Screen Studies - Breaking the Back of the Book; or, The Art of Adaptation
Writing in Pictures
Writing in Pictures

Joseph McBride

Joseph McBride is a film historian and associate professor in the Cinema department at San Francisco State University. His many books include Searching for John Ford, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Hawks on Hawks, Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, as well as the critical studies John Ford (1974, with Michael Wilmington) and Orson Welles. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Faber & Faber, 2012


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Book chapter

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Breaking the Back of the Book; or, The Art of Adaptation

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 77–94

There’s another terrible phrase in Hollywood, but one that is much more useful than “high concept.” This is what is known as “breaking the back of the book.” It’s the elegant way movie people have of explaining the delicate process of literary adaptation. It involves tearing the original work apart to see what makes it live and breathe and then finding a way to translate those qualities into cinematic terms. We’ll learn how to do that in the next few chapters as I guide you through the steps involved in transforming a literary work into a screenplay. You will find that breaking the back of the work is not as cruel as it sounds, but actually a kind, if not entirely gentle, way of respecting what makes a book or story a viable idea for a film.

Now why, you may well ask, are we starting the process of learning to write a screenplay by adapting someone else’s work? Why not start by writing an original?

That’s a question students sometimes raise at the beginning of my introductory screenwriting courses. They naturally tend to assume that they are learning the craft so they can tell their original stories on film. While personal storytelling may indeed be the highest goal of a screenwriter, I have found that plunging headlong into writing an original screenplay is not the best way to learn the craft. It’s hard enough mastering the basics of screenwriting without facing the simultaneous challenge of coming up with a usable, well-structured, original story.

When I started teaching basic screenwriting, I had my students work on original stories, but I quickly found that this was a mistake. Since they hadn’t learned the craft, many of their stories were weak and inadequate as film material. Most were hardly original and often were rehashes of TV sitcom formulas. I lost track of how many times I read scripts about three college roommates having problems living together (usually two of them suspected that the third was a serial killer). Also I too often found that when one student was discussing her story, the eyes of the others would glaze over with lack of interest. The solution I came up with was to have the entire class work on an adaptation of the same published short story.

Eventually, I give them a choice of two different stories to adapt, Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” a virtually wordless story of a troubled man (a World War I veteran) trying to get his head back together by fishing in the Michigan woods around 1919, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” a satirical black comedy about a senile, 104-year-old Confederate veteran approaching death in the company of his delusional granddaughter in the 1951 South. You can pick one of these to practice adapting a story to the screen or do your own adaptation of the story I will choose to adapt as a demonstration in this book (more on that later), but any other story that would make a viable short film will work as well.

By having my students at San Francisco State adapt one of two existing stories we all read, we can all go into depth on the challenges involved in cinematic adaptation, and everyone is interested, because the discussions are of direct benefit to their work. This idea has worked well in enabling students to learn the craft. It first came to me via Jean Renoir, who said in a 1961 interview with fellow director Jacques Rivette:

I know one way we can save films, and it’s extremely simple. It would be to have the producers from a place like Hollywood or Paris decide that one year everyone would do one subject.

Hollywood would decide, for example, that a certain Western would be made, that all the directors would make the same Western, and you would see the originality, the differences among the films. But instead of this, we pretend to be different by having different stories. In the end, though, we’re producing exact copies. People tell a different story, but with the same faces, the same makeup, the same vocal expressions, the same emotions, . . . it’s monotonous, don’t you think?

How much truer is that today, with all the numbing monotony of most American mainstream film making. When you watch trailers at the multiplex, it’s remarkable how much the films resemble one another. The prevalence of sequels and remakes is part of the reason for this lack of originality, but the inflation of production budgets and ticket prices has also contributed to a stifling conservatism in the choices of films to make and see. If your film costs $200 million to produce and another $100 million to market, the temptation to homogenize the material to make it appeal to the broadest possible audience (and the lowest common denominator) is hard to resist. And you want to assure viewers who pay fourteen dollars for a ticket that they will have the safely familiar experience they seem to demand. So we are all complicit, to some degree, in this disheartening situation. And yet the films that become breakthrough hits still tend to be the ones that offer the lure of a genuine originality of approach.

By showing students how to take an existing short story, one that is well suited for filming, and turn it into a screenplay, I find that they learn how to write a screenplay much more easily than if they were writing an original. If you focus on the craft itself while using an existing story as the basis for your first script, the process becomes much clearer to follow. This also gives you the benefit of collaborating with a great writer, an inestimable advantage in your first venture into screenwriting. Your silent collaborator will give you the basic idea and structure for you to develop cinematically.

And once you’ve written a carefully crafted screenplay of twenty to thirty pages adapted from a short story, a script that follows the well-established professional format, you should be ready to start tackling the challenge of writing an original feature-length script. You will have the tools you need to tell the stories that come from your heart in ways that will connect with audiences most effectively. And all the lessons you will learn here about adapting a literary work into a screenplay apply just as well to transforming your own original idea into a screenplay.

But if you write an adaptation, you may ask, where does the personal element come in? “Where’s my creativity?” First of all, it’s a false assumption that adaptations are not creative. Every adaptation not only requires great skill but also inevitably reflects the personality of the writer who does the adapting. Even if you are “merely” trying to write a “faithful” adaptation—a problematic expression, as we shall see—you will find that you usually have to change things around considerably and invent cinematic solutions to problems of dramatization in order to reconstruct the essence of the story on-screen. And you may not want to be “faithful” but simply to use the germ of the story or some of its elements as the springboard for letting your creative fancies run free. Adapting a story is a way of broadening your creative horizons. Although there is some truth in “Write what you know,” that adage can be too limiting for a writer with ambitions beyond her own experience. When the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison was asked what advice she had for a young writer, she replied, “She should not only write about what she knows but about what she doesn’t know. It extends the imagination.”

The way an author tells a story, the style, is inextricable from its content. Although it’s not necessary to write your outline, treatment, or screenplay in a style resembling the original author’s, the rhythmical ebbs and flows of the prose that inspired your adaptation, and the tone of the original, can be approximated cinematically in your imagery, the description of action, and the allocation of lengths to each scene and sequence. Of course, if you are changing a story radically in the adaptation process, you may want to come up with a much different style from the original author’s way of telling it. But if you are trying to preserve at least some of the spirit of the original and not simply taking the plot as a springboard for your own ideas, coming to terms with the style of the story is a crucial step in accessing its deepest meanings and turning them into dramatic and cinematic scenes. When you find cinematic equivalents for that literary style, you are transforming the story into a genuine film adaptation.

Owning the Idea

It’s fascinating to watch Renoir’s theory in action, to see how different people working with the same story in a screenwriting class will write scripts so utterly different in style, tone, and even theme. I encourage the aspiring screenwriters to let their imaginations loose on the stories and, if they wish, to traduce them to their hearts’ content—just as long as they are writing a genuine adaptation. They are free to change the characters, settings, and time periods—making a male protagonist a woman, turning a period tale into a contemporary story, moving the action from the backwoods of Michigan to the far reaches of outer space—if they keep the essence of the story, its “spine.”

“Spine” is a term borrowed from the theater; identifying it is one of the key tasks of outlining any dramatic story. As interesting as your characters are, as good as your ideas for individual scenes might be, you can’t sustain dramatic interest for the length of a feature film without a solid spine, a compelling structure holding it all together. The students writing an adaptation of a short story may change a guardedly hopeful ending into a bleakly tragic conclusion, if that better expresses their own worldview, or they may add elements of comedy or whimsy, and they may attack the thematic foundations of the original. But as long as the spine is recognizably there, it’s a legitimate screen adaptation. Even a seeming perversion of the original story, bending it out of shape with bold irreverence, may wind up being truer to the spirit of the original than a transcription that attempts to be slavishly faithful. In fact, it’s usually the slavishly unimaginative cinematic transcription that fails most abysmally to be true to whatever it was in the original story that made it seem worth adapting to the screen in the first place.

If you become a professional screenwriter, you may be handed a book and asked to come up with a way of adapting it. Many films, of course, have been and continue to be made from literary works. With studios looking more and more for presold properties, as was also the norm in Hollywood’s Golden Age, it’s easier for nervous executives to commit to a project if they know it has had some degree of success in another medium. But that has never stopped filmmakers from making sweeping changes to source material, and even if you work on an original rather than an adaptation, you will face many of the same questions in considering how to make the story work on-screen.

Renoir’s forty-minute adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1881 short story “Une partie de campagne,” filmed in 1936 as Partie de campagne/A Day in the Country, is perhaps the finest short film ever made. Renoir is not only one of the greatest of all directors, he is also one of the most masterful screenwriters. I show A Day in the Country to my screenwriting students after they read the story so they can see how Renoir brought his own attitudes about nature and love to Maupassant’s bitter sweet story about a naïve young woman’s romantic awakening. Renoir transformed Maupassant’s cynical view of sexuality and the bourgeoisie with his own more generous and affectionate vision of humanity and changed Maupassant’s jaundiced view of the French countryside into a rapturous ode to nature. The case could well be made that Renoir’s film of A Day in the Country surpasses even the master of the short story in thematic complexity and stylistic richness. This did not mean that Renoir set out to attack Maupassant’s story. On the contrary, he said,

“A Day in the Country” didn’t force anything on me. It only offered me an ideal framework in which to embroider. . . . The habit of using a story already invented by someone else frees you from the unimportant aspect. What’s important is the way you tell the story. If the story has already been invented by someone else, you’re free to give all your attention to what is truly important, that is, the details, the development of the characters and the situations.

So when you “break the back of the book,” you first figure out what the story is about (i.e., find the spine), and then you study and analyze how it works. Discovering how it is structured unlocks the secrets of the original. Outlining the original story is a helpful exercise because it makes you recognize each of its building blocks, note them down in succession, summarize them clearly and succinctly, and put them in your own words. In so doing, you will begin to see what you want to keep and what you want to change and get ideas for how your own version of the story might be structured. After the story outline, the next four logical steps in the process (which we will follow in the next few chapters) are the adaptation outline, the character biography, the treatment, and the step outline. At that point you are ready to start writing the script.

And once you start the process of putting a story in your own words, you begin to “own” the idea by virtue of internalizing it and turning it into your own stylistic expression.

Tequila With Ray Bradbury

You don’t own the story in a legal sense, of course. For the purposes of classroom exercises, it’s not a problem for students to adapt copyrighted stories. And if you credit the author of a story you are adapting, it is not plagiarism. You can do the same as an exercise while practicing how to write a screenplay. If a writer actually wants to film a script based on an existing work, however, he would have to buy or option the film rights.

Sometimes authors will even be so generous as to let a young writer adapt their work for free. When I met Ray Bradbury at the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award dinner honoring Orson Welles in 1975, we went out for tequilas afterward at a Mexican restaurant with Sam Peckinpah. A mariachi band, thrilled to see the director of The Wild Bunch, came over to serenade us, and Peckinpah, who was completely smashed, passed out with his head on the table. Bradbury seemed both sober and amused by his friend’s antics. During a break in the music, I told the writer that I loved one of his short stories (“The Utterly Perfect Murder”) and wanted to adapt it as a short film but didn’t have any money to buy the rights. “I have many short stories and very few lovers,” he said, and he told me I could film the story for nothing. Stunned by his kindness, but not having enough money to make a film, I never took him up on the offer. The story was later filmed, with a script by Bradbury himself, for his television series The Ray Bradbury Theater. But my experience shows you what a wonderful thing can happen if you approach a beloved author and do so with both sincerity and chutzpah.

Another way to collaborate with a literary figure is to find a story that’s in the public domain. That means the copyright has lapsed, and it is free for use in any way you want. Literary works published in the United States before January I, 1923, are in the public domain, but you always need to make sure of the copyright status of a work you want to adapt. The copyright period in the United States used to be twenty-eight years, with an option to renew for another twenty-eight years. But in recent times, Congress, heavily lobbied by the Walt Disney Company and other film studios, has kept extending the copyright period to such lengths that works published after 1922 rarely go into the public domain, and usually only when some rights holder fails to register or renew them (as happened for a time with the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life). This unfortunate situation protects corporations and writers’ heirs more than it does authors, and it limits the scope of literary material freely available for reprinting and adaptation. But an industrious, well-read screenwriter can still find a vast treasure-house of books and short stories from the past that can serve as promising subject matter for films. In his June 1976 column in American Film magazine (“Properties, Projects, Possibilities”), the novelist, screenwriter, and bibliophile Larry McMurtry helpfully provided a lengthy list of “books I can spot on my own shelves that I think would make good movies. With very few exceptions, most of them could be acquired cheaply, and made cheaply.” Look it up at the library and you will find enough stories to keep you busy for a lifetime.

If you use a public-domain story, however, you have to carefully guard your use of it so that someone else, reading your script version, might not get the bright idea to write his own script based on the same material. If that happens, you may well find yourself with a wasted effort. That’s why Stanley Kubrick fiercely refused to tell anyone the title of the nineteenth-century novel he was adapting until Barry Lyndon was into production. He worried that if someone knew earlier what he was doing, a quickie TV movie version of The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., William Makepeace Thackeray’s satire of a hapless Irish social climber, might appear before he could finish his film with his customarily painstaking methods of production. So don’t run around trumpeting your literary discovery of the utterly perfect film material. In fact, as Mel Brooks advised AFI students:

Writers! Do not discuss embryo ideas! When you have coffee, don’t talk to other people in the business about your ideas until they are fully written and registered. Then you can talk about them. You will not get help. You’ll get envy and you’ll get stealing. Also, not only will they get stolen, but you will let the vapor of creation escape when you tell it. Be a little schizophrenic, talk to yourself through the paper. It’s a good exercise, and sometimes it makes money for you.

Talk about your ideas only on a strict need-to-know basis. You should register your script, outline, or treatment with the Writers Guild of America, West, Registry. The guild’s registry service is available for nominal fees to both members and nonmembers, and material can be submitted by e-mail or regular mail or hand delivery (see The guild registers more than 55,000 pieces of literary material each year (also including plays, books, short stories, and other publications), which shows how competitive the market is. Registration is valid for five years, with renewal available for another five. You can also copyright your material (usually the final draft) with the Library of Congress or send a draft to yourself by registered mail and keep the letter or package unopened (this is called “poor man’s copyright”).

The point of Writers Guild registration is to establish that you wrote the material by a certain date; if the material becomes the subject of a legal or WGA action, a guild employee will produce the material as evidence to prove your claim. You should list the registration number on the title page of your script. Some producers will tell you that this seems paranoid, but that’s because it irritates them to be put on notice that the material is registered with the WGAW. Anything you can do to make them feel paranoid is all to the good. In addition, make sure there is a written record of any submission of the script or outline, including the date (an agent sends it or you send it by FedEx or fax, for example). Even that may not be enough to protect you. You can’t be too paranoid about idea theft (often called “intellectual property theft”), so we will revisit this subject in more detail later in the book.

Destroying The Original in Order to Save it

So now that you’re freed (at least temporarily) from what Jean Renoir calls “the unimportant aspect” of coming up with an original story, how free are you? Do you have any obligations to the original author?

When MGM made its 1935 film version of the classic Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, Frank Whitbeck of the studio’s advertising department was checking the credits with an executive to ensure that everyone’s billing was correct. As Max Wilk tells the story in his 1971 book, The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood, after they had run down the list of talent involved in the picture, Whitbeck said, “There’s a lot of credit there. But one name that should get credit doesn’t.” “Who’s that?” the executive demanded. “Probably the most important of all,” Whitbeck replied. “The guy who wrote the book, Dickens.” “He’s dead, isn’t he?” the executive asked. “Yes,” conceded Whitbeck. “Well,” said the executive, “screw him!”

Few authors, and usually not dead ones, retain legal control over their stories. Some raise hell about changes anyway by complaining to the film company and even to the media, but most are philosophical about the way the movies alter their material. “Let me tell you about writing for films,” Ernest Hemingway said during preproduction for the film version of his novel The Old Man and the Sea. “You finish your book. Now, you know where the California state line is? Well, you drive right up to that line, take your manuscript, and pitch it across—No, on second thought, don’t pitch it across. First, let them toss the money over. Then you throw it over, pick up the money, and get the hell out of there.”

But while there are few legal obligations preventing a screenwriter from freely adapting a book or other literary work, once you have the rights to do so, you (and the director) may balk at altering it too much for other reasons. Some beginning writers have excessive reverence for the original author and feel so inferior that they think, “Who am I to rewrite Flannery O’Connor?” That is understandable, but try to banish such feelings. You wouldn’t be trying to work in show business if you didn’t have enough ego to think your contribution is worth making. Relatively obscure authors and literary works present the screenwriter with fewer anxieties and a greater sense of liberty. But if the work is so famous and so beloved that changing it would seem blasphemous to its admirers, the filmmakers have to think carefully about a possible backlash.

In his April 2009 talk at San Francisco State University, Francis Ford Coppola recalled his initial reaction when he was offered a bestselling novel to adapt early in his career: “I didn’t like the book. I was shocked when I read this book. It was like an Irving Wallace, Danielle Steel type of book. It was The Godfather . . . which at first I hated the idea of doing.” Coppola wasn’t overly fond of the scene in Mario Puzo’s novel of a studio chief waking to find a horse’s head in his bed, but he felt he couldn’t not include that notorious incident in the film he made three years after the book was first published. Sometimes you simply must give the audience what it wants. It’s no accident that the horse’s head became one of the best-remembered images in the movie. And yet Coppola felt no hesitation in discarding the tawdriest section of Puzo’s novel, the part about Lucy Mancini’s vagina-tightening operation, an embarrassing lapse into commercial pandering that the author should have had the sense to cut. In writing the screenplay with Puzo, Coppola said, “I just cut out the story of the woman who has the gynecological operation, which really was half the book [Coppola exaggerates for humorous effect]. It had this woman with this problem, and a plastic surgeon fixes it, and then [her regular doctor] becomes her lover. And also in the book it was the story of this man who had three sons and he was like a king, and I saw it as a kind of classical story, so I went that way.” Despite the flaws of the novel, Coppola was overly harsh in his initial evaluation of the source material. Although the film deepens every aspect of the novel, the book is actually a riveting narrative filled with rich characterizations, a compelling family story, and a wealth of inside lore about the Mafia subculture.

What makes many novels so difficult to adapt are their scope and length. A screenwriter usually has to discard some of the subplots and minor characters and compress action throughout the story to make it fit the limitations of filming. Even though Coppola was granted an unusually long running time for the first Godfather film, he still had to pare down the novel’s sprawling narrative to concentrate on its spine about destructive family loyalty. In so doing, he elevated the level of storytelling to epic dimensions, discarding irrelevancies and cheapness to focus on this mob family as a twisted metaphor for the American immigrant experience and their quest for a seat at the table of social power.

Paradoxically, violating the letter of the original work is often the only way to preserve its spirit. You are working in a different medium, after all, and what works for a novel may not work well for a film. Following the structure of the original as closely as possible, and trying to touch on all its dramatic highlights, may well produce a lifeless film.

William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men (based on the nonfiction book about Watergate by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) is a model of how to adapt a book to the screen. In Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman writes:

Here is one of the main rules of adaptation: you cannot be literally faithful to the source material.

Here’s another that critics never get: you should not be literally faithful to the source material. It is in a different form, a form that does not have the camera.

Here is the most important rule of adaptation: you must be totally faithful to the intention of the source material.

In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book.

Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book. What we were faithful to was their story of a terrible hinge in American history. In other words, we didn’t Hollywood-it-up.

You must feel free to reimagine the story in cinematic terms. You often have to invent new scenes and dialogue and characters as well as reshape the narrative to “create a much more rigorous structure,” as Renoir advised screenwriters to do. The limitations of time come into play in film making in a way that they don’t in a novel, as well as the need for a story line focused more narrowly on dramatic situations than on the kind of free-flowing observations on life, lavish depictions of settings, and ruminations on ideas that distinguish many major novels. When I interviewed Anthony Minghella, the writer-director of The English Patient, he explained some of the challenges he faced in taking the story from one medium to another (Minghella, who died in 2008, received an Oscar as best director and was nominated for his adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel):

The book can, in a single page, change voice and location and period a dozen times. You might have a chapter which is entirely about the nature of winds in the Sahara, with no reference to any particular character. The novel is a bit like a notebook, a book of ideas and thoughts and images. Parading through every page are these incredible images which arrest you, but storytelling in film is very significant, and Michael’s book is anti-narrative and anti-psychology. The burden for the film was to find a story and a through-line that could collect and lasso all these images, or as many as I could collect, and make it into a film that felt coherent and had some psychological density.

The limitations of the cinematic medium—the properties that make movies what they are and what they aren’t—are not necessarily a burden. “Art consists of limitation,” G. K. Chesterton observed. “The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” Sometimes those limitations can inspire you with dramatic and philosophical ideas.

Renoir’s 1937 classic La grande illusion/Grand Illusion, which he wrote with Charles Spaak, is confined largely within the four walls of a German military prison during World War I. Conventional wisdom would consider such a claustrophobic situation “uncinematic.” And yet Renoir noted that the film benefited greatly from such confinement, because “the setup is an ideal one for some discussions.” In prison, as Renoir pointed out, what do prisoners mostly think about and talk about? How to escape. So that basic fact gave him an almost endless series of ideas for situations revolving around confinement and escape as metaphors for larger ideas, such as “the problem of nations, and . . . the racist problem, the problem of how people from different religions meet, how they can understand each other, how they cannot understand each other for some other reasons.” Characters can discuss ideas more freely and naturally if the narrative line is that simple and strong: “For instance, I have a scene between [Marcel] Dalio and [Jean] Gabin when they are preparing a rope to escape. They talk, frankly, about racists. It seems that this doesn’t belong to the picture, but it does. It works. I had entire scenes which were done only to express this question of origin, nation, races. . . . I could put fifty situations like that into the shell of my picture. You have to break the shell to find what you are filling it with.”

That’s another way of saying “breaking the back of the book.” It is only by testing, bending, and, yes, breaking the spine of the story that you can find out where it is strongest and how to reassemble it into a playable drama. Rigorously analyzing the structure to decide what works and what doesn’t, and ruthlessly discarding scenes that don’t advance the story line, is the basic task of adaptation. Advancing the story line doesn’t necessarily mean advancing the plot. Character scenes, moments of atmosphere, and apparent digressions (such as the kinds of discussions of ideas that Renoir cherishes) can and should move the narrative along with equal vivacity and are just as important, if not more so, than the moments when the plot mechanics are grinding. Hopefully you can disguise the mechanics and make it all seem to flow organically.

To Build a Screenplay

Let’s start our adaptation process now by writing an outline of a story. I will show how it’s done by outlining Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” the story I first adapted when I was teaching myself to write screenplays (in 1967, at the age of nineteen). By approaching the story anew for this book and writing my own fresh adaptation of London with the benefit of long experience, I’ll show you some good (and some not-so-good) ways to go about outlining and developing possible film material. Then we’ll critique my new story outline and discuss what works for filming in London’s tale, what presents problems, and how we need to change the story to make it come alive in cinematic terms. And then we will work through the rest of the adaptation process, following the standard procedures in the professional world for developing a story into a screenplay.

Along the way, I will offer what are known in the film business as “notes” on my own script—criticisms and suggestions for improvement. For professional screenwriters, this part of the process is aptly described as “development hell.” Screenwriter Amy Holden Jones, whose credits include Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal, told Karl Iglesias in his helpful book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Inside Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers, “Screenwriting is a terrible way to make a living and I always try to talk anyone out of it. Until you sit in a story meeting with the studio executives with no particular ability or actors who haven’t even graduated from high school telling you exactly how to change your script, you haven’t experienced what it’s really like to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.”

I hope I won’t be as crassly interfering and idiotic with my notes on my own script as studio executives often are, and I will try to approach the task in a spirit of constructive self-criticism. With my students, rather than trying to rewrite their scripts the way I would write them, I always try to understand what they are trying to say with their story and then try to help draw it out of them. My autocritique in these pages may seem a little schizophrenic, but that should be part of the fun.

While I am demonstrating how script development works by providing concrete examples based on “To Build a Fire,” I suggest that you start your own development process. Choose a story to adapt yourself for this exercise. You can pick any story you like, whether it’s “To Build a Fire,” one of the stories I use in my screenwriting classes, or another of your own choosing. If the story you adapt is still under copyright and you don’t own the film rights, this exercise is just for your own benefit. The Jack London story, on the other hand, is in the public domain, so anybody can adapt it.

We’ll discuss the London story in detail as we go through the development process together. Since we will be writing for the half-hour storytelling format, this would mean a script of between twenty and twenty-five pages. The traditional reason that a short film shouldn’t run longer than half an hour is that much short-film storytelling for mass audiences is usually in the form of episodic television segments, which now tend to run for thirty minutes less eight or more minutes of commercials; though our hypothetical film adaptations aren’t necessarily designed for television, that length parameter seems about right for the typical short-story subject matter. Of course, there are other, in some ways more desirable, outlets for short films today, including film festivals, which are the best venues for the uninterrupted short-film experience, and, increasingly, Internet sites that showcase films. And sometimes PBS and other TV channels will show uncut short films as filler between regular programming. Short films can be of various lengths, but if a “short” film begins to approach the one-hour mark, it is becoming more like a mini-feature.

“To Build a Fire” is so visceral in its dramatic impact, so vivid and precise in its physical detailing that this story of a man gradually losing his life-or-death struggle against nature almost reads like a screen treatment. Those qualities, and the elemental simplicity of the narrative, make it particularly useful to help demonstrate how to transform an existing story into a screenplay. London’s tale has been filmed at least three times. The 1969 BBC TV adaptation that’s available on DVD uses extensive narration (delivered by Orson Welles), but my new version, like the one I wrote when I was starting out, will tell the story without resorting to that distancing device. Perhaps you’ll disagree with my approach to adapting “To Build a Fire” for this book and will want to go off in another direction with your adaptation of the story.

The methodical stages that will precede the writing of your script will make it much easier to begin writing the script when the time comes. The worst anxiety for any writer—facing the blank page or computer screen—will be alleviated because you will have done so much careful thinking and planning before you start writing the first scene, and so the writing will go faster.

The exercise of adapting a story will teach you how to “break the back of the book” and get the story ready for possible filming. Whether you want to follow the structure of the original you have chosen fairly closely or transform it more freely, these steps will enable you to make the story an expression of your own creative ideas. As I promised in the beginning, by the end of the process, if you follow it conscientiously and use my script adaptation of “To Build a Fire” as your model, you should be writing a professional-quality screenplay or at least be well on the way to doing so. You can find London’s story in appendix B in this book; you may find it helpful to read it at this point.