Screenwriting & book adaptations

This month over at The Prime Writers website we’re imagining who would appear in the film adaptation of our books. Today was my turn to cast the movie of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London, which in turn has got me thinking about the tricky business of adapting books into screenplays.

How many movies do you think are better than the books they were taken from? As authors and book lovers we may be biased, but most people count the number on the fingers of one hand. There are doubtless more but as I begin this piece, I can count that number on one finger. The film that springs to mind is Blade Runner, adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which comes in myriad interesting covers).


Many films have been inspired by Dick’s work, for example: Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Screamers, A Scanner Darkly. It’s only the last of those that, like Blade Runner, was based on a novel. All of the others were inspired by short stories. When I first discovered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I realized the film was almost unrecognizable from the book. It’s a while since I read it, but my recollection involves elements such as parallel universes, a pet sheep, a very strange religious cult, and a wife for Blade Runner Deckard The genius of the adapted screenplay was to cut out everything except for one thread of the story and build the film around that.

Tyrell Corporation artificial owl

Watching Blade Runner projected across the entire wall of an apartment


The depth of the book enriches the world of the film. The owl at Tyrell Corporation and the snake used by replicant dancer Zhora are both artificial because in the book there’s been a devastating nuclear war and almost all animal life on Earth has disappeared. “A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure” for exactly the same reason, with J.F. Sebastian alone in his apartment block unable to follow his neighbours because he failed the medical.

The biggest difference between book and film is the depth of a novel that a film simply doesn’t have time for. A book can afford to meander and sometimes disappear into cul de sacs. A movie gets straight to the point. And the perceived wisdom is that it does so in three acts. If writing a film script, perhaps trying to adapt your own novel, here are some things to bear in mind.

  • 1 page of (properly formatted) script equates to 1 minute of screen time
  • If you’re a new writer hoping to break into Hollywood, your script should be 110-120 pages long (and NO LONGER). If making a European indie you can get away with 90-120 pages.
  • Act 1 covers pages 1-30 and introduces all your characters, before a key plot point pretty much exactly on p. 30 takes us into Act 2. After you’ve got to know your key characters in the first 10 minutes of the film (first 10 pages) there’s an Inciting Incident that sends them out of their comfort zone and into the meat of the movie.
  • Act 2 is all about overcoming obstacles as your characters battle through the story. On 60 minutes, 60 pages into your screenplay, is the point of no return where some sort of decision is made from which there’s no going back. The remainder of the movie is set in motion. At the end of Act 2 at around 90 minutes is another key turning point of the plot.
  • Act 3 is all climax, ratcheting the stakes up higher and higher until you finally reach your ending.

There are a million different ways to write and book, and for many authors the story is unplanned at the outset. Even Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, told me he doesn’t plan his books but is from the school of discovering the story as he goes along. The difference in film is that every scene has to move the story on towards the ending (or it will be removed!). The ending has to be the starting point for every screenplay.

Philip Pullman Amber Spyglass

A gratuitous image of one of my Pullman dedications

If you’re ever in the fortunate position of finding yourself pitching a script to Hollywood movie moguls, they may well ask you on what page is your inciting incident and which pages introduce your protagonist and antagonist. Be ready with your answers.

In the room with Spielberg

    In a room with Spielberg but not close enough to pitch!

When I first began writing books I didn’t know much about literary structures, being a mathematical physicist by training but having stumbled into the role of book publisher at the British Film Institute. My first novel, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London had one rule, of ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. I see now there was an inciting incident on page 2 but there’s so much going on I think any adaptation would work better as long-form TV drama than a movie.

But the novel I’m working on at the moment, a science fiction story for grownups built around parallel realities and the mysterious absence of aliens in the universe, borrows hugely from the three-act structure of the film world. Hoping it might make the transition from printed page to big screen just a little bit easier.

~ by keithmansfield on August 9, 2016.

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