Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Will your book make a good film?

by Fiona Veitch Smith

With the recent high-profile release of the film version of John La CarrĂ©’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Pan, 1974) it got me thinking about what type of books make good films and what you need to consider if you would like your book adapted to screen.

1. Is your book a classic or a bestseller?

Film producers like adapting classic books because a) they are usually out of copyright and b) they have a fervent following which will guarantee bums on seats. They also like modern bestsellers because of the guaranteed audience base and the ability to piggy-back on existing book marketing. Consider for instance The Golden Compass (the adaptation of the first in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series).

2. Does your book have a commercially viable niche audience?

Smaller independent producers might take a chance on books with a niche or ‘cult’ following. I ghost-wrote the true-life story of Elizabeth Robertson Campbell (The Choice, Bridge Logos, 2007) and it is now being pitched to film producers on the basis of it selling well in a certain market and dealing with universal themes of love and betrayal that go down well with cinema audiences. I am also in discussions with a producer to adapt an award-winning novel I edited for the South African market. This film might not make it to Hollywood, but may do well enough in a niche market to make it worth the producer’s while.

3. Is your story the right ‘size’ for a film?

The first adaptation of Tinker, Tailor was for BBC television in 1977. It was an almost word-for-word rendition and took seven hours. Ben Hur (Lew Wallace, 1880) was adapted into nearly four hours of screen-time and Spartacus (initially self-published by Howard Fast in 1951) was just over three hours. But a lot was still cut out. Nowadays, it is rare to have a film over two hours. Only the final book in the Harry Potter series was split across two films. The other six were significantly condensed to squeeze into two hours. The question is: will your book’s story still hold up if it is cut? You may have to go the other way and expand parts of your plot. This is often the case in children’s books that struggle to stretch to 90-minute screen-time. The 2010 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox is a case in point.

4. Is your book written in three ‘acts’?

Most mainstream films are based on what is known as ‘classical three-act structure’. This is a theory of story construction first codified by Aristotle in the 4th Century BC. It is sometimes still used in theatre, frequently in ‘genre’ novels and extensively in Hollywood-style films. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but check out this link for more info If your book is already written in three-act structure it will adapt more easily to screen than if it isn’t. But beware, a book in three parts does not automatically mean you’ve used three-act structure. My soon-to-be-released e-book The Peace Garden is written in three-parts, but does not fully utilise three-act structure. An adaptation would likely expand on the middle section and change the POV from Natalie to Gladwin (his story arc does have a three-act structure while hers doesn’t).

5. Are you prepared for the screenwriter to deviate from your original story?

Novels and films are different media and need to be treated differently. If you are not prepared for changes to be made to your story to suit the new medium, you should not consider having your book adapted. Once you have signed away your adaptation rights, you will give the screenwriter and director creative control. The producers of the film will make the final decision about how many changes they believe the audience will accept, not the author.

Fiona Veitch Smith writes fiction and lectures in writing for stage and screen at Northumbria University. She writes picture books for children and suspense novels for young adults and adults. She also writes non-fiction and devotional material as well as scripts for the stage and screen. She lectures in writing for the media and scriptwriting. She runs a writing advice site


  1. Hi Fiona, welcome to our blog as a regular contributor - we're glad you've joined us :) I learned a little about the similarities in story structure between novels and screen plays through reading the late Blake Snyder's 'Save the Cat' books. Thanks for your informative post :)

  2. Hi Narelle,

    Sadly, Blake Snyder died fairly recently. It's a very good book. Another very useful text is Story by Rober McKee.

    And thanks for having me,


  3. I should just clarify that I think Save the Cat is a good book to help you understand the 3 Act Structure and how to utilise it in storytelling in general, but I find it far too rigid an approach to actual screenwriting - far too 'paint by numbers'. The fact that it is tagged 'the last book on screenwriting you'll ever need' explains the tone of the book - far too didactic. A far less rigid book is The Writers' Journey by Christopher Vogler. In it he looks at the 3 Act Structure as a guide rather than a blue-print. He also looks at the 'heroic journey' and how that can be used in storytelling.

  4. This was a great post. I have been thinking that one of my books would, indeed, make a great film. the question is, how in the world can I find a screenwriter and then someone who wants to produce it?

  5. Hello Tracy, where are you based? There are 'communities' of screenwriters all over the place. If you get hold of one of them, they will likely be able to advise you on small indie producers who might go for it. Alternatively, if you have an agent (do you?) that agent is likely to have connections with screen agents.

  6. Very interesting, Fiona. Great to have a screenwriter's perspective on the topic. I did have a nibble from a fillm producer about A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, but it didn't go forward--fun to think about, though!

  7. Maybe it might still be resurrected, Donna. By the way, Glastonbury arrived yesterday! I've read the prologue so far :) By the look of it, it would make a great TV series along the lines of Centennial.