Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


Adapting Non-Fiction for TV and Film

You’re probably familiar with films based on novels, but did you know that many award-winning films are based on non-fiction books or articles? Here are eight such films:

On the Waterfront (1954) – Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on “Crime on the Waterfront”, a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Waterfront

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – script by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, based on the book “Red Alert” by Peter George

Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (1995) – screenplay by Robert J. Avrech, based on the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the book “A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics” by Sylvia Nasar

Iris (2001) – screenplay by Richard Eyre, Charles Wood, based on the book “Iris: A Memoir” and “Elegy for Iris” by John Bayley

Seabiscuit (2003) – screenplay by Gary Ross, based on the book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand

Into the Wild (2007) – screenplay by Sean Penn, based on the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) – screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In a lecture I attended last October given by Brad Schreiber, an accomplished writer/teacher/consultant who was kind enough to share with us the Writer’s Pledge (Industry Friday #8), I learned some interesting facts about adapting books or articles for film.

1. If you think your story would make a great film, here are some reasons to write the book first:
– You will have more control over the material.
– You will most likely automatically be a producer on the film.
– The other producers won’t be able to get rid of you.
– Adapting the book is usually a faster process than writing an original screenplay.

2. On the other hand, these are some of the challenges of adapting:
– Books have interior dialogue. In film this becomes Voice Over Narration, and too much narration is usually not a good thing.
– Books can have a lot of non-action. Film is all about action (even a non-action film).
– Books can be non-linear. Films are generally (but not always) linear.
– Books are culturally specific. Films are intended to have a global appeal.
– Books leave much to the imagination. Films rely on specific images.

3. Another important consideration is thematic focus. Generally, a film focuses on a certain aspect of the book or subject matter rather than the entire story captured in the book.

Two examples:

In the film A Beautiful Mind, the producers decided to leave out the fact that Nash was apparently bisexual and instead focused on the love story between him and his wife.

Dr. Strangelove was based on a non-fiction book about nuclear disaster. The director Stanley Kubrick thought it was so bleak to the point of being absurd, so he made into a dark comedy.

If you’re in the book-writing stage, you need not worry about these things now, but keep them in mind for later. If you’re a screenwriter, then think about what your angle would be on the non-fiction book or article you want to adapt. What is the central story and how will you approach it? If you’re a producer, realize that the person who wrote the book or article might not be the best person to write the screenplay, but they will probably be the most knowledgeable about the subject.

Happy creating!