Top Tips: Adapting A Novel For The Screen

by Gurpreet Sihat

When I first adapted The Silence, I started counting how many times people asked me how to adapt a novel for the screen. After the eighteenth time I lost count so, for all of those that asked, here are my top five tips:

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  1. Read the book – not once, not twice but three times…

Reading the book is probably the most obvious tip I can tell you but there’s a very specific reason I say to read it a minimum of three times:

  • The first time you read it, you’re reading it as part of the audience.
  • The second read is when you start writing down notes on how you imagine it to be seen on screen – this is usually where you start the first draft of scenes that jump out at you that you really want to keep in the film.
  • The third time you go through it you’re picking out everything that should transfer over onto the film: the characters, speech that you need, scenes that you need to keep.

For The Silence, the third time is where I asked Sarah Rayne for a PDF copy of the novel so that I could highlight and colour code these sorts of things to help me with the adaptation later on.

  1. Get permission and get it in writing…

This is actually the most important tip I’ll give you during this blog post. Although I had already started visualizing how The Silence would be seen on screen, I spoke to Sarah Rayne and asked for her permission, her publisher’s permission and her agent’s permission before I even started my second read. I did the entire thing via e-mail so there was already a paper trail but if you speak to someone face to face or on the phone etc., then make sure you get written permission just to save yourself any headaches in the future should anything go wrong.

  1. Decide what’s important and what isn’t…

You have a limited amount of time to tell a story with a screenplay so it’s important that you’re careful with that you choose to include. Not everything that’s important to the novel, the minor characters and the subplots in particular, are important to the screenplay. But be careful with what you cut too – something may not seem an integral part of the plot now but you may discover that it is when you start writing. If need be, find a way to combine characters to keep storylines working while minor characters are cut.

The courtroom scenes in The Silence are integral to the plot in the narrative but it was better for the screenplay to say they’ve happened rather than to show every single second of it.

  1. Get first draft readers that don’t know the source material…

I don’t normally give my first draft to anyone to read but when it comes to adaptations I find it’s best to give the first draft to someone I trust that doesn’t know the source material or, if possible, any other work the author has done. You’re too close to both book and screenplay so a fresh pair of eyes will see if, with all of its omissions and additions, it works. Make sure you choose someone that will be harsh and will happily turn around and tell you if doesn’t sound right though!

  1. Keep the author in the loop…

There are so many people that would disagree with me on this tip but, if you ask me, this is one of the most important tips anyone can ever give you. All writers are protective over their work, as a writer you should know that. So, although I encourage everyone to be ruthless when writing, I also encourage sensitivity to an extent. It’s difficult to let control of your baby go so, whenever possible, keep in touch with the author.

For The Silence, I went as far as letting Sarah Rayne read the final product before I started sending it out – she was even kind enough to write a lovely letter of recommendation for me which I attached with the final screenplay because of it.

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So, there are my five tips. If anyone has any others, please do drop them in the comments section below!

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