I’d never be so presumptuous as actually to tell people how to adapt a novel, but I was asked by a student for some advice today and so I wrote this. It’s in the form of rules, but it’s really just what I do. I’ve adapted The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, Dead Souls by Nikolaj Gogol, and Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland.
- Choose a novel you love. This should be obvious but sometimes I’ve watched adaptations where I get no sense of personal investment from the adapter. Choose a book that excites you. I’ve always chosen books with great set piece moments that I was excited by and looked forward to finding ways of conveying that excitement in the adaptation.
- Don’t choose a novel you revere. If you are in awe of the novel, you may find it hard to adapt. Adaptation means tearing the book apart, cutting stuff, changing it, eliminating or merging characters, writing new things, bypassing your favourite bits. If you revere the novel you won’t want to do these things - and ultimately you won’t serving the novel.
- Be faithful to the novel. People will go to see or listen to your adaptation because they like the book more than because they like you. They will come with their own expectations, their favourite bits. You need to be secure and comfortable with what the novel itself is doing so that you can serve the audience. This doesn’t mean you have to satisfy them - you should have your own particular take on what the novel is doing which they might disagree with. But if they sense you haven’t got a clue what the novel’s about, they can turn nasty.
- Be faithful to your form. Novels are not plays. Novels have many more words; they are designed to be read over an extended period, at the reader’s own convenience; the reader can flick back, flick forward, skip bits, re-read things, turn over the page, write notes in the margin, interpolate the reading of other books, Google references, chat with friends about it and in a million otherwise interpose their life between the lines of the book. A play unfolds in an unbroken - or only briefly broken - period of time; the audience is likely to experience their attendance to the play as a break in their life. You have to turn one sort of experience into another experience. And that might mean doing very violent things to the novel. That’s alright, that’s good, that’s the job you were sent here to do.
- Don’t read the book. Do read the book obviously; specifically to check that you really want to adapt it. Then - if you have the time - don’t read it for a year. (I’ve done three adaptations for BBC Radio and usually have an eighteen-month lead-in to recording so I have this luxury. If you don’t have this luxury, carve out as long a period without reading it as possible.) Then, don’t touch the book; instead sit and type out the plot as you remember it. I find that my memory does a remarkable sifting job; it ignores unnecessary byways to the story; it ties up loose ends; it helpfully conflates characters and events; it always remembers the good bits; and, when the plot doesn’t make sense, it remembers the links or invents good ones. Your memory is already doing the work of adaptation for you. The start roughing out your structure, the shape of the overall design. And only then, re-read the book. And even then, do it at extraordinary speed, skimming where necessary, lingering on your favourite bits, not allowing the detail to bog you down.
- Don’t have the book beside you as you adapt. Put it in another room; that way, you’ll only consult it when you absolutely have to, because you won’t want to get up and interrupt the flow of writing to look at it. Trust, again, to your memory. When you know you want to use an exact wording, make a note in the text to pop it in later. Keep pushing forward.
- Help the book out. No book is perfect. If there are eggy moments, make them better. If you think of a better joke than the author, stick it in. If you can see a simpler plot solution, do it. In particular, remember that the novelist is a novelist because she or he can write novels; they don’t necessarily know the first thing about writing plays. You’re the expert in this particular room.
You love the book (No. 1) but you don’t revere it (No. 2); you want to serve it (No. 3) but you won’t serve it if it’s still a novel and not a play (No. 4); you need a bit of creative amnesia (No. 5) and creative laziness (No. 6) if you’re going to be generous to the book you want other people to enjoy (No. 7).
When I read The Midwich Cuckoos for the first time I was immediately excited because it’s a great idea, thrilling story, and also I had a particular take on it, a particular interpretation: I felt I was reading it better than it had been read before. I also noted that it had flaws dramatically - Wyndham’s dialogue is fine on the page, but you couldn’t say it out loud. The ending was weirdly abrupt but interestingly so in a novel; less so in a play. Dead Souls I loved because of the humour. I read a rather stiff translation and yet thought I glimpsed a very (for want of a better word) pythonesque strain to the humour which I knew I could bring out. Fortunately, the second volume is incomplete so I had to do some major imaginative reconstruction, reordering and reconceptualising. Girlfriend in a Coma is probably the nearest I got to adapting a book I revered; when I read it in 2000, I just thought it was the most important extraordinary book I’d ever read. For that reason, while I am very proud with the adaptation, I think I was inhibited from really reimagining the book the way I might have done. In fact, I think it’s at its best when I depart from the original.