An exercise in adaptation

In the film industry, adaptation is generally taken to mean the process of turning a written work, say a novel or play, into a script or screenplay and then into a film. Shakespeare’s plays have kept filmmakers busy since the dawn of cinema and a vast part of the film industry relies on ‘adapting’ various types of intellectual property. You will often see a film advertised as ‘a film from the book by . . .’ and occasionally, as in the case of documentary Grey Gardens (dir. Albert and David Maysles, US 1975) you may see advertised ‘a play from the film’! In fact Grey Gardens was also adapted again as a fiction film in 2009 directed by Michael Sucsy, thus completing the ‘adaptation’ circle, or is it spiral!

But adaptation can have a far wider meaning than just turning books and plays into films. Writing students on the MA course at the Northern Film School were asked to find a newspaper article and turn the story into a fiction script. The news article found by Andrew Parkhill was about the containment of the swine flu pandemic, how contagious it had become and how people needed to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the virus. (See also Donald Matheson’s discussion on this website about how the pandemic was treated as a news story.)

Andrew worked out a scene where two people who had recently been in a relationship had to face meeting each other again after the man thought he’d been infected but hadn’t yet been diagnosed and the woman had turned up at his flat where the whole block had been quarantined. It turns out she was bringing him some supplies, food, medicine etc. after he had called her. Several story lines could have been pursued when developing the script but in the end the writer explored the state of the relationship as the two meet and try to decide whether they should see each other or not. Most of the dialogue takes place with the couple separated by the closed door of the flat. Should they see each other or not, had the woman already been exposed to the virus by just being in the quarantined building anyway?

Writing brief

Here is an extract from tutor Dan Weldon’s brief:

The problem for scriptwriters is words: there are just too many of them and we don’t know when to stop using them. A script describes the film that is about to be made. But If you described everything that is in a film the script would be 2 million pages long – you’d start with the nano particles and work up from that; and a million page script would be tricky to get through the door of the Film Council, although it might be fun to try.  We need to work out what is, and what isn’t, important in a script 

A script describes the film story for anyone that needs to know it  – a financier, a producer, a director, an actor, an editor (the screenwriters closest relative) . . .  and a script needs to work for everyone. One script must do many things: so all we can do is tell the story, simply, effectively, seductively and in plain, plain English. Think haiku, never the novel. 

A few rules; never do the job of the cinematographer, don’t tell them where to put the camera. Only write what you can see, never write the internal thoughts of a character or the opinions of the writer – we serve the story, the story is god. The film is the auteur, no one else.

This is more difficult than it sounds because to do all that we must understand the language of cinema – and that goes for TV as well as film. Scriptwriting is a visual language – we must somehow make a visual story appear in the imagination of the reader with nothing more than black type on white paper.

Adaptation is a fabulous way to discover the visual medium of film; and making the film you’ve written and adapted should be a moment of revelation for you as a writer. When you adapt from one medium to another you should begin to recognise their essential mechanisms. Novels, poems, plays, painting and films are all very different from each other - that might sound simplistic, but recognising the language of each, and the story contained in each, is the key to great success for  the screen writer  – providing you have an imagination and an ability to tell a good story, two things I believe you can’t teach. What we will do:

What we will do

We will read the book Walkabout and see the film by Nicolas Roeg. We will discuss the differences in a loud and vociferous way. Be bold, say what you feel not what you think.

You will adapt a story from a newspaper headline into a short scene or a very short film on the subject of Swine Flu. 

One script will be selected from the group by the executive producer (me) and we will make that film.  The commissioning criteria will be based on personal taste and practicality – I will expect dissent. 

We will hire a producer, director, cinematographer,  sound recordist, editor  and actors; and we will not pay them a penny but we will work with them, and for them,  as assistants, and we will experience as much as possible – from location hunting to catering, from shooting schedules to shot lists, from transport to the edit room. We’ll immerse and throw ourselves in the deep end, and at the end of the process we will have the right to call ourselves screenwriters, and above all filmmakers.


The finished film will be assessed on the quality of the collaboration and the overall endeavour . . . not just the completed film. 

70% of the total mark is for:

1)  Your short scene (script) and the film.

2) You must write a treatment for a feature film adaptation of any ‘literary’ short story.

A treatment is a selling document. Imagine you are trying to win a commission.  

Treatment should include: 

  • A brief synopsis of the story. 
  • A long synopsis of the story.
  • A character breakdown. 

A paragraph on how you will adapt the story, the differences between the story and the film. The difficulties of the adaptation etc.

You should include a section on the ‘business’ of the adaptation – how you will get option etc.  who is your audience and who is on your director/cast wish list. 

30% of the total mark is for: 

An essay (maximum 3000 words) that reflects on the nature of the adaptation as you have experienced it from newspaper article to script to screen. What did you do,  and what happened when you did it? Be reflective and challenging, be entertaining, spill the beans and tell it as it is; overflow the page with ideas – don’t just describe what happened.



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