I intend to write a PH. D. on a theme about the connection between film and literature. As a screenwriter how do you approach a literary piece to adapt it for the big screen? Do you think an adapted script could be perceived as literary genre?


To answer your second question first, I think it’s important to make sure we’re using the same terms. For me, “genre” means a group of works lumped together based on subject matter, theme or tone. Westerns, romantic comedies, and futuristic prison thrillers are all genres. I’ll use “medium,” (singular of “media”) for the various types of literary formats, such as novels, poems, screenplays and stage plays. Combine the two terms and you can begin to describe almost any literary work: “Riders of the Purple Sage” is a Western novel, while the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman movie DOUBLE TEAM began as a futuristic prison thriller screenplay. Shudder.

Now that our terms are clear, is “adapted script” a literary genre? Not really. Screenplays adapted from other works have no signature subject matter, theme or tone. And as a medium, adapted scripts are not superficially distinguishable from any other screenplay.

“Adapted scripts” is just a way to group otherwise unrelated works.

That said, for purposes of your Ph.D., it’s probably a useful and interesting grouping of otherwise unrelated works. At least it’s more likely to get your thesis approved than, “A Textual Analysis of Screenplays Beginning with the Letter ‘K’.”

I’ve answered a lot of questions about the process of adaptation, so I’ll direct you to the archives for the everyday answers. But in order to help out with your thesis, I’ll try to get a little more intellectual.

Anytime you create a literary work derived from a pre-existing work, it’s a transformative process. That’s unavoidable. Unless you’re literally just copying it letter for letter, bit for bit, you are going to introduce new elements, or alter elements that were already there. Thus the novels “Sense and Sensibility” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” are fundamentally different works, even though the latter is based on the former.

However, I would argue – and you might choose as your thesis – that the transformative process of adapting a novel into a screenplay is a hallmark of 20th century literature.

Think about it: Before the 20th century, there weren’t movies or screenplays. While books have been adapted into stage plays for hundreds of years, the phenomenon of a “literary property” to be exploited in various media is a very recent phenomenon. These days, even high-class writers have film rights in mind as they pen their novels.

Yet as intertwined as novels and films have become, it’s an awkward marriage. Books and movies simply work differently.

First and foremost is their relationship with the user. The reader of a book can re-read a chapter if she missed something, or set the book down to ponder a character’s motivation. But a movie never stops. It keeps playing along at 24 frames per second, no matter how confused the audience gets. So the screenwriter must ensure that the viewer knows exactly what she should at the right moment. What is often derided as “dumbing down” could just as easily be labeled “making sensible.”

Books and movies have a different relationship to their characters. A novelist can simply tell the reader what a character is thinking, or feeling, or what he had for breakfast. The screenwriter must find some outward way of expressing this information, generally though dialogue or action.

Finally, the novelist has many more available senses than the screenwriter. Books are filled with tastes and smells, textures and feelings that are completely banned from screenplays, which must only include things that can be seen or heard – the limits of film.

So, Lora, I hope I helped you get started on your thesis. Once your get your Ph. D., promise me you’ll use your power for good. The world doesn’t need another semiotic analysis of the androids in BLADE RUNNER. It needs champions of new and exciting literary forms.