Before I get to the subject at hand, I want to say that I’m delighted and honored that Sandra Hershenson is interviewing me today on her blog. To read that interview, you may click here. (But please come back to read this post!)

And now, to stage and screen adaptations —

Just over a week ago, I attended a panel discussion featuring novelists and screenwriters talking about their experiences of adaptation. It was good to get the perspectives both of novelists watching their work being altered to suit a new format, and of screenwriters doing their best to express the central core of a novel in a totally different medium.

Later this week, we will be immersed in one person’s process in bringing a children’s book to the stage. Today, we’re going to take an overview approach, getting a bit of a grounding in what is happening when a book is adapted.

One of the main complaints often voiced when a book is adapted either for stage or screen is that so much of the book was left out, or things were changed from the book. That’s a bit like looking at a bunch of luscious grapes, then seeing the glass of wine that they’ve become, and saying “but it’s not the same!”

A book has the luxury of narrative and description to build images and feelings in the reader’s imagination, to build the story into what seems like reality. A play or film must tell the story using visuals and dialogue, in a limited time frame. A novel might be four or five hundred pages — the standard for a screenplay is 120 double-spaced pages in Courier 12-point font, which translates to about 2 hours on the screen.

One might say that isn’t a fair comparison, comparing a published novel’s page length to a typed manuscript — so I took a look at one of my novels. It’s a relatively short one, as novels go, and it is 268 pages of double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font. A smaller font, longer lines, more words. I couldn’t possibly put everything from that relatively short novel into a screenplay, and have it run much less than 3 hours, likely closer to 4. The story has to be very good to get filmgoers to happily sit still for 3 hours. Something must be cut.

The key, as Nino Ricci said in the panel I attended, is to be true to the vision, the heart of the story, while telling it in a different way, a way more suited to the limitations and freedoms of the cinema or stage. To do this, he and others on the panel pointed out, it may be necessary to focus on only some elements of the novel, to combine or excise characters, even to focus on a different part of the theme than a reading of the novel would.

Producing a play or a film is a much more collaborative process than producing a novel, involving the creative thoughts and vision of many different people to bring the project to fruition. That in itself has an affect on the way the story is told — and is why the same play script can seem vastly different depending on the director, actors and others involved in different productions.

This is necessarily only skimming the surface of the process of adaptation. If you are interested in reading further, I suggest starting by taking a look at Masterpiece Theatre’s learning resources on Adaptation: From Novel to Film, or the interview at What’s On Stage, Laura Turner on Adapting Novels for the Stage.

And — do come back to this blog in the next three days, as Jennifer Kirkeby takes us into her process of adapting the picture book Llama Llama Red Pajama into a stage musical!

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