Friday, May 24, 2013

From Finnish to Navajo by Alexa Moses

For half my working life, I write books – I’m the author of the Slave Girl series, whirlwind time-slip books about a bratty 13-year-old who wanted to go shopping but got stuck in ancient Egypt instead.  In the other half, I write children’s television. Right now, I’m writing scripts for the animated TV series of the Tashi books, by Anna and Barbara Fienberg.

Today, I’m going to give you a peek into how screenwriters adapt your favourite books –like Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, or David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny – for the screen.

First of all, television or film scripts. Have you ever seen one? They look like this:


JENNA stands clutching her phone, the NOBLES, SERVANTS and PRIESTS of the Prince Thutmosis gathered before her. All of them stare at her, leaning forwards in anticipation.

JENNA(under her breath)  Eight … nine .. ten - At ‘ten’, she presses a button so the phone lights up and thrusts it into the air.

Everyone but the PRINCE recoils.

NOBLES/SERVANTS/PRIESTS (gasping in terror)

SCRIBE  It lights itself from within!

The only calm person in the room is the Prince, who steps forward.

PRINCE Show me more of this magic.

Jenna considers, then fiddles with the phone and hands it to the Prince.

JENNA It’s a game called Pong. Old-school but fun.

Here’s the same passage, rendered as a novel:

[Jenna] picked up her phone carefully. She felt dozens of eyes on her and it took her two tries to press the unlock button …She remembered what her drama teacher Mr Davies always said about pausing for dramatic effect. If ever she needed to impress an audience, it was now. So she counted to ten in her head and held her phone in the air so everyone could see the lit screen.

A gasp rippled through the room and the soldier beside her stepped back.

“It lights itself from within!” someone gasped.

Jenna saw the Egyptians’ expressions were identical – arched eyebrows and rounded eyes. Some of the scribes’ mouths had actually fallen open and the pharaoh looked shocked. Even User, who had seen it before, was unsettled.

The only calm one was the pharaoh Djehuty. He stepped forward and examined the screen over Jenna’s shoulder. He smelt like the little wooden box her mum had brought back from India, perfumed with a hint of sweat about it, and having him right behind her made her feel awkward.

“Show me more of this magic, ” he commanded.

After a moment’s thought, she pulled up an application and opened a game.

“It’s a game,” she explained, starting to work the keypad with her thumbs to keep the ball in play. “It’s called Pong. It’s old-school but heaps of fun.”

(Slave Girl, Alexa Moses, 2012)

Notice how the script is shorter and moves more quickly?

Screenwriters cut most of the overt ‘describing’ and ‘feeling’ a novelist uses to immerse a reader in the story. Since screenwriters work with directors, set-designers, actors, sound producers and such, they imply the ‘feeling’ and ‘describing’ to help everyone else do their jobs.

And even though scripts are shorter, it doesn’t mean less story takes place in them. In fact, an hour of commercial television chews through as much story as most novels. Put it this way, television and film eat story like teenage boys devour bread.

I’ve come to think the key difference between screenwriting and book writing is that prose and screen are distinct languages. Turning one into the other can sometimes feel as gruelling as translating chilly Finnish into the tonal desert language of the Navajo.

After all, books are told in words (even if those words evoke images and sounds). Screen stories are told in actual pictures and sound.

Because of that, books with a lots of action are better suited to the screen than novels heavy on internal emotion and thinking. For example, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are natural choices for film, while Rebecca Stead’s excellent Liar and Spy – slow-moving story, subtle themes – is going to be tougher to adapt.

Some books are so popular they’re turned into movies because producers and companies want to make money, even if the books are not suited to it. That’s when a screenwriter’s job gets daunting.

Trying to please readers besotted with a book, while translating a story that’s thin, or choppy, or has enough characters jammed in it to fill a football stadium – it’s enough to make a screenwriter lie awake fretting. To make it work onscreen, scriptwriters can cut characters who don’t move the story along, or add plots where the book sags.

Which is why screenwriter Steve Kloves cut Peeves the Poltergeist from most of the Harry Potter movies. In fact, I think Kloves should have cut a lot more from his scripts!

Does hearing that make you feel as enraged as Potter facing Voldemort?

Below are my pics for best and worst screen adaptations of books-to-screen. If you’d like to list your own best and worst, I’ll be lurking in the comments just like Peeves … although I promise I won’t toss tarantulas at you.

My top 5 adaptations for screen

The Wizard of Oz
The Hunger Games
Harry Potter films (although I believe they were far too faithful to the books)

My bottom 5 adaptations for screen

Cat in the Hat
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (2000 version directed by Ron Howard)
Stuart Little

About the Author

Alexa Moses graduated from a screenwriting degree at the Australian Film Television and Radio school in 2001 hankering to write novels and TV, but ended up a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald instead.

Over six years at the Herald, she worked as an arts and entertainment reporter, along the way stalking Nicole Kidman, writing about the tsunami she survived and panthering her way through the deportment course Princess Mary took before becoming royalty.

When she’s not writing children’s television, she’s writing fiction. Slave Girl, released through HarperCollins Australia, tells the story of a brattish 13-year-old stranded in New Kingdom Egypt - the next instalment is due in 2014.

When she was 12 years old, Alexa was obsessed with Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume, The Witches and The BFG by Roald Dahl, and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.
For more about Alexa go to


  1. I disagree Kloves should have kept Peeves in, Peeves and other things like Sir Cadogan was one of the many quirks of hogwarts same with other books. For example in Eragon(2006)they had A LOT of things missing and the movie had really bad reviews because because the director took the things out that made eragon the book that it is.

  2. My Favourite Movie Adaptions of books are:
    Spud (I haven't read the book, but I am going to; the movie was great!)
    The Help
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
    The Hobbit

    Least Favourite are:
    Where the Wild things are.
    Golden compass/ Northern Lights
    How to Train your Dragon
    Peter Pan
    Percy Jackson

  3. Hi Anonymous, I agree that filmmakers should never take out things that make a book what it is - appealing to the book's audience is the point of adaptation, after all. BUT sometimes it's hard to decide what the important stuff is! I think Peeves was not important, personally.

    And Nick, I forgot To Kill a Mockingbird, fantastic. The Help was good, too, but I haven't seen the Hobbit yet.

  4. Oh and Where the Wild Things Are, you're right, that was pretty poor ...

  5. My favourite book to film is The Princess Bride. The film, made in 1987, follows the same narrative style as the 1973 book by William Goldman and they both work.

    I haven't actually read the book but I have listened to the audio-book which is read by Rob Reiner - the director of the film. It is a neat tie.

  6. Peeves was a fairly useless character even in the books. Aside from comic relief (well handled in the films by Ron and the Weasley twins) he served no other purpose. Ghosts were still present in the films, and at no point was the perception of the magic of Hogwarts reduced by the exclusion of the excessively irritating Peeves. Because so much in a film can be conveyed in the background, there is no need for these extra characters and narrative place-holders.

    Although strange things WERE done with the HP series adaptations, (eg, HP receiving the Firebolt at the end of film 3 and the Burrow blowing up in film 6) most of the decisions were understandable within the context, though I can't say I'll ever be a huge fan of the films.

    My favourite adaptation recently is the Hunger Games, as the cinematic techniques used were far superior to the writing of the actual book and added a lot more to the story. Others:
    The Help
    The Princess Bride
    BBC's Pride and Prejudice (though admittedly being 6 hours long might exclude it from this list!)
    Lord of the Rings (I felt the movie adaptations were infinitely better than Tolkien's narrative - though one has to admit that Tolkien wasn't out to write a fiction novel for the enjoyment of the readers!)
    Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

    Twilight (takes the prize for both worst book AND worst films)
    Percy Jackson (I really don't know what they were trying to do with this!)
    I am number 4