Is Your Book a Movie? A Crash Course in Book-to-Screen Adaptation
by John Robert Marlow
Is your book a movie? Should it be? How do you get there from here—and what’s in it
for you? Fasten your seatbelt, and let’s rip through this…
THE AWFUL TRUTH
Let’s face it: being an author is a noble profession, but reaching the financial pinnacle of
our chosen profession requires more than the ability to put brilliant words on paper.
Consider Forbes magazine’s 2008 listing of the top ten highest-earning authors: JK
Rowling, James Patterson, Steven King, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks,
John Grisham… Aside from achieving national or international bestseller status, all have
one thing in common: heavy film involvement.
Rowling has 6 movies out, with 2 more filming; Patterson has 7 film projects, with an 8th
due in 2010; King boasts more than 80 film adaptations; Clancy, 6 with a 7th due in 2011
and 3 more in development; Danielle Steele more than 20 (television), Grisham 14, with
another 5 in development, and so on.
While one could argue that films are simply based on books that are already massive
bestsellers, this fails to account for the many bestsellers that have not been made into
movies, even when written by some of the same authors whose other books have been
filmed (and quite successfully at that).
Michael Crichton is a perfect example of this: nearly twenty of his works have been
adapted to film, his ER tv series is one of biggest ever, and his Jurassic Park adaptations
are (at the time of this writing) the 11th, 43rd, and 136th highest-grossing films of all
time. Nevertheless, two of his most recent works, Prey and State of Fear, have yet to be
filmed, and it seems likely they never will be.
Then too, there are those novels and short stories whose performance is poor or middling
or genre-specific, which gain widespread recognition only after the film adaptations are
released. Bladerunner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Next, and Paycheck (among other
films) were based on short stories in the science fiction genre. All were written by Philip
K. Dick, whose work was—before the movies—largely unknown to the general public.
Two of these films, Minority Report and Total Recall, are among the top 300 highest-
grossing films in the world.
So while it may be true that Hollywood likes to base movies on existing bestsellers, it’s
also obvious that something more is going on here—and equally obvious that if you can
make your work appealing to Hollywood, the truth may not be so awful at all. At least
not for you. And so the most important question for the novelist may be this:
Why are some books made into movies, and others not—and what can I do to make my
book more attractive to Hollywood?
WHAT HOLLYWOOD WANTS
Like publishers, film studios and the companies they deal with look for a good story, well
told with interesting characters, properly formatted. But because of the unique demands
imposed by filmmaking and marketing considerations, they look for other things as well.
Some of these things simply don’t matter to publishers—making it perfectly possible to
have a great book with little film appeal. (Keep in mind, though, that this can be
remedied, even if your book has already been published.)
This is what a studio or production company wants to see:
A CONCEPT that can be communicated in one to three sentences. Agents and studio execs are among the busiest people on the planet. They need to get ideas across to other busy people—quickly.
If this cannot be done, it suggests that the story is not sharply focused, and that conveying the concept to its potential audience in a 30-second trailer is going to be a problem.
The allure of concept is so strong that screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who, it must be
mentioned, had many previous script sales to his credit) once sold a pitch written on a
napkin for $4 million. How many words can you fit on a napkin?
STRONG VISUAL POTENTIAL. A novel can go anywhere, even inside the characters’
heads. And it can stay there for 300 pages. Film is a visual medium, and interesting
things must pass before the camera.
When not carefully adapted, introspective books make lousy movies. Or, as Groucho
Marx once said: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too
dark to read.”
A TWO-HOUR LIMIT of sorts; if a story cannot be told in two hours or less (120 script
pages), it may be too costly to shoot. Film is an extraordinarily expensive medium, and
when you’re footing a bill that could run a million dollars per minute of screen time, you
don’t want to hear that some rookie screenwriter thinks his story should run long.
Seasoned veterans with proven track records warrant occasional exceptions; newcomers do not.
A RELATABLE HERO, meaning someone a large segment of the population can relate to,
root for, sympathize or empathize with. If moviegoers aren’t likely to care about what
happens to your hero, Hollywood doesn’t care about your story. There’s simply too much
money at stake to take that kind of chance.
Case in point: the original Pretty Woman script—then titled $3,000—portrayed Vivian as
a crack addict and Edward as a cold-blooded type who picks up hookers when his
girlfriend’s not around. In the end, Vivian tells him to go to hell, and he drives off.
This was changed, over writer J.F. Lawton’s vigorous objections, to the hugely successful
story we now know—in which, of course, Vivian and Edward are much nicer folks, and
wind up together. It’s one of the highest-grossing film of all time.
A THREE-ACT STRUCTURE to your story. The overwhelming majority of commercially
successful films are “classically structured” into three acts. Even those with additional
acts (Star Wars, for example) have three major acts, with the other acts falling within that framework.
Generally speaking, non-classically structured films are the province of independent and
art house films, in which studios have little interest. The few exceptions typically come
from filmmakers who built their reputations on classically-structured films, and then
A REASONABLE BUDGET. In the book world, all scenes are in some sense created equal.
The publisher’s cost is the same, whether your characters are sitting down to tea or
blowing up a planet.
This is not true of film, where shooting two characters sipping tea might cost $200,000,
and filming a major battle sequence could run $10 million. If the story seems
prohibitively expensive to film, it will not become a movie unless someone very powerful
pushes the project very hard—and even then, there are limits (currently being explored
by James Cameron).
LOW FAT. Because of time and budgetary constraints, there’s little or no room for
anything that is not absolutely essential to the story. Novelists can spend ten pages
describing a room and its furnishings. A screenwriter might do this in a sentence; going
on for more than a paragraph will mark him/her as an amateur.
When lensing two folks having tea can cost a quarter-million dollars, you have to ask
yourself just how crucial that tea-sipping scene really is.
SEQUEL POTENTIAL. Can a film based on your book be sequeled and prequeled? If so,
that’s a big point in your favor. If the first movie hits, it’s a safer financial bet to release a
sequel to your film than it is to risk vast sums on something new (and, therefore, untested
in the marketplace).
This is not absolutely essential (look at Titanic), but is highly desired—to the point where a
300 prequel is now moving forward.
“FOUR QUADRANT” APPEAL. In tough economic times, studios look to broaden their
audience as much as possible. One way to do this is to base films on already-successful
properties with built-in audiences (books, graphic novels, video games, toys, other
Another is to make movies that appeal to a larger demographic. The moviegoing
public is composed of four large sections, or quadrants: young male, older male, young
female, older female.
The greater the number of quadrants your project appeals to, the better. Four-quadrant
appeal is the primary reason for the huge success of animated films—and of Avatar and Titanic, the
two biggest-grossing films of all time.
When your story appeals to everyone, it’s hard (though still possible) to go wrong. Four-
quadrant appeal is not a strict necessity (the more people you pull from one quadrant, the
fewer you need to pull from others)—but it’s nice to have.
MERCHANDISING POTENTIAL. Film studios make more money from film-related
merchandising than they do from the films themselves. A lot more. And while films with
low or no merchandising potential continue to be made, the tidal wave is moving the
other way, favoring projects with strong merchandising appeal.
Even so, this isn’t necessarily something you should alter your novel’s storyline to
accommodate; studios are quite adept at wringing merchandising dollars from their films.
Generally speaking, big-budget action and animation films are merchandising bonanzas,
while dramas, thrillers, and comedies have considerably less merchandising appeal.
Obviously, this hasn’t kept studios from making dramas, thrillers, and comedies—which
are less expensive to film and therefore don’t require the kind of Herculean
merchandising blitz needed to keep a marketing juggernaut like the Batman franchise
raking in the billions.
MAKING YOUR STORY FILM-FRIENDLY
Most books are not movies. Some books will never be movies. The majority, however,
could be movies, if carefully adapted. There are several routes to take here.
If your tale is still in manuscript form, you can alter the story to render it more cinematic
by incorporating or emphasizing the elements Hollywood is looking for. (Booklist’s
review of my own novel read: “Reads like a big-budget summer blockbuster.”)
If you’d rather see your manuscript published the way it is, or if your book has already
been published—you can adapt your story by writing (or commissioning) a screenplay
based on the book. In fact, you might want to consider this option even if your story is
The reason is simple: nothing conveys a story’s cinematic potential better than a well-
written screenplay. The purpose of a book is to be read and enjoyed for what it is. The
purpose of a screenplay is to play a movie in the reader’s head—to help the reader
visualize the finished film and say, “I want to make this movie, I want to see it on the
screen, and I will pay money to make that happen.”
Chris Lockhart is Story Editor at William Morris/Endeavor, one of the few Hollywood
super-agencies. Before that, he was Executive Story Editor at ICM (another Hollywood
powerhouse). His job is to read and consult on scripts intended for top-end clients
including Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, and others.
In his experience, every player in Hollywood asks one question after reading a story: “Is
this a movie?” If the answer is yes, you’ve got a shot at selling your tale. If the answer is
no, you probably don’t—not to that buyer, at any rate.
When approaching Hollywood, it is essential that your story be as much like a movie as
possible—and the best way to do that is to present it as a screenplay. A book raises
Can we really make this work onscreen? How do we compress all of this into two hours?
Half the book is spent inside the hero’s head—how do we fix that? This book is going to
cost $300 million to shoot—what can we change to make it less expensive?
The plot needs to be simplified, or the story needs more action, or less action, or a more
sympathetic hero, a stronger villain, fewer characters, more characters, a stronger love
story, a higher body count, a three-act structure, a midpoint, stronger character arcs, and
If we buy the rights, who do we get to do the adaptation, and how much is that going to
cost? And, at the end of all that—will this be a movie?
By presenting a screenplay instead of a book, you avoid such complications, allowing the
prospective buyer to focus on that one, all-important question: is this a movie?
And there’s another very important thing to consider:
MONEY MONEY MONEY
Simply put—and generally speaking—screenplays pay better than novels (and also better
than mere “film rights”). The average advance on a first novel is in the neighborhood of
$15-20,000. The average selling price of a spec screenplay by an unsold writer hovers
somewhere between $300,000 and $600,000.
That’s the average price, mind you, not the top end (which, on rare occasions, can top $5
million). And screenwriters often get bonuses when the picture is made, sequeled,
adapted for television, and so on.
There are other considerations. Novels run 300, 400, even 500 pages of densely-written
text. Screenplays run 100-120 pages of fairly light text. So even if the two formats paid
the same overall—which they don’t—the per-page rate for screenwriting is much higher.
The up-front payment on the book side typically comes in three installments, the last
being upon delivery and approval of the final manuscript. Taken together, these payments
constitute an advance, which must be earned back (via royalties) before you see another
If the book doesn’t sell well enough for the publisher to recoup the advance from
royalties, you receive no further payment. If the book goes out of print, you can probably
get the rights back.
Spec script payments are typically broken down into several installments. The first comes
when the contract is signed, and is almost always six figures. Later payments come as
certain production milestones are met, with the entire purchase price being due no later
than the first day of principal photography.
If your script is purchased but no movie is made, you keep any payments you’ve
received, but will not receive the full price. You may—or may not—be able to get the
Again, and on average, screenplays pay better than novels. At the top end, however, this
ceases to be true. This is so because the purchase price for a screenplay has an upper
limit: once the film has wrapped and bonuses (and so-called “net profits,” if any) have
been paid, the well runs dry. For you, that is; the studio makes money forever.
In the book world, there is no ceiling: every copy sold puts more money in your pocket.
To match this kind of cash machine, the film studio would have to agree to give you
“gross points,” meaning a percentage of the film’s gross profits (before the studio deducts
so many questionable expenses that the hit of the summer seems to have lost money—on
the books, at any rate; this is where “net profits” get such a bad name).
People like James Cameron and Russell Crowe get gross points; writers do not. Doesn’t
matter if you write the next Titanic–you will never (as a screenwriter) be paid a percentage of
This is why there are no billionaire screenwriters, and also why there are no pure
screenwriters on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-earning writers.
Terry Rossio is perhaps the best-paid screenwriter in history, and holds the record for the
highest-selling screenplay ($5.6 million). Still, he says, “there is a brutal glass ceiling for
screenwriters,” and even a clueless director has “ten times the power, ten times the control
over content, ten times the rewards of any screenwriter.” Books may be a writer’s
medium, but film is the province of the director.
Having a book and a screenplay opens up new possibilities. Interest in either will bump
up interest in the other. The actual sale of either will make sale of the other more likely. If
things go astonishingly well, a savvy agent might be able to play studio interest against
publisher interest and jack up the price on book and screenplay to ridiculous heights.
(This doesn’t happen often, but it happens.)
If the book is published and does well, the screenplay is more likely to be produced (even
if it’s already been purchased and has stalled at the studio). If the book didn’t sell to a
publisher, but the screenplay does sell, publishers will suddenly become interested in the
book. (The reverse is also true: if the script doesn’t sell, and the book sells high, the
screenplay may get a second life.)
If the book was published but did poorly, a successful film will resurrect sales, and
almost certainly make the book an instant national bestseller (which, in turn, may earn
you far more than the film does, and launch a sluggish writing career). A successful film
will make studios want your next movie, and publishers your next book.
If you want to maximize your chances of success—for your story and for yourself as a
writer—it’s best to pursue your stories in more than one medium.
When you write a book, you have the ultimate say on each and every word, comma, and
paragraph. So long as the publisher likes your manuscript, “final cut” is yours. In
Hollywood, the moment you sell your screenplay, you relinquish all control over content.
Period, end of story. (Unless you’re, say, JK Rowling.)
It costs a publisher maybe $50,000 to put out a new hardcover; a studio might spend $50
million on a middle-of-the road film, $250 million on something like Dark Knight—and a
rumored $400 million-plus on James Cameron’s Avatar. With that kind of money on the
line, you bet the buyer calls the shots.
On the other hand, if you have both a book and a screenplay, and Hollywood blows the
movie, you can always point to the book and say, “Look what Hollywood did to my
wonderful book.” And you still have something to be proud of: your book. As for the
film, you can cry all the way to the bank—because you get paid regardless of how well
(or poorly) the movie does.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENS
Another point to consider is this: when a publisher says “No, we don’t want to publish
your book,” that’s generally the end of it, unless the two of you agree to some sort of
Assuming you or your representative have chosen an appropriate publisher (that is, one
who publishes the sort of thing you’re trying to sell), a turn-down or “pass” generally
means that, in the publisher’s opinion, something doesn’t measure up—most likely the
overall quality of the manuscript.
In Hollywood, a “pass” could mean the same thing—or any one of a hundred other
things, none of which have anything at all to do with the quality of the script. That’s
because, as Chris Lockhart points out, the second question every Hollywood player asks
himself (when the answer to “Is this a movie?” is “Yes!”) is: “Is this a movie I want to
Often, the answer will be no. Why? Perhaps the budget is too high for that particular
buyer, or someone else has a similar project already in development, or your buyer just
met with Tom Cruise and he wants a romantic comedy, not another action script. Or the
head of the company just finished a shoot in Alaska, and wants to go someplace warm
next time—and your script is set in Antarctica.
Maybe the actor whose company is reading the script is doing court-ordered community
service in Los Angeles, and can’t leave the country to shoot your Sumatran jungle
Point being, though most scripts are turned down because they’re not good enough—
good, even great scripts get passed on for other reasons. When that happens, it’s not
uncommon for a buyer to say, “We don’t want to buy this script—but we’d like to see
what else you have,” or “We’d like to hire you to do something else for us.”
If the writing or the story makes an impression—really makes an impression—you might
be hired to flesh out a concept or a treatment, help with story development, or to do a
rewrite on another script that just isn’t working and no one knows why.
If the company you’re dealing with is a WGA signatory—and most “real” buyers are—
they must pay you no less than the WGA minimum for your work (and you must join the
WGA). That comes to roundabout $50-90,000 for a full script with treatment, revision,
and polish. Remember, a script is generally 100-120 pages.
Because of this, because not every script that’s bought gets made, and because many
scripts that are made wind up hitting the screen with later writers’ names on them—there
are many working screenwriters doing quite well turning out scripts that never become
movies, or that do become movies but have someone else’s name on them by the time
they hit the screen.
Ever heard of a novelist making a few hundred grand a year writing books that aren’t
THE HARD SELL
You should be aware that it’s harder to sell a script than it is to sell a book—again
because of the vast difference in production costs. When you’re putting $100 million on
the line, you tend to be picky—despite occasional onscreen evidence to the contrary.
ADAPTING YOUR BOOK
Once you’ve decided that your book should be a movie, and should be adapted into
screenplay format, you have three basic choices: write it yourself, get someone else to
help you, or hire someone else to write it for you. Here are the basic pros and cons of
WRITE IT YOURSELF
On the pro side, this costs you nothing but time. On the con side, it’s going to take a lot
of time, particularly so if you’re not used to writing screenplays. The format is radically
different, and so is the mindset.
Don’t let that 120 pages fool you—a screenplay can be every bit as difficult to write as a novel. The challenge of the screenwriter’s art is to say more with less, using fewer words
to convey greater meaning.
The most difficult transition of all is going from novelist to screenwriter. This is because
novelists tend to write long, and long blocks of anything—description, dialogue, even
action—are the surest mark of the amateur scriptwriter. Still, given enough time—one
can master both forms.
Questions that come to mind once this decision has been made:
How long is it going to take to become a good screenwriter? In most cases, the answer is
Is there a way to speed that up? Yes if you work with—and learn from—someone who’s
already there, and is also good at teaching.
Can I get a good script on the market faster? Again yes—if you work with an
accomplished screenwriter, or have them write the first script for you while you work to
perfect your new craft for future scripts.
CONSULT WITH SOMEONE ELSE
A second option is to consult with an experienced screenwriter or—better yet—
screenwriter/novelist. This person can review your manuscript or novel with a practiced
eye toward screen potential, and tell you where things stand. He or she can also suggest
specific changes to consider during the adaptation.
The best route here is to find the right person (see below) and work with them to come up
with a detailed outline for the screenplay. Given professional input and some flexibility
on your part, this should at least provide you with a solid three-act structure, proper
pacing, a relatable hero and good character arcs.
Of course, it’s still up to you to make all of that work. You can check in again with your
consultant every thirty pages or so to see how you’re doing, and to make sure you don’t
wander too far astray or break some screenwriting rule you didn’t know existed.
The downside here is that most screenwriters write several bad scripts before showing
any real promise, and going out with (trying to sell) a not-good script—to say nothing of
a bad one—often does more harm than good.
To be fair, it should be noted that very few aspiring screenwriters are working with
professional guidance—which should make your learning curve faster. Still, if it takes
you a long time to become a good screenwriter, those consulting fees can add up—quite
possibly to the point where it would have been cheaper to hire someone else to write the
script in the first place.
HIRE A SCREENWRITER
Hiring someone who knows their way around a screenplay is the fastest way to ensure
quality results. WGA members are out, unless you have $50,000 or more to put on the
table (WGA members are contractually forbidden to work for less; those at the top of the
heap often ask—and receive—$1 million or more, typically from studios).
So how can you be sure that a probably-unproduced scriptwriter knows his (or her) stuff?
Look for someone who’s been optioned by a real producer or company (as opposed to
their father, sister, or uncle), or someone who’s been in development with a real company
or filmmaker (same caveats). If genuine industry professionals have shown strong interest
in your writer’s work, that puts him/her very far above the cast of thousands of would-be
Another thing you can look for is someone who’s placed very highly in a prestigious
screenwriting competition. And be warned: there are many bozo script contests, designed
more to fatten the wallets of their creators than anything else. Placing highly, even
winning one of these may mean little. As Lockhart says: “Hey man, you know—
somebody’s gotta win.”
The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting program, on the other hand, is run by the same
organization that hands out the Academy Awards. If there’s one competition that matters,
this is it. Those who’ve placed in the top 10 have gone on to write scripts like Air
Force One, Erin Brockovitch, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, Pocohontas,
Arlington Road, and 28 Days (among many others).
Ideally, you want someone who also knows what it’s like to write (and adapt) a novel,
because they’ll have a better understanding of where you’re coming from, and what it
takes to get your story from 300-plus pages to 120.
You should also be looking for someone who sees the story as you do, and is interested in
keeping the story’s “heart”—its most essential elements—alive and beating strongly in
the new medium. Many things may need to change during the adaptation process—but
the heart should remain.
This doesn’t mean you should be closed to suggested alterations—only that you must
know when to say enough is enough, and this is no longer the story you want to tell.
Again, to help ensure that the script does reflect the tale you want to tell, work with the
screenwriter to create a detailed outline before moving forward with the script itself.
This will serve as a blueprint for the finished script, ensuring that things stay on track
during the writing process. Major deviations from the agreed-upon outline should be
approved by you before being written.
Check in every 30 pages or so to make sure things are going as planned, and then consult
again at the end, because you’ll want the writer to go back and do a “polish” to tighten
things up, correct the inevitable small inconsistencies, add texture, improve the
occasional line, implement good ideas that came late, weed out typos, and so forth.
Most (not all, but most) screenwriters who’ve made some kind of progress in the industry
live in Los Angeles. If they weren’t here to start with, they moved here to be close to the
business. Something to keep in mind when shopping for a writer.
Also keep in mind that, like everyone else, screenwriters have bills to pay. The classic
amateur move is asking a writer to work for nothing up front, and a percentage of the sale
price if the script sells. L.A. papers and online classifieds are littered with such offers.
As Rocky Balboa might say, “it’s simple mathematics:” if the screenwriter does his own
script and sells it, he gets 100% of the money. Why should he put his fabulous idea aside
and work on yours—for free?
Great ideas are more common than you might think. Doing those ideas justice for the
duration of a screenplay (or novel) is rare. That’s what good writers are paid to do.
Credit is very important in Hollywood, and is generally broken down like this: screenplay
(who wrote the actual words on the page), story (who thought up the story the words tell),
and—in the case of scripts based upon works in another medium—source credit (“based
on the book by,” for example).
When it comes to screen credits, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) has the final say
on scripts that fall under its jurisdiction. This includes all studio films, and most others
with significant budgets. If someone else wrote your screenplay, they will be accorded
If the screenplay follows your book precisely (which is unlikely), or
you dictate every single thing that happens in the screenplay (also unlikely, especially if
you’re new at this), you will get sole story credit. If the screenplay incorporates elements
thought up by both you and the screenwriter, you will share story credit. (Which is often
good for a bonus payment, and can help you get future gigs.)
Source credit is yours and yours alone, but only if you know enough to put that clause in
your contract when you option or sell the screenplay. If you don’t insert that clause, you
may or may not receive source credit.
And have no doubt: you want that clause. Because then every person who sees the film,
whether in the theater or at home—in fact every person who even sees the trailer or the
movie poster—will also see that the movie is based on your book.
A certain percentage of those people will then buy your book. And maybe your next
book, too. And the one after that. This means money in your pocket.
One more word about credits. Because the buyer (typically a studio) controls the script
absolutely, they’re free to hire additional writers, and often do. There are many reasons
for this—some good, most bad, but the point is, it happens. A lot.
And so it’s entirely possible that the script will be so heavily rewritten that the WGA
decides that your screenwriter will no longer receive screenwriting credit. If the same
thing happens to the story, both you and your screenwriter could lose your story credits.
But you can never, ever lose your source credit. Because a source credit is not a
screenwriting credit, the WGA has no jurisdiction whatsoever. If your contract says you
get source credit, that’s it. No power on earth can change it.
Aside from who buys your script, it’s probably the only thing about the movie that is
absolutely, totally, one hundred percent under your control.
Until you start directing.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
all rights reserved