Screen Adaptation: Theory and Practice

Dr Daniel Rosenthal

Screen Adaptation

When you adapt a book, you’re not making another book – you’re making a movie, which operates very, very differently. Anyone who expects a movie to be faithful to a book is not really giving the proper respect to cinematic form and literary form.” – ALEXANDER PAYNE, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Sideways (2004), based on the novel by Rex Pickett.

Every year, dozens of feature films are made from previously published sources. These films may have begun life as novels (Gone Girl, Slumdog Millionaire), short stories (Brokeback Mountain45 Years), plays or musicals (Frost/Nixon, Into the Woods), biographies (Steve Jobs) or other non-fiction volumes (The Social Network, The Big Short), graphic novels (Watchmen), newspaper articles (Deepwater Horizon) – even theme-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean).

If you are fascinated by the challenge of guiding a story from page or stage to screen, this course will enable you to explore and practice the craft of adaptation. We will examine acclaimed screen versions of classic and contemporary works of prose fiction and drama. In parallel, as your principal assignment, you will adapt a short story of your choice into a screenplay.

Objectives of the Course and Teaching Methodology: Through lectures, group exercises and workshops, students will examine the contrasting techniques and effects of prose fiction, stage drama and screenwriting, and apply this theory to writing a screenplay based on a short story.

This course is aimed principally at: Students of English Literature, Film, Media, Theatre and Creative Writing.

 Pre-requisite: A strong interest in film, prose fiction and drama.

 Transferable skills: Close reading and comparative analysis; English language composition and communication; creative writing; problem-solving; organization and time management.

 Pre-Arrival Reading and Viewing

The following titles should be read before the course begins, and you should also watch as many of the relevant film adaptations as possible (DVD copies will also be available for viewing in the Pembroke Library).

  • Hardy, Thomas – Jude The Obscure / Jude (1996) Dir. Michael Winterbottom
  • Heller, Zoë – Notes on a Scandal / Notes on a Scandal (2006) Dir. Richard Eyre
  • Joyce, James – “The Dead” / The Dead (1987) Dir. John Huston
  • Proulx, Annie – “Brokeback Mountain” / Brokeback Mountain (2005) Dir. Ang Lee
  • Shakespeare, William – Hamlet and Othello [View course syllabus for prescribed films]
  • Marber, Patrick – Closer / Closer (2004) Dir. Mike Nichols

The following books are also recommended:

  • Grierson, Tim – FilmCraft: Screenwriting (Ilex, 2013)
  • McGrath, Declan and MacDermott, Felim – Screencraft: Screenwriting (Rotovision, 2003)
  • Conroy Scott, Kevin – Screenwriters’ Masterclass (Faber, 2005)
  • Owen, Alistair – Story and Character (Bloomsbury, 2003)
  • Portnoy, Kenneth – Screen Adaptation: A Scriptwriting Handbook (Focal Press, 1991; second edition, Routledge, 1998)


Short Film Screenplay: 80% of final grade

i) Treatment

ii) First Draft

iii) Revised Draft

iv) Final Draft

Max. 20 pages of standard screenplay format, composed in four stages:

Participation: 20% of final grade

This entails:

  • prompt arrival and full attendance at all lectures, workshops and one weekday evening guest lecture (late arrival and absences, except for ill health, will be penalized)
  • delivery of your Screenplay’s Treatment, First Draft, Revised Draft and Final Draft to stipulated lengths and deadlines
  • the third, and most important, element of Participation is the feedback each student must provide on the rest of their workshop group’s Treatment and First and Revised Drafts, in written, bullet-point form (submitted by email), and orally in Workshops 3-8. Those who fail to play a full part in workshops will see a consequent drop in the Participation element of their final grade.

Student Contact Time

Lectures: 12 x 75 minutes (total 15 hours)

Workshops: 8 x 75 minutes (total 10 hours)

Lecture List
(see syllabus for detailed content)
Lecture 1: General Introduction to Screen Adaptation
Lectures 2 & 3: Adapting Classic Prose Fiction: Jude and The Dead
Lecture 4: Terminology and Visualization
Lectures 5 & 6: Sight-Reading for the Screen
Lectures 7 & 8: Reportage
Lecture 9: Adapting Contemporary Prose Fiction: Brokeback Mountain and Notes on a Scandal
Lectures 10 & 11: Stage-to-Screen 1 – Shakespeare on Film
Lecture 12: Stage-to-Screen 2 – Closer
Guest Lecture: William Ivory on Screen Adaptation

Workshop List
Workshops 1 & 2 – Story Choice & Problem-Solving
Workshops 3 & 4 – Feedback discussion on students’ Treatments.
Workshops 5 & 6 – Feedback discussion on students’ First Drafts.
Workshops 7 & 8 – Feedback discussion on students’ Revised Drafts.