A typical novel may have 75,000 words or more. An average hour-long television show has a script of about 9,000 words. A movie script could thus contain about 25,000 words for two-hours of entertainment. It is really any wonder why short stories are a better fit than full-length novels for doing movies, or why epic tales like Atlas Shrugged (over a thousand pages of tiny font) are stuck in development hell?
I recently began my screenwriting career after I discovered that my writing preferences lend themselves toward shorter stories and less focus on the ephemeral details, themes, and nuances, that are the bread and butter of novelists. The writing involved is not easier; it is a different style and focus. Even so, I’m finding I can be fairly productive in writing hour-long scripts even while going through boats of writer block.
I think the difference is that I find writing dialogue (which is the bulk of the writing in screenplays) can actually go quite quickly, leaving you more time and interest to put toward rewrites. Compare this to novels, where scene and character descriptions convey a lot of the recurring themes, tone, and writer’s “voice”, to the point where some chapters can avoid dialogue all together.
This presents different choices. If I wrote a scene showing a character returning home, for example. In the novel, I can spend time showing what kind of home it is, the nitnacks on the shelves, the kind of decor used, etc. In a screenplay, there’s little patience for that. Moreover, pages and pages can be devoted to that detail in a book, but a similar scene in a movie would be filled with dead air and such a “waste” better be damned important to be included, otherwise it’ll be slashed in the editing room.
So, that’s the challenge in writing adaptations. How much of the enjoyment in a book can be conveyed on the screen? And if an adaptation is done well (Harry Potter series), then the weakness of the movie can be defended as a weakness of the source material. In contrast, a bad adaptation (FlashForward) can have all other sorts of problems due to how far they strayed from the book, how much they cut for editorial or budget reasons, etc.
Rarely do you see a good adaptation that surpasses the book – but then, how often are short stories made out of novels and then figured to be as good or better than the original? Yeah, I thought so. Still, adaptations aren’t a bad idea – I just wished Hollywood would rely less on adapting comic books and ancient television shows because of the perceived built-in audience for them.