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SPRING 2016  Written and Edited by Dr. Mike Rickard

Filmmakers face challenges when adapting a novel into a film.  The film To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how a director can use the medium of film to capture a novel's plot and theme while dealing with the challenges of how much of the plot to use, which characters to keep, which to cut out or reduce, what dialogue to include, and how to go about telling the novel's narrative in the cinematic format.

Rear Window : How Alfred Hitchcock's Intermediate Adaptation of "It Had to Be Murder" Took Film-Making and Adaptation to New Heights
If you've read a book and scratched your head over a film adaptation, you're not alone. Many people who read a book cannot believe how much a film adaptation differs from its source material. In this issue, we're going to look at three film adaptations; a short story, a play, and a novel.
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Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is a masterfully worked cinematic adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's short story "It Had to Be Murder" ("Murder"). Hitchcock keeps the short story's main character, plot, and themes while adding characters and subplots to lengthen it into a full-length feature film. Hitchcock uses his signature visual style to accomplish all of this, creating a film that has become regarded as a classic.

        Desmond and Hawkes discuss the approaches to adapting a literary work into a film. When a filmmaker adapts a literary work into a film, there are three options- 1) a close adaptation "when most of the narrative elements are kept in the film, few are dropped, and not many elements are added",  2) "a loose adaptation when most of the story elements in the literary text are dropped from the film and most elements in the film are substituted or added", and 3) an intermediate adaptations where "some elements of the story are kept in the film, other elements are dropped, and still more elements are added" (44) 

        A filmmaker who adapts a short story into a feature film has to deal with the challenge of how to expand a short story into a film. A short story typically ranges from 500 to 15,000 words (assuming a typical page contains 300 words, the longest short story will be 50 pages). A typical screenplay runs 120 pages while the average film runs 80 to 120 minutes. This often translates as one page of screenplay equaling one minute of screen time which means that even the longest short story will only translate into a fifty-minute film.

A filmmaker adapting a short story must develop a means of expanding a short story into a feature length film (or has the option of adapting it into a short film as done with
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"). Desmond and Hawkes discuss three methods of adaptation; 1) Concentration strategy, 2) Interweaving strategy, and 3) Point-of-departure strategy.  They also note that a filmmaker may utilize different elements of these strategies.


The Challenges of Adapting a Novel into a Film: Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird
Roman Polanski's Film Adaptation of Macbeth: Overcoming the Challenges of Adapting from the Stage to the Screen

Adapting a play into a feature film presents challenges for filmmakers including how to expand the spatial limitations of the stage, changing the acting style of stage actors into a cinema friendly one, and how to deal with the dialogue intensive nature of most plays.  A film adaptation is not without its advantages as a director is not limited by the spatial and temporal restrictions imposed on a play.  Roman Polanski's adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth is an excellent example of how a play can be adapted to the silver screen without losing any of its appeal as a play and gain something from the extra elements of film.

As we have discussed earlier, film's unique storytelling elements give it the ability to tell a story in a different way than text.  Film uses visuals and sound to tell a story.  Literature by comparison only has text to tell its story.  As mentioned in Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature, Robert Stam notes that film has the five added elements of "1. theatrical performance (live or animated), 2. words (spoken and written), 3. music, 4. sound effects (noise and silence) and 5. photographic images (moving and still)" (qtd. in Desmond and Hawkes 36).

A film adaptation of a drama brings in a dynamic not seen when a novel or short story is adapted into film.  First, it is important to note the similarities and differences between drama and fiction.  As Desmond and Hawkes point out, "Drama and fiction share many storytelling elements.  Both use plot, characters, settings, themes, and figurative language to evoke intellectual and emotional responses" (159).  They are not identical though.  Drama and fiction as Laura Perrine notes, "drama is meant to be performed while fiction is intended to be read" (qtd. 159).


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