Writer Christina Campbell gives advice on adapting source material into a screenplay. Learn from her mistakes before you take on an adaptation of your own!
My guess is Plutarch would be pleased with Kanye and A$AP Rocky's adapted source material. Even he, the great Plutarch, distilled down and amalgamated his source material, albeit his own. He had to pick and choose, often times observing the negative space, what's on the cutting room floor, being the most powerful choice.
Recently, as I whittle and winnow many, many sources down, down, down, I realize I could have been more systematic about it from the beginning. I am here so that your foresight can now be 20/10, and, hopefully, you have more time to read the new Didion novel or for more episodes of Atlanta.
Who are you as a little ole' writer to turn some magnificent work, luminescent play, or a smattering of recordings into a wholly new work?
Insecurities creep in. Well, who you are as a writer, is a dedicated follower, a truth teller, a captain of the original essence. You are to channel the writhing, clamoring goals of your main protagonist, their soul's desire. What they burn is what you burn for.
Even knowing this fact, it's humbling to look at the blank page with an impatient teenager/cursor tapping its foot. Or, diametrically opposed, the many thick brambles of source material requiring a master gardener with real pruning chops.
Take solace in the fact that your story spine, most likely, will lean toward the classic ilk of a protagonist who first responds reactively in Act I, but soon, in Act II, seizes control of their situation and finally, in Act III, has their transformation fully tested with some golden benefit spat out. These steps give you clues as to what you need when casting your net.
Two of my projects I adapted/or am adapting from original materials.
Whew, so many lessons, many learned the hard way. I will use these two projects to pass some crib notes under our particle board school desks (Herzog + Kinski = Love).
I break down the tips into character, conflict/goal, pacing, and world building.
The first lessons gleaned are from my anti-biopic of a here unnamed famous music dynasty who commissioned me to write their families' story.
The others, lessons learned from my own narrative non-fiction book, a road trip, a Thelma and Louise meets My Best Fiend story I'm currently adapting.
Character, character, character. If your beans are about to boil over, at least read this section.
All narrative thrust comes from deep within your characters. Since the characters are a proxy for experiencing the world for the reader, you have to nail their soul. Dig deeply into the texture of who they were/are so character motivations, even if they won't admit them to themselves, are solid.
With my anti-biopic, I kept picturing the three main Southern Gothic-style musicians peering over my shoulder. They are quite heavy. I was desperate to do right by them and this is what really kept my rudder at true North. This is not to say drench them in good old Protestant whitewashing, because, bo-ring. And, in fact, untrue of any human being.
I've thought before, if I died, and say, had just had an infant, I would want all the bastards I left behind - family and friends - to paint a full portrait of who I was. So my kid would truly know and feel me. Could there be a more important gift than that kind of truth? I would hope no one would paint a caricature of me by the beach, rainbows emanating from all my orifice atop a pavé crust of bloodless diamonds.
Now to brass tacks, instead of two pages of character description in a novel or book, you only get two lines. Those lines must creatively capture the couple of traits you've whittled down. This is a great microcosm of distillation.
In the face of the information tsunami, pick a half-dozen main characters - obviously the protag and antag and the primary characteristics that are most urgent. Include as little backstory as possible (slows narrative - just what's crucial to understand the present) and how characters are linked. There is no acreage to populate like Infinite Jest with DFW's 176 named characters.
Cut supporting characters and their subplots that do not connect to your main through-line. If too many do, start your ruthless medieval games and begin the character amalgamation! B story is a far cry from T, U, V and W's winding stories.
My music family is large, plus all the people they came in contact with who eventually helped funnel them into fame. It was, however, the band members and a handful of business folks that had real agency.
You can, on only one hand, name the things that compel your character's sacred goal, since there is no writing about what the character muses over internally.
Are the characters feeling safe in parts? There are times in a novel where there may be brief lulls, movies, not so much. Bam! Immediately make your dudes and dudettes feel unsafe or at the least, woefully wonton. When you review your original material mark these opportunities.
I really had to keep this in mind because often in performance footage, photos, interviews or audio tapes, the family/band members were quite content. They're not living in a constrained narrative.
In this case, one of the family members has an old cookbook she put together and I made some of the recipes to literally absorb her, as thoroughly as possible. The very tastes of her aesthetic.
CONFLICT AND GOAL
Understanding the main conflict and goal in all your material is another key to successfully adapting it. The meat and potatoes of the stew.
What do those buggers WANT?
The major core conflict of the story and why/how this occurs. The most visual key scenes in the book that connects to how that conflict plays out.
What lines of dialogue propel the plot forward and are central to character or story development in achieving the goal? Payoffs should feel earned, so dogear those coffee-stained pages.
Right now I am talking about character and conflict as separate for ease of use but conflict is almost always born of character, Janus heads, or should be, and I use a lot fewer shoulds than most in my writing philosophies.
I've been having dreams about detractors. Often there's this one guy really into LARPING (no offense, LARPers), who's hounding me like the ‘I want my two dollars' kid in Better Off Dead. Dreams of critics and fans who are mad because I didn't include a random detail (that doesn't power the machine) they've hung on their living room mantel. This is when the No Fucks Given edict has to be activated. Form of, a luscious aardvark and a block of ice to chill their ire. Focus.
If you are bored writing parts ostensibly necessary, we are bored. Consider reevaluating how crucial they really are.
Screenplays invoke clear three-act structure, so there needs to be a real impetus for it to be told non-linearly.
No book jacket will tell you immediately if this is a book you want to read so the script's first five/ten pages (if you're lucky) really have to enthrall or people will slap it down on the same glass table where they've just picked up a firecracker of a beginning. Prowl for an impactful beginning.
If pacing is contributing to audience expectation of character or conflict, take a jag. Be dredging your material for jags. Don't be afraid to pivot where the original did not if it doesn't undermine the Truth.
Wrastling my road trip book, I'm finding this town after this town after town scenario repetitive so I can wreck or do jungle hallucinogens, wherever I damn want. If the motivation and result dovetail into original goals so be it.
When sifting, be cognizant of what items to earmark so that pacing unfurls a deserved catharsis. What and when do you load that catharsis gun? With approximately only 120 pages, pacing plays a big role in film. You can put down a book for a bit, you cannot put down a film for a spell.
What happens on the first page of the book may bias you as to how you need to open the film. Tradition can be overrated. Trust your instincts (really the character's instincts), not the page.
Words in a book have the luxury of time to world build, to unveil, set the stage. Luckily, with film, you are there, bam! You have multiple crews to create tone, feeling. This is great but, and this is quite a big but, I do not lie, all these people are, ideally, taking your cue.
There is a double-edge saber, however. With the loss of most description, one better hone some chops as a woman of few words. When you are reading, create note cards of what one or two objects, weather, or quality of light define a scene. Obviously, you are not bossing the cinematographer or art department, but you can inject world vision with some researched detail.
Within my book project, I found a section of a chapter with masturbating baboons could not be cut because they are not just a frivolous laugh but foreshadow a similarly motivated, ridiculous character who is about to enter.
My favorite adaptations are those where the world and narrative don't feel jerry-rigged together with a bungee and wad of gum. Pull the pieces that accent the world's hindrances or aid that surround the ultimate goal.
The tone of the world is likely what built your source material's fan base, to begin with. Finely tune your tinfoil hat toward this tone when world building.
Since you can't show an entire lifetime onscreen so you must cherry pick the most important, conflict-laden, character-building sections of the book/play/recordings/interviews of the person's life—and have those as the axis in your tight version of the story.
With regards to your source/s, read or thoroughly review once for each category, character, conflict/goal and pace.
The first time read it, you read as part of the audience, a visceral experience. But then, take a different color highlighter for each aspect and the things that jump out at you that you really want to keep. You can even ask the author of the original work for a pdf if it's a written source.
Get first draft readers that don't know the source material. Normally, my first draft with all its warts and moles is only seen by me. In the case of adaptation, I find it's best to give this draft to someone I trust that isn't familiar with the source material. Then someone that does. Every writer becomes at least a little myopic so a fresh pair of eyes for omissions and additions works. Just assure yourself you will choose someone that will be harsh, read, NOT YOUR MOM.
If the subject is someone or something famous, you know 100% there are people out there that will cleave onto certain details. You cannot. What is sacrosanct to some may not lend itself to what your story's presentation, your version of this snapshot. Just be sure the fetish does not have merit. Is it in the zeitgeist with deep psychological underpinnings, or is it just an eccentric fun fact? Unless, or until you get notes from execs saying otherwise, be true to the spine.
In an attempt to be faithful, don't get all dry, encyclopedia, voice of God-y on it. Inject poetic license into the emotional swirl of it all.
It's gonna need to be something that exceeds the sum of its parts.
Just like in evolution, or a Smokey and the Bandit pinball machine, adaption is often a difficult process, but if you stay true to your chosen crèche of characters, conflict, pace and world building, it can be one of the keys to success.
Keep on keepin' on!
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