This week, YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday offers up the blog prompt What is it that makes some books ideal for a film translation? I feel a little like that kid in class whose teacher finally asks a question she knows the answer to. The kid who suddenly wakes up and waves her arm, praying the teacher will call on her.
Well, okay, I’m not that much of an expert on books being adapted into movies. But I have written a half-dozen or so screenplays and have written and produced a few short films. My book Tankborn and its sequels Awakening and Revolution were all adapted from a film script to books (so I’m hoping they can some day go the other way too). So I’ve actually thought a lot about what kind of books make good movies.
IMHO, the one quality that makes a book most adaptable into film is a high concept premise. What’s high concept? I define it as a premise that can easily be described in one sentence. I’ve also heard it defined as a premise for which you can immediately imagine its movie poster. Hunger Games is an excellent example. In the future, teens are chosen in a lottery for a fight to the death with other teens. Jurassic Park–scientists recreate dinosaurs using DNA and the dinosaurs fight back. I think Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books, in which “ugly” children are converted to “pretties” at age 16, but there’s something rotten at the core of the process, is pretty high concept and would make a fantastic film franchise.
But not every movie is high concept, nor is every book that’s adapted to film high concept. Another crucial quality is that the book is very visual. There’s plenty of action on the page as opposed to lots of internal dialogue or long descriptive passages. There’s a whole lot of the novel Pride and Prejudice that’s left out of the movie because it just doesn’t translate into the visual medium of film.
A third quality of a filmable book is that its story already follows a three act structure. I bet if you analyzed the movies you’ve seen, you’ll see the three act structure in most of them.
What does that structure look like? The first act sets up the characters and their story dilemma, then there’s an inciting incident at the end of the first act that sets the hero/heroine on his/her way to their goal. The stakes continually rise in the second act, and there will be a turning point in the middle that changes everything, then a dark moment at the end of the second act. Then there’s the third act’s climax and denouement.
Think about some of the books you’ve read, and I’ll bet many of them use this three act structure. Maybe the author made a conscious decision to write their book that way, or maybe the book ended up with three act structure because it’s a great way to write a story.
So think about your own book, or if you’re not a writer, think about a fiction book you’ve recently read. Is it high concept (can you describe it in one sentence)? Is it extremely visual? Is it already written in a three act structure? Then you might have a very film adaptable story. I hope Hollywood comes knocking.