From A Book to A Movie

The Ins and Outs of Screenplay Adaptations

by Joelle Steele

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Are you hoping that your novel, short story, or autobiography will one day be made into a screenplay? Or are you just having difficulty deciding whether to write your story as a novel or a screenplay? As a writer, I much prefer books to anything a movie can offer, so my first choice is always going to be writing a book. But, in general, if a writer envisions their work on the silver screen, then I advise them to skip the book altogether and go straight to writing a screenplay instead. Why? Because so much can happen when a book is made into a movie, and even if you are the one writing the screenplay based on your book, most of it is out of your hands.


Screenplays are nothing like novels because they are meant to be performed, to be produced. Potential budgets, number of actors, types of sets, location shooting, etc., must all be considered when writing a screenplay. And then there is the obvious: Movies are usually only about two hours in length, while a book can take about 8 hours or more to read depending, of course, on how quickly you read. Condensing a book into a movie means that something's gotta give. You simply cannot take a story page-by-page and make a movie or even a mini-series, especially for an epic saga. Screenwriters who adapt novels must make decisions about what to keep, what to omit, and possibly what new elements to add. They also have to decide how to handle typical story-telling devices such as flashbacks and the thoughts of the characters that normally occur in books.

Supporting characters are often omitted or blended into two characters on film. This makes sense, since casting is a rather substantial expense in making a movie. And casting can often result in disappointment if a chosen actor does not accurately resemble a character or does not play the role the way the story's author intended. How much of a deviation from the original story is acceptable? The answer: It's about how acceptable it is to the movie-goer. And that movie-goer is unlikely to notice the difference – unless they read the book! Here are examples of four very different stories that were made into highly successful mutiple-award-winning movies and how the original stories differ from their cinematic counterparts.

Gone With the Wind

"Gone With The Wind" is a 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell. It was made into an Oscar-winning movie released in 1939. The screenplay was written by Sidney Howard. Sadly, most people have never read this amazing book. As a story set during the Civil War era, its historical accuracy was relevant, but screenplay adherence to the book was far less critical. Nonetheless, there were a considerable number of differences between the book and the almost 4-hour movie.

No mention of the Ku Klux Klan is made in the movie — probably due to the time period during which the movie was released. Some characters were eliminated in the movie, including Scarlett's children with her first two husbands; houseman Will Benteen; Scarlett and Melanie's mutual uncle, Henry Hamilton; Rhett's sister, Rosemary; Mrs. Tarleton (mother of the Tarleton twins, Brent and Stuart); Scarlett's aunts, Pauleen and Eulalie; Dilcey (slave and wife of Pork); Mrs. Elsing; and Mrs. Whiting.

Honey Wilkes, Ashley's sister, is omitted and is blended into the character of his other sister, India. In the book, Frank Kennedy dies defending Scarlett's honor, but in the movie he dies in a raid. In the book, Melanie is first to donate her wedding ring to the Southern cause, but in the movie it's Scarlett. In the book, Belle Watling is a more wanton woman as opposed to the "whore with a heart of gold" as she is depicted in the movie. There are many more discrepancies, but let's move on to the next book turned movie.

The Sound of Music

"The Sound of Music" is a 1965 Oscar-winning movie musical adapted from the stage musical of the same name, which was adapted from a 1956 German film called "Die Trapp Familie," which was based on the 1949 book, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" by Maria von Trapp. The 1965 movie screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman. Unlike "Gone With The Wind," Maria von Trapp's book is her own true story. But if you're looking for that story in the movie, you aren't going to find it. In this case, the real von Trapp story was merely the inspiration for the musical and the movie. And inspiration does not necessarily mean there will be any adherence to facts.

Baron Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp was a retired naval lieutenant commander and World War I hero who had married the granddaughter of the man who invented the torpedo. They were married for about 11 years and had seven children, their real names and ages not used in the movie. His wife's money had allowed them to live well and their children had musical training. About two years after his wife died, Georg and the children moved to a country villa near Salzburg where they continued to live well but far more modestly than is portrayed in the movie, which was filmed at two palace locations in Salzburg. Actor Christopher Plummer bears no resemblance to Georg, who actually looked a little more like actor John Mills in his later years, and Plummer's portrayal of Georg bears no resemblance to the real person, aside from using a Boson's whistle to summon the children from outdoors. When Georg met Maria, he had been widowed for five years, was 47 years old, and she was 22.

Maria Augusta Kutschera was an orphan who grew up to become a teacher and nun-to-be at a Benedictine abbey in Salzburg. She was an atheist who, through a chance meeting with a priest, became a Christian. She was not the abbey's problem child as depicted in the movie, and she was not hired to be a governess for the von Trapp children as in the movie. She was hired to tutor the third oldest child, Maria, who was recovering from scarlet fever (or rheumatic fever, depending on who tells the story) and had fallen behind in school as a result. Julie Andrews does not look anything at all like Maria von Trapp.

Georg was not involved or engaged to anyone as depicted in the movie. He married Maria a year after meeting her. She was not in love with him, but was very much in love with his children. In the early 1930s, Georg had lost most of his wealth due to the worldwide depression. The family tightened their collective belts and lived in the upstairs of their villa and rented out the bottom of it, which is certainly not in the movie. In about 1931, the family began singing together, but not under the auspices of Max Detweiler, the American character in the movie. And seven years after that, in 1938, was the Anschluss.

Georg was 58 years old by this time and was anti-Nazi. The Nazis offered him a naval commission, but they never tried to forcibly recruit him as indicated in the movie. Georg and Maria, along with his seven children and the first two of their three children together, and accompanied by their music director, Father Franz Wasner, did not escape over the Alps. They instead walked to the train station and headed for Italy, where Georg held citizenship. Their country villa was then confiscated by the Nazis and became the home of Heinrich Himmler. It's true that the children did sing, but mostly Austrian folk music, not Rogers & Hammerstein!

Blade Runner

"Blade Runner" is a 1982 award-winning movie based on the 1968 Philip Dick novella, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." The movie screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Science fiction is a genre that lends itself to all the special effects that the film industry can conjure up. In addition, sci-fi isn't real, doesn't have to be real, and almost anything goes because none of it is real. But sometimes, what is left out is the real essence of the story, and that is the case with "Blade Runner."

The screenwriters started by making some mostly minor changes. For example, in the novella, Rick Deckard is married and is a cop and bounty hunter. In the movie, he's not married and he's retired. In the novella, most of the population of Earth has left to live on Mars following a planet-wide war, but in the movie, Earth is pretty well packed with people. In the novella the androids are called "andys" and in the movie they are known as "replicants." In the novella, Rachel Rosen is an android who helps Rick retire some escaped androids, but in the movie he knows she is an android and she doesn't. In the novella, the author alludes to the possibility that Rick is himself an android. These details pale by comparison to one of the central themes in the novella that is not included in the movie at all: a new religion called Mercerism.

Mercerism involves an electronic implant that enables people to share the same mood, meaning they lose their sense of self. Rick adheres to this religion and aspires to becoming a more complete self by owning a real animal (most animals on earth are dead and android animals abound in the novella). In the book, Rick keeps an android/robotic sheep on his roof, but doesn't in the movie, hence the title of the novella and the reason why it's not the title of the movie. In the novella, it is Rick's following of Mercerism that impacts on his life and his pursuit of renegade androids. The omission of Mercerism in the movie does not ruin the movie by any means. But, for those who read the novella, it makes the movie seem somewhat shallow and lacking by comparison. And that's a common problem when you read the book first! Now let's look at another biopic movie.

Out of Africa

"Out of Africa" is a 1937 book written by Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke). Along with information from another Dinesen book, "Shadows on the Grass" written in 1961, "Out of Africa" was made into a 1984 Oscar-winning movie. The screenplay was by Kurt Luedtke. Like "The Sound of Music," Karen Blixen's account of her life in British East Africa is a true story, and the movie, again like "The Sound of Music," is a terrific tale, but it lacks many of the facts which could have enhanced or even improved the movie. The movie takes place between January 1914 and August 1931, a period of almost 18 years, and it is difficult to determine how much time has passed from one scene to the next. There's a lot to cover in just under 3 hours running time. Some people mentioned in the book didn't make it into the movie, but they were largely minor characters, save for Karen's ex-husband, Bror Blixen, who is mentioned on occasion in the book but never by name. Many things are left out of the movie, including shootings, locusts, and the true number of Kikuyu workers – there were about 800 of them, but the movie never shows more than about 20 at the most.

Karen and Bror were second cousins, and they moved to Africa to start a coffee farm. They got married on the day she arrived in Mombasa and they lived on their first farm, M'Bagathi, in Langata, about 10 miles from Nairobi. This is where the movie was filmed, but in 1917, the Blixens received investment money from family members that allowed them to move to their second and much larger 6,000-acre farm, M'Bogoni (the Ngong House), about 12 miles southwest of Nairobi and now a museum to Karen, who lived there until 1931. So you only see their first house in the movie.

Karen – who was known to her friends as Tanne (Taw-neh) – did not meet Denys Finch Hatton on the way to Mombasa as she does in the movie. She was in Africa for five years before they met at the Muthaiga Club, where he held a small suite of rooms. He also was a part-owner of a farm, although in the film he rejects Karen's suggestion that he "could always farm." He also gives her a pen and suggests she write down some of her stories, but Karen was already a published author by 1905/7. There is no mention of Karen's relatives in Kenya. Her brother Thomas Dinesen was the original farm manager when Karen arrived in Kenya, and he again lived on and managed the farm for two years starting in 1921. Her mother visited on at least two occasions, staying for months at a time. And Karen spent a fair amount of time in Denmark and other parts of Europe. After being diagnosed with syphilis a year after her marriage, she was in Denmark for almost two years where she received mercury treatment (the possible cause of her chronic illness and pain due to heavy metal poisoning – none of which is in the movie). She was also in Denmark for a year in 1919, 1925, and 1929. She may have made the 1925 trip following her divorce from Bror and/or a possible miscarriage of Denys' child, and the 1929 trip may have followed the fading of her relationship with Denys.

In the movie, Denys takes Karen on safari, supposedly for the first time, but she and Bror went on safaris early in their marriage. Bror did not tell Karen about Denys' death as he does in the movie. She heard about it from friends. Also, when she sold the farm, the new owner offered to let her stay in the house, but she declined and returned to Denmark. Her letters indicate that she often felt conflicted about her life in Africa and that she often longed to leave. As a side note, in the movie, Berkeley Cole dies from blackwater fever, but the real man died of heart failure in 1925. The blackwater fever death was probably a cinematic blend of Berkeley Cole and Karen's friend Erik von Otter, who did die of that disease. Lots more can be said, but you can see how blurry the lines are between truth and fiction. Again, great movie, but not as good as real life.

And, on a last note about casting, Meryl Streep was a very good choice for the role of Karen Blixen; Michael Kitchen made a good Berkeley Cole; and Klaus Maria Brandauer has Bror's body type though not his face type. But Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton? Robert Redford does not look even remotely like Denys. Denys was very tall (about 6'3") and makes Redford look like a munchkin (I am 6' tall and I once walked right next to Redford who was wearing cowboy boots at the time and he was easily 2" shorter than I am – and I was wearing flats at the time). Denys was prematurely bald and was rarely seen without a hat. The original casting choice for the role of Denys was Charles Dance (also 6'3"), and that would have been perfect, since he not only looks like Denys but is also British like the aristocratic and possibly bisexual Denys.

So whadya think? Still want to write that novel and hope it gets turned into a screenplay? Well, who knows? Maybe your novel – or your screenplay – will be turned into a great movie and then you can go live in the castle of your choice anywhere in the world. It's a dream worth dreaming, isn't it?

This article last updated: 09/13/2012.