• Viknesh Silvalingam

Adapting a novel into a movie? Here are 4 useful tips

Updated: Apr 23


I’ve had nine of my books adapted to film, and almost all were enjoyable. I’ve been fortunate with Hollywood and look forward to more movies being adapted. But I don’t get involved in that process. I know nothing about making movies, and I stay away from it and hope for the best.

John Grisham(1*)

Although novels allow the readers to immerse themselves into the settings or events happening in the story, let's face it, most people prefer watching a movie to reading a book! Thus it's an expected consequence to see writers setting on their novels with the ambition of one day seeing it on the silver screen. Writing a novel is practically free. Getting it self-published is between $2000 to $4000(2*), so it will be a wise investment for a film producer to see how a novel is being received before adapting it into a movie. Making a movie based on an original idea is a risk they are not willing to take if the project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Major studios have an awesome track record of box office gains from adapting popular intellectual property (3*). Below are some famous movies that were book adaptations.

  • Little woman

  • Forrest Gump

  • Schindler's list

  • Goodfellas

  • Wonderboys

Book-to-movie adaptations are a way for filmmakers to reinterpret another work of art into a different medium. Instead of trying to make it a direct interpretation from the book, I would rather the filmmaker treat the adaptation as an oil painting rather than a photograph. Filmmakers are inspired by both fiction and nonfiction books; for example, the Golden Globe-nominated film, Nomadland is based on a non-fictional book. (4*) Furthermore, if you believe in writing on what you know, if you have a diverse reading habit, you will find yourself being open to more avenues from lesser recognized voices.

However, book adaptations are harder than it is made out to be. I had acquired the rights to a novel that I have been trying to adapt into a screenplay for the past 7 years. However, I must admit that it has been one of the most difficult and frustrating tasks for my writing partner and myself as there are many nuances that we must consider. Well, at least it's not as tough a book to adapt into a movie like " The Great Gatsby"(5*). Thankfully, recently we had a breakthrough with the book, and now we have a decent treatment and a draft of the screenplay to shop around for financing(6*). I am excited to share with you the 4 tactics we applied to get this breakthrough.


A. Start with a solid logline

Novels usually have many subplots which add depth. Weaving several plot lines through a story creates a multilevel narrative arc. A story with just a main plot can come off as flat, but a story with subplots in addition to the main plot has complexity and depth, but it can definitely muddle a screenplay. The narrative arc is the most important part of a book, and it should be the main reason you fell in love with the story and want to adapt it into a movie. Define the logline from that arc, and you will have the backbone of your screenplay.


B. Dropping some element on the floor

The novel is close to 500 pages, with multiple minor characters and subplots. There is no way I can fit them all into a 100 to 120 -page screenplay. So we have to be really pragmatic and check our sentiments to cut out the minor characters that are distracting and the subplots that have nothing to do with the main plot point or characters' outer and inner motivation. It was a tough decision.


C. Avoid Long Thinking

Quite often, lead characters in novels suffer from Long Thinking (7*). When essential plot information is presented only in a character’s thought or in the character’s internal world, one solution is to give this character a sounding board, another character to voice his thoughts aloud. Either adapt an existing character from the novel or create a new one.


D. Reading source materials of book adaptations

It's been well stated that to be a good screenwriter, you must read great screenplays. To understand the structure and the creative liberty the screenwriter took bringing the book to screen, I read a few books that have been adapted into a motion picture. In keeping with the book genre that I am adapting, I read Julie and Julia and Eat Pray Love, and boy was I surprised by the differences between the books and movies.

One tool you can't do without if you are writing a screenplay is screenwriting software. Although just about any word processing tool can be used to create a screenplay, screenwriting software can help organize ideas, map out scenes, and automatically format screenplays so a writer can pretty much type without thinking. The best platforms use templates, automatic text tools, and easy exporting to create formatted screenplays without a lot of tinkering quickly. The Martini offers real-time collaboration, making it easier for multiple writers to work on the same project at once. As most screenwriters have a personal preference for screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Celtx (they don't have a collaboration option), The Martini allows you to import the fdx or pdf files.



I hope you found these tips useful and are excited to put them into use. However, if you do not have any published original content that you think would make a good movie, consider looking for existing source material. It can be hard to get the rights to a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, or a true story recounted in a magazine feature article—but there are plenty of public domain stories available for anyone to adapt. (8*) I personally would be excited to see an adaptation of A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. (9*)

The Martini is a free screenwriting app that aides filmmakers in the development phase of their project to gather feedback from their team members. Please do subscribe to my newsletter and my social media accounts, Twitter, and Instagram to follow me on my team's journey in developing our filmmaking tool.

Author’s Notes/References


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/06/30/why-did-hollywood-stop-making-john-grisham-movies/

  2. https://blog.reedsy.com/cost-to-self-publish-a-book/

  3. https://www.bookbub.com/blog/best-movies-based-on-books-all-time

  4. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-02-25/nomadland-hulu-real-life-nomads

  5. https://www.goliath.com/movies/10-impossible-to-adapt-literary-classics/

  6. https://www.vikneshsilvalingam.com/post/making-a-movie-here-are-the7-stages-of-film-production

  7. https://www.dailywritingtips.com/dealing-with-a-characters-internal-thoughts/

  8. https://bookriot.com/public-domain-books-2021/

  9. goodreads.com/book/show/395534.A_Daughter_of_the_Samurai