How Does a Book Get Adapted for TV or Film?

A Roundtable Conversation with Laura Van Den Berg, Daniel Torday, Melissa Scholes Young, and Stephanie Beard

How many times have you discovered a favorite movie or TV series, only to realize it’s based on a book? As streaming services demand more and more stories to satisfy our viewing needs, they are relying more than ever on the publishing industry to provide them. You know, books. But what goes into the long process of turning a novel into a season of television?

In this virtual roundtable (conducted via email and asynchronously, with each participant responding to the same set of five questions), we took a few moments to speak with three authors and one editor involved in book-to-film adaptations. Acclaimed writers Laura Van Den Berg, Daniel Torday, Melissa Scholes Young, and Keylight Publishing (a Turner Publishing prestige imprint) editor Stephanie Beard were kind enough to reveal key details of the option and adaptation journeys for their own and others’ books.

Illuminating a process that for many, is mysterious, taking us by surprise with those thrilling Deadline or Variety announcements, often with beautiful photos of “the talent” (for those dailies, always the actors, never the writers, sadly enough)—we draw upon their combined experience to offer practical advice and insights into a process that has enriched TV and film media, sating the desire for content, and that, if nothing else, reminds us that the magic starts with a story, and a writer.

–Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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Chaya Bhuvaneswar: What are some of the features of books that lend themselves to TV and film adaptations? Are there features of narrative, style or structure that seem better suited to TV series vs. films?

Daniel Torday: This is such a hard one, because I think there are kind of two, almost opposite, answers. The first is that surely there’s a kind of novel that feels filmic, cinematic: one that proceeds through very visual scenes, that’s already present and ready to transfer. Weirdly one of my favorite adaptations, Larry McMurtry’s screenplay of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mtn,” functions that way. There’s lots of dialogue transferred directly from the story, and even stage directions borrow a good deal of the beautiful lush imagistic language from the book, lifted verbatim.

How many times have you discovered a favorite movie or TV series, only to realize it’s based on a book?

But there’s another kind, one that really departs from the original, and though I’ve been hired to write the screenplay adaptation of my own novel Boomer1, I think it’s moving more in that direction—one in which the source material is kind of just that, source material, and the screenwriter and director just take it and run with it. There’s a better chance of disappointing an audience that was in love with the novel in this case, but I think can somehow be more exciting, allowing a new piece of art to get made from more of an inspiration than anything.

Laura Van Den Berg: I might be biased, but a lot of my favorite adaptations are from short stories. For example, I love the way Arrival embodies, for me, the essence of Ted Chiang’s marvelous story “Story of Your Life” (from Stories Of Your Life And Others) even as the structure is quite different from the story. Perhaps this is because there is enough “air” in a short story for a screenwriter to expand the world in interesting ways? For me, the most compelling adaptations honor the core of a work—and the capture the mood and aesthetics—while also reimaging the story for a radically different medium.

Stephanie Beard: In my opinion, it is all about the characters when it comes to finding books that lend themselves to adaptation. If your characters cannot drive the story, then what are we going to watch on screen? Unique new worlds, unexplored settings and new perspectives are vital in being able to sell a project, but without the underlying character development, there is nothing that will translate to a visual medium. When it comes to style, genre and presentation we have seen many different types of narratives be successful in different mediums and it’s typically pretty obvious based on the size and scope of the “world” and…the ending whether or not it is a project best suited for tv vs. film.

Melissa Scholes Young: When a story is authentic on the page it translates well to screen. I write about working-class populations which often include a conversation about the aestheticization of poverty. “Poor” is often portrayed as “other” which contributes to its invisibility and categorization as a failure. To create a complete and true aesthetic requires consideration of visual style and sound/image relationship of the community and listening to distinct voices within. The adaptations that I think are thoughtful, such as Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, have mostly been in film rather than series. Rural identities intersect with class, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, and other identities, of course. How they are troubled on the screen often depends on who has the power to tell the story.

CB: At what point in the writing or publication process can authors productively engage the question: “How can I get my book optioned for TV and film”?

MSY: I’ve never started a writing project thinking about the screen. I’m a storyteller and a novelist so I do my work on the page. The screen adaptation is an entirely different art. The screenwriters for The Hive share my vision, and I’ve been grateful they have Midwestern or rural backgrounds. They’re tuned in to family sagas and how the political divide in our country is playing out at our dinner tables. Stephanie, my editor, does too, and her enthusiasm for The Hive, shared with Carey Nelson Burch’s expertise, made the deal with Sony possible.

LVB: In my case, I did not generate the opportunities for optioning, or at least not in a direct way.

My film agents, Holly Frederick and Madeline Tavis at Curtis Brown, have been the main people who have worked to connect my work to writers/producers/directors. When I was first talking with literary agents, it did not even occur to me to ask about the film/tv departments at their agencies, as I never imagined that anyone would be interested in adapting my work. But I think it’s a good idea to ask about dramatic rights from the get-go! For writers who are at the stage where they’re talking with agents about representation consider asking about their film/tv departments—How do the dramatic rights agents typically work with authors? What are some of their recent projects? If you’re already working with an agent, and you haven’t had a lot of contact with the dramatic rights agents there, then it might not hurt to drop them a note and schedule a time to talk—especially if you have specific goals around adaptations and there are specific types of feedback/support that you’re looking for.

I’m a storyteller and a novelist so I do my work on the page. The screen adaptation is an entirely different art.

DT: Like with most writing questions, I feel like there are as many answers to this question are there are writers. Often when a book goes out on submission, some attention will come from the film world. I’ve been lucky in that my agent, Brettne Bloom at The Book Group, has film agents she works with, and so she set me up with Dana Spector at CAA, who’s just a pleasure to work with, and one of the best. Book-to-Film agents have seasons when they go out with material on submission just like literary agents, as I understand it. But you never know how it’ll all play out. My first novel, much of which is set in a Lancaster bomber during the Blitz over London in WWII, and much of which is in Prague, London, across Europe, would have to be a huge production, so we’ve had lots of interest over the years, but. My last book is quieter in a lot of ways, with three narrators, and I think maybe a little more natural a fit.

SB: . The phrase we hear over and over again is “IP is King” (or Queen), so having a book that has been published or is being published helps a lot in finding a licensing opportunity. We’ve optioned books as soon as 30 minutes after signing the publishing agreement and as long after as 30 years after the book was published—it’s really about what the pitch is, why it’s relevant now, and connecting with the right partners. Lots of magic when it comes to timing, but it’s never too soon or too late to start coming up with your plan for putting a team together to start pitching.

CB: What are some key steps authors can take to engage this question of ‘how can my book be adapted ‘? What are some pitfalls?

DT: I’m deep in development on my first project of this kind, and I think the biggest thing I’m learning is just how different it is from quietly writing prose, alone. I’m well more than a year past having a screenplay the producers I’m working with love—and we’ve been lucky to get a director attached. But working with her has been a whole new education, much of which is just learning to collaborate. When I’m working on a novel, I’ll be years into it before anyone sees a word, and I can have my little metaphorical kitchen all set up, every tile exactly in place, dishes all piled up and neat. With a screenplay each round includes input from director, producers, with luck down the road actors—and sometimes new language, new scenes need to be turned around on a dime. So a whole slew of people cooking in my kitchen, which takes some getting used to. It also takes a different kind of energy.

I’ll also say that some of my favorite writers have gone to LA to work in writers’ rooms on TV series, and I think that can be a great education—one in which you can be a bit more of a fly on the wall day-to-day. A published novelist or story writer gets looked at quite fondly and is granted serious respect (imagine that!) out there. With a teaching job and two kids and a home on the East Coast I haven’t been in a position to do it myself, but it sure sounds fun.

SB: My advice would be to get the best team on your side because getting a film or tv show made is a dream that very few authors will actually realize. Don’t assume that it is going to happen, get creative in thinking about who and how your project is going to be pitched and trust the professionals who are working on your behalf. The best thing that an author can do is write an amazing book, have realistic expectations and be smart about who is pitching your book because it takes not only time…but also a little magic. Oh, and a healthy understanding of what’s being made and who is making your favorite shows and movies is invaluable, so my most basic advice is to watch a lot of films and television.

I’ll also say that some of my favorite writers have gone to LA to work in writers’ rooms on TV series, and I think that can be a great education.

CB: What are some key steps authors can take to engage this question of ‘how can my book be adapted ‘? What are some pitfalls?

MSY: I’m writing the screenplay for my first novel, Flood, and one of the things I’m learning is about adapting structure. How the story of Tom and Huck’s famous friendship as female unfolds on the page in the novel is completely inverted for the screen, but much of the dialogue translates. Basically, the screenplay begins at the end of the book and it’s all about the cinematic momentum of flood waters and the struggle to wrestle it for the land’s survival. There’s only so many ways to describe a flood on a page but these scenes translate visually. The screenplay writing is much quicker than the novel writing because I’m familiar with the story and am knee deep in sorting order, but there will be plenty of surprises along the way too. I suspect one of the pitfalls is wanting to stick too close to the book and worrying how readers will adjust. An adaptation that veered from the book but was successful in a different direction was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The series and the book are both brilliant, but they are different pieces of art.

CB: Are there industry events, conferences, websites or books that can be helpful, or that you found helpful, to learn more about how authors can get their books adapted for TV and/or film?

DT: I tend to be a book nerd and learn either by inspiration or experience, and I love love love Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the only book I know with two subtitles set off by separate colons. I’m just not the kind of writer who can learn from a primer, and so when people told me to read Save The Cat, I was like… but what if I don’t want to save the cat. But Martin’s book is a long narrative history of how the showrunners of those great shows got them made, and something about it made it feel doable to me. I read about Vince Gilligan’s writer’s room, and I was like, Whoa, that basically sounds like a workshop, but you get paid to do it. (Then again, I’d never want to be within 3,000 miles of a David Chase writer’s room. I’m not tough enough).

I also was VERY lucky that because I teach, when I got hired to write my first screenplay, I just went ahead and taught a screenwriting class here at Bryn Mawr. I love learning along w/ my students, and in this case I was really, really, really learning! I just threw together a bunch of my favorite adaptations—Arrival and Dr. Strangelove and If Beale Street Could Talk and The Godfather and others, and we read the books and the screenplays. Drew’s Scriptorama, the website, is an amazing resource for screenplays. And I found The Godfather Notebook—all of Coppola’s notebooks, facsimile reproduced in a book—a total education. Coppola refused to go to production with any scene in the movie if he couldn’t, in a single word, say what the scene was about. That’s some good advice for writing anything.

MSY: When revising, I design plot maps using Save The Cat script structure. It’s a useful tool for pacing, character motivation, and tension. For The Hive, I mapped after three full drafts and for each point of view character. So, I actually have this 20 page document that’s about the writing process of the book. It may not make sense to anyone but me, but the process reveals plot pitfalls and places in the story where revision/cutting is necessary. It helps with the thinking part of writing. I’ve done this for both my novels and I teach it in my creative writing classes. The tools of screenwriting are incredibly productive for novels because it reminds us that it’s all and always about the story.

My advice would be to get the best team on your side because getting a film or tv show made is a dream that very few authors will actually realize.

LVB: I think it can be helpful for the writer to think about the extent to which you want to be involved in an adaptation process. For some writers adapting one’s own work is an exciting new challenge (plus these opportunities can sometimes be lucrative!). Other writers might be less interested in adapting their own stuff, preferring instead to move onto other projects. Know yourself and honor where your heart is, even (especially?) if it feels out-of-step with what a lot of other people are doing. It can also be helpful to study what makes for a compelling adaptation and why—What do you value in an adaptation? What are some models, some guiding lights, that you’re looking towards? What feels uniquely possible, uniquely available, through the creative mediums of film and TV? In terms of pitfalls, I personally can’t imagine writing anything with adaptation opportunities at the front of my mind—that would shut me down creatively in a hurry.

SB: Keylight is very proactive in finding new ways to bring books onto our list—in addition to receiving well over 100 new submissions a day, I also attend the Nashville Film Festival and am a visiting executive at Nashville’s Film Com. Most cities have something like this and it’s a great way to meet industry executives on the film and tv side who are looking for pitches (if you have one, which not every author does). Other than that, you can trust that there’s someone from a publishing house at most book festivals and conferences- assuming those will be a fact of life again at some point in the future!

CB: What are your very favorite film or TV adaptations of specific books and why? If you’re involved now in writing for film or TV, what are some tools of the craft (of adaptation for screenplay) that you have found useful?

DT: Well, nothing will ever beat The Godfather for me. I love Ang Lee’s view of Rick Moody’s The Icestorm and have recently really fallen for John Ford’s Grapes Of Wrath. More recently I was also just bowled over by Nomadland. As far as craft stuff goes, the biggest distinction I’ve found is how different adaptations by a screenwriter for a director are from an adaptation by a director/screenwriter, writing for themselves. Like the way Barry Jenkins writes for himself, in the Baldwin adaptation, is just revelatory, adding in all the voiceover to guide us through. Feels so unique. And looking at Coppola on the page, he’s making notes for himself on all the minutae—lens size, shot angles, very specific. Where the main advice one gets and gives as a pure writer- writing for a director—is not to get too specific on shots. Just get the voices on the page, figure out your three acts, and get those voices and structure down. I’ve found it super fun. But it feels a lot more like solving a Rubik’s Cube, or making an IKEA manual, than like writing a novel. In a good way, if that makes sense.

MSY: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell stands out for me; it’s a movie I watch again and again and learn something new from every time. I admired Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and most recently, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. Both have stunning cinematography. The Wire by David Simon is brilliant TV at its best; Omar Little may be one of the most likeable, colorful villains ever written. I’m drawn to grit, darkness, and truth. I’m hoping Heartland by Sarah Smarsh makes it to the screen.

SB: Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables is the pinnacle of book to screen perfection, for me. In the past year, I have enjoyed HBO Max’s Made for Love, Netflix’s Locke & Key and You. These were all books that had such memorable and visual characters and the productions met the high bar set by fantastic writing.

LVB: I mentioned Arrival above and I am loving Made for Love right now, adapted from Alissa Nutting’s novel; several fiction writers worked on this series, including Alissa and Dean Bakopoulos. There is so much exciting stuff happening in TV right now!

Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and 2019 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction Prize finalist for White Dancing Elephants, which appeared on over 20 best of lists in 2018. Her work has appeared in Salon, Longreads, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and her fiction was recently selected for inclusion in Best Small Fictions. She is at work on a novel and memoir.





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