Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Adina Kahn addresses film rights and adaptation

Every so often I receive a query letter from a writer that begins with something like: “I see that you have a background in film production, and I think my manuscript would make a terrific movie.” Understandably, many writers start seeing dollar signs at the mere mention of their books being optioned for film. But while it is smart to keep an open mind about film rights, it is a mistake to write your book for both the publishing world and Hollywood.

For one thing, producers and literary agents focus on different things when evaluating whether or not to take on a project. Producers are often drawn to screenplays that can be summarized in a concise logline, one sentence that describes the entire story in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. If a story cannot be summed up in one sentence, a filmmaker might assume that it is too complex for the mere two hour span they have to communicate the story. There are certain things that an author can spend time on that a screenwriter cannot. Time constraints may limit a screenwriter from delving into a character’s back story. In order to leave room for development, there are usually a limited number of central characters in the story (this also makes casting easier). And budget constraints can limit the number of locations in which scenes can occur.

As an agent, I value concise and well-written query letters, but I’m not able determine my interest in a book after reading a one-sentence description. Authors have fewer limitations when writing, and that is something to take advantage of. There are less constraints preventing a writer from having their story take place anywhere or anyhow they want.

For me, the film version of THE DA VINCI CODE exemplifies the possible limitations when adapting a book into a movie. The most fascinating aspects of THE DA VINCI CODE were the complex back story, various conspiracies and numerous people involved in the murder mystery. If Dan Brown had been writing his book for the sole purpose of getting it made into a movie, he might have left out all of the wonderful detail that made his book so popular. You should always write the book for the reader, not to impress a producer. If your book is as successful as Dan Brown’s, it is highly probable that it will be optioned for film anyway (even if it is not entirely suited for that kind of treatment, and in my opinion THE DA VINCI CODE was not).

One of my favorite things about a good book is the ability to enter the mind of the narrator and hear his or her thoughts. Movies use voice-overs to achieve this purpose and I find that they are an overused and often trite device. While it is true that some books do not interest producers because too much of the narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head, it would be a shame if authors consistently chose action packed scenes over character development in order to make the material more viable for film.

Of course, we’ll always work with authors to make sure the appropriate producers see the material we represent. But I do advise writers to focus on getting their masterpiece into a bookstore and put their grand plans for feature film on hold until they are published.


  1. Voice over in film is almost always a mistake. For every film for which it works, there are ten for which it's a disaster. Or as the old SAT would put it, VO:Film::Telling-not-showing:Prose

  2. One of the best books written about the difference of writing a novel versus writing for the screen is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade.

    He's written a lot of novels and screenplays as well as turning some of his own novels into screenplays.

    He discussed why he chose to write the story of Butch Cassidy for the screen and not as a novel. That's because he didn't want to have to learn about technical things about the old west, such as how to ride a horse. He felt that for the screen he could get away with writing:

    Butch mounted his horse and galloped off.

    For the screen you certainly Show Don't Tell.

    Goldman also discussed how his novel Marathon Man posed a difficulty for him in translating it for the screen precisely because it was an introspective story.

    Because of this book on screenwriting, Goldman has become revered by screenwriters everywhere. If for no other reason than he posits that no one in Hollywood knows anything. That studio executives especially do not know what will be a success.

    It's a great read. I highly recommend it.

    Linda McCabe

  3. Interesting topic. I once took a screenplay-writing course and found it very challenging. The two different styles (screenwriting and novel writing) can seem similar at first for those of us who really "see" our stories as we're writing. They're not, though, and it does seem like a good idea to stick with novel writing first and foremost, if that's where one's heart lies.