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COLUMN D: Becoming Adaptable - Adapting the Little Known Novel

Drew Yanno discusses the possibilities of starting your screenwriting career by adapting the little known novel.

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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I would venture to say that most aspiring screenwriters out there are dreaming of writing and selling a spec screenplay to Hollywood as their means of becoming a professional screenwriter. In fact, it's probably not going out on a limb to say that most aspiring screenwriters think that's about the only way to become a professional.

COLUMN D: Becoming Adaptable - Adapting the Little Known Novel by Drew Yanno | Script Magazine

Unfortunately, if you’ve been following the marketplace in Hollywood, you know that relatively few specs sell each year to the studios - perhaps just north of a hundred. In the boom times, it might have been a couple hundred. I certainly don't need to tell you what that means in terms of odds.

What Hollywood is buying, if they’re buying anything these days, are projects with “underlying rights,” meaning books, plays, magazine articles and the like.

Principal among those is the novel. Hollywood has always had a love affair with the novel. It has been their preferred story source for feature films since they were first made and for two very obvious reasons: they have a ready-made narrative and often, but not always, a built-in audience.

The downside to making movies out of novels is that the movie audience is often disappointed with the adaptation. The most common response we hear is “I liked the book better.” The best that film makers can hope for is that the film’s audience will like the film “as much as” the book. Only on the rarest of occasions will an audience prefer the film to the novel.

One of those rare occasions involves the film Cool Hand Luke. I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of people who have seen Cool Hand Luke don’t even know that it was based on a novel. Fewer still have ever read the book, and if they have, I can almost guarantee that they prefer the film. And by no small margin.

This is meant as no disrespect to Donn Pearce the author of the novel of the same name. But facts are facts. The hard cover for Cool Hand Luke sold 1,100 copies, and it was only published after it came out as a paperback that also sold poorly.

According to legend, the novel was discovered by director Stuart Rosenberg in a closeout bin in the Pickwick Bookstore in Hollywood in the mid 1960s. There was no built-in audience for Cool Hand Luke the film because there were almost no readers of Cool Hand Luke the novel.

At the same time, almost everything brilliant that's present in that AFI top 20 film is in Pearce’s novel. It is an iconic film, as popular today as ever. So how can that be?

Simple. It has to do with the storytelling. Pearce, by his own admission, doesn’t think in linear fashion. He jumps around, and wrote the same way in Cool Hand Luke. He also used a narrator who wasn’t the main character and told it as a story within a story. To say that the novel is inaccessible is an understatement.

Rosenberg and screenwriter Frank Pierson, who co-wrote the script with Pearce, made several significant changes that helped to make the film superior to the novel.

First, they did away with the narrator, thereby eliminating the cumbersome story-within-a-story device.

Second, they open the film with the main character Luke, whereas the novel does not really introduce him until page 41 and Luke doesn’t even meet the rest of the bull gang until page 62 of the book.

Finally, they changed the order of some of the other big events so that the story had less of an episodic feel. These improvements made all the difference. That and Paul Newman, of course.

You may wonder what this might have to do with you, the aspiring screenwriter. As it turns out, the adaptation of Cool Hand Luke may be something you can use as a template for your own screenwriting success.

Over the years, I've strongly advised writers not to even dream of adapting a novel. I do so usually because they don’t have the rights to the material and wouldn’t be able to sell their script to anyone if they were foolish enough to try to adapt it. And that remains just as true today.

Except that in those instances, they and I are usually talking about a popular novel, one that has sold many copies and, most likely, has already had the rights sold or optioned to someone else.

However, not all the novels on the shelves of the bookstore and the library have had their rights sold. Not by a long shot. And with little or no competition for those rights, you may actually be able to option an over-looked novel for very little up-front money.

You may even be able to negotiate a manageable “purchase” price upon selling the script, one that won’t make a producer or studio shy away from buying it, as they must do if they want your script. As I mentioned, Hollywood is looking for “under-lying rights” stories, but they don’t necessarily have to be best-sellers to attract their attention.

Now I’m not saying this “over-looked” novel will be easy to find and adapt, nor that a sale will be assured, but like Cool Hand Luke it can be done. You may even have a novel in mind, one that you’ve read that not a lot of others have, and something about that hidden gem has appealed to you. Which means it may appeal to a potential film audience.

Whichever way you come upon it, the key is finding a novel that was not close to being a best-seller, but at the same time has a great story somewhere in it.

It would be even better (and cheaper) if all the elements of a great story are present but difficult for others to see. That’s when you can do what director Stuart Rosenberg, producer Jack Lemmon (yes that Jack Lemmon) and writer Frank Pierson did with Cool Hand Luke.

In this current climate where breaking in as a writer is getting harder and harder, you may have to look for new ways to get noticed and make a sale. This could be one way to do it. Who knows, you just might end up writing a film that audiences will like more than the book.

Drew Yanno helps you get your story on the page with his webinar
From Idea to Story to Screenplay

From Idea to Story to Screenplay