-called great literary works should be represented. When Canadian director Patricia Rozena’s film version of Mansfield Park was criticised by fans of the Jane Austen book for making the heroine Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) somewhat raunchier, Rozena responded thus: “I enjoy Jane Austen very much as an author, but it all felt vaguely twee to me.”

It’s the flipside to Chandler’s comment. What Rozena is basically saying is, if you want to read Austen’s novels, they’re sitting over there on the shelf. A film is something else altogether. Deal with it.

This article originally appeared over at The Urban Cinefile.


This avuncular life

There is a lot of upside to being an uncle.

Written by author George Vaillant, Ageing Well, as the title suggests, explores the process of getting older with dignity, health and happiness.

Drawing upon an extensive Harvard study that examined the lives of 800 or so individuals over a 50-year span, the book attempts to unlock the secrets to ensuring a good and meaningful life into the twilight years.

One of the questions Vaillant asks those who participated in the study is, “What have you learned from your children?”

Some people don’t get it, thinking the question should be phrased around the other way.

Vaillant was writing about adults learning from their grown up children, but in applying the theory to my two-year-old niece Billee, I can see where he’s coming from.

Billee is usually in a good mood, and loves to laugh.

She’s very curious, with almost everything in her life an adventure.

In two years she’s learned the rudiments of a language, and is constantly improving her vocabulary.

“Bye Baz,” she said to her grandad recently. “See you tomorrow.” It was the first time she’d strung so many words together in a sentence.

That’s one of the remarkable things about Billee: every time you see her she’s grown and changed from the time before. Literally of course, she’s adding kilos and centimetres at an astonishing rate.

Indeed, in the first few months of her life all Billee seemed to be doing was eating (well, you know, absorbing sustenance), sleeping and soiling nappies. All her energy, it appeared, was dedicated to growing physically and intellectually.

Then at about the four or five-month mark it all started to happen. Suddenly here was a little person, who had her own personality and foibles. Well, with visits separated by one or two-week intervals, it certainly seemed a very sudden change.

When, at about nine months Billee started walking, there was no stopping her. There was so much to discover.

No wonder little kids take naps so often.

There’s all that activity to recover from; all that roving, playing, and mental inventory taking must really exact a toll.

Billee doesn’t have regrets, or rue lost opportunities, or fret about the future. All her energy is focused on getting the most out of the present moment, or the fun things tomorrow might bring.

She likes to sing and dance – in public or private, it doesn’t really matter. She’s not self-conscious and hasn’t learned to be embarrassed. Haven’t got the lyrics quite right? No worries.

Making friends is easy for Billee, and she’s fond of public displays of affection for those she’s closest to.

Billee is very change-ready. Sure, she has her routines, her rituals and favourite things, but she also readily learns and takes on new skills and adjusts to changing circumstances.

Past failures don’t faze her or hold her back. It’s as though she’s forgotten them completely!

There’s a regular flow of fresh stuff to be learned about, played with, observed, or admittedly in some instances, destroyed.

She’s in touch with her playful inner child.

Now I’m aware that I’m taking somewhat of an idealistic approach here. I usually see my niece when she’s at her best, and I’m not required to discipline her, deal with her teething, or change nappies.

Young parents would also no doubt say that the average two-year-old has plenty to teach about throwing a tantrum, staying awake when they should be asleep, or wandering into places they shouldn’t.

As an uncle, it’s all upside. There’s play and hugs, maybe a little book reading, and then you get to say goodbye and take a breather.

It’s hardly her fault, but Billee has also stoked my competitive avuncular instincts.

When I see a toddler these days, I can’t help but think my niece is cuter, bigger, more advanced, healthier, smarter, happier or just an all round better little kid.

Yet such trifling and petty things matter little to Billee, she’s got so much else going on.

There’s playgroup, swimming lessons, dolls, handbags (she LOVES handbags), vegemite (MITE!), mini maestros, the backyard and beyond.

Little brother Ned, for instance, is a whole new source of amusement, potential play companion and partner in crime.

But he’s another story.


I originally wrote this piece 12 years ago. It’s hard to account for time passing so quickly. Billee and Ned are now both in high school, and are turning into delightful young adults.

Shakespeare’s writing secret

Many successful writers have a trait in common: tenacious productivity.


In the forward to Charlie Martz and Other Stories: the Unpublished Stories of Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard recalls his renowned father’s writing routine.

This was in the time before Elmore was able to devote himself to novel-writing full-time. Rising at 5am, Elmore set a rule for himself: fill two pages of writing before going to work at his day job producing copy at a Detroit advertising agency.

Astonishingly, the writer of Rum Punch (Jackie Brown), Get Shorty, and Out of Sight – which were all adapted into screenplays – kept up this stringent quotidian routine for almost 10 years.

So disciplined was Leonard during his morning ritual that he didn’t permit himself to turn on the water for his coffee until he had filled a page with his hand-written script.

I have been thinking somewhat about writers and their routines lately.

When I started blogging earlier this year I did so with the aim of producing one post per week. Alas, I’ve fallen short of that modest aspiration.

So how do writers – real writers – do it? By what elusive alchemy, what kind of graft enables productive, successful writers to link words into phrases, paragraphs, chapters and books that touch emotions, transport, engage, or at least entertain?

With some it obviously comes very naturally. JK Rowling has no problem cranking out sentence after virtuoso sentence. (I haven’t read the Harry Potter series, but have found the Robert Galbraith books to be enormously addictive).

Other writers overcome formidable hurdles to tell their stories.

Consider the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The French magazine editor wrote a single, slender novel, but it’s a masterpiece.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was written after Bauby suffered a massive stroke. Following his emergence from a three-week coma, Bauby was left with “Locked-in” syndrome. Speechless, immobile and bed-ridden, the only part of his body he had control over was his left eyelid.

Yet using a convoluted and laborious system, Bauby was able to communicate with the outside world, and write his book. With the help of an assistant reciting the alphabet while taking dictation, Bauby would blink when the letter he wished to use was uttered.

Imagine the force of will required to write a sentence or paragraph – let alone a whole novel – in this style. It must have taken incredible concentration, fortitude and rigour, as well as skill, for Bauby to persist in this manner.

The result, though, is a treasure – an amazing story beautifully told, every sentence a lovely bagatelle.

Fact: I am not going to reach that standard (even with most of my faculties intact) – few do, including scribes such as Leonard, whose stock-in-trade was meticulously structured plots, well-drawn characters, and snappy dialogue.

There is a useful lesson for us workaday bob-a-job writers to keep in mind: don’t let perfection – or the pursuit of it – get in the way of tapping out a good yarn.

“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says novelist Laura Lippman.

“If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”

Ideas, she means.

It’s advice that nicely complements that given by Dr Nick Baylis, a specialist in positive psychology from Cambridge University.

Baylis says that to combat the paralysing effects of perfectionism, a powerful principle to keep in mind is that the more fully formed attempts we make at any task (not just writing), then the greater the probability of scoring a recognised success.

In basketball parlance: you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.

The idea is not so much that quantity trumps quality; it’s more that quantity could, and just might (and probably will) – inevitably, inexorably, or simply hopefully – lead to quality of some sort.

Theorising about, studying, discussing, benchmarking – these are no substitute for actually making, for doing.

Baylis quotes Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, whose analysis of accomplished lives demonstrates that the basic rule is consistent across all disciplines, and applies at any age of life.

Simonton provides the example of William Shakespeare, who penned Hamlet one year, Troilus and Cressida the next, and close to 40 major works in all. About a quarter of these are celebrated as part of the Western Canon of great works; others have slipped into obscurity and are rarely performed.

The Bard didn’t know which of his plays would succeed and which would eventually fade, and it wasn’t a concern; productivity was king. The Globe Theatre required material, and he was the content provider. So he sat his backside down, pulled out his quill and filled parchment on demand. 1

“History shows how every high achiever relies on this same brand of tenacious productivity to eventually make progress,” Baylis says. “Their most prized accomplishments are invariably surrounded by a vast number of missed shots.”

To overcome perfectionism’s pernicious influence, we should aim to be as productive as possible, not as perfect as possible. 2

Think: by producing a lot of stuff, you might just come up with the occasional pearl.

“Productivity,” says Baylis, the author of Learning from Wonderful Lives, “brings a profound pleasure.”

One has a sense that this was certainly the case with Leonard, who according to his son, could get lost in his writing regardless of what was going on around him.

His was a writing style that evolved over time, and with considerable practice.

By the time he’d earned the title of “master crime writer” – at least a few decades into his career – Leonard had developed his famous “10 rules of writing”. 3

It took trial and error for him to hone these, and to find his self-styled voice.

When he was ready to make run into full-time novel writing, Leonard had accumulated about 7,300 hours of practice in his early-morning sessions alone.

Old “Dutch” Leonard didn’t have truck with flowery prose. He didn’t sit around waiting for the writing muses to visit; he just got it done. And in at least one major category Leonard even out-Shakespeared the Bard: 45 major works to 37.



  1. Interestingly, Shakespeare didn’t often get distracted by his Twitter feed, and wasn’t overly concerned with how his productions trended on Facebook. His Instagram regularly went neglected, and his LinkedIn profile was an afterthought at best.
  2. Perhaps there is a corollary between Baylis’s “Shakespeare principle” and Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that success at the highest levels of anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.
  3. According to Leonard, writers should never start their stories with descriptions of the weather, only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue, and stay away from adverbs to modify “said”. He didn’t like exclamation marks, and advised against detailed descriptions of characters. His most important rule: If it sounded like writing, Leonard rewrote it.