Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 11 books, 95 plays and musicals, and over 100 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through Fiction Writers Connection.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
FILM, STAGE OR NOVEL? Choosing the Right Vehicle to Convey Your StoryIt was Hitchcock who said that a good movie was one that could be watched without sound. The next time you're on a plane with an in-flight movie, don't rent a headset and you'll see for yourself this is true. Why? Because films are primarily action-driven. We don't have to watch one for very long to figure out who's being chased, who's doing the chasing, and who's falling in love in-between.
In contrast, the measure of a good stage play is one that can be enjoyed without visuals. (Remember the popularity of bygone radio programs?) Theater scripts are dialogue-driven. Even if all three acts take place on the same set (or around the same kitchen table), we are riveted as an audience because we care what the actors have to say and, most especially, how they say it.
Last but not least are books, which are IMAGINATION-DRIVEN and fueled by
the individual reader's frame of reference. (Why else would they keep us
up late at night, peering into the dark corners for evidence of the goblins
our minds have crafted from off the printed page?) Novels also hold the
distinct advantage over film and theater in that they allow us to look
directly into the characters' heads, their hearts, and their souls.
Let's see how each of these orientations would work in the following
SAHARA, DUSK. TWO HORSEMEN ARE PURSUING A THIRD.
SFX: SINGLE GUNSHOT.
Just ten words but we're already hooked on a compelling visual. Throw that visual up on a big screen and the audience will be hooked, too, and immediately immersed in a mystery: Who are these guys? Why are they in the desert? Who fired that shot? Is someone now dead as a result? All right, let's move this same scene to a community theater. First of all, you're going to need a very large stage to accommodate three fast galloping horses. Not to mention that the front row might get irritated having all that sand kicked in their faces. Okay, let's just scratch the opening chase scene. Instead, we'll have a minor character run into the Casbah and excitedly announce to everyone present, "You'll never guess what I just saw happen out in the dunes!" Loses something, doesn't it? Every time that you "tell" instead of "show" a critical plot point, it puts the entire story on hold until a jump-start of action can get it rolling again.
Trust me. That's not a good habit.
Maybe the best option, then, is to try this as a book. Same desert, same time of day, same trio of horsemen. Can you paint that picture for a reader...using only ten words? The point of this, of course, is that it takes more verbiage to spell out the particulars on paper than to simply show them on a screen or stage, depending on how exact an image is desired.
For instance, are the horses light or dark? If they're dark, are they brown or black? Are the riders on saddles or bareback? What are the riders wearing?
Even within a framework of strict specificity, however, there's still room for a margin of error in interpretation. A humorous example of this is Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND and her disappointment that Clark Gable was cast as Rhett instead of the man she felt she had so accurately described: Groucho Marx. Let's look at some other pertinent differences:
TIME, SPACE & DIMENSION
Books and films have virtually no limits on where they can go, the latter owing much of its freedom to the advent of computer generated wizardry. A play's parameters, however, are dictated by the physical limitations of the stage on which it will be performed, which accordingly influence the set design, cast size, and feasibility of special effects (i.e., pyrotechnics, prehistoric raptors, and garden variety ghosts).
Transitions from one place to another are also handled differently in live theater. In a movie or novel, a character can walk out the door of his New York flat and emerge--two frames or paragraphs later--at a trendy cafe in Paris. Furthermore, he may even have aged ten years in the interim. In a script written for the stage, such transitions not only require a change of makeup and wardrobe but a total overall of the set and everything in it. While these can be accommodated with intermissions, you can't very well keep sending the audience out in the lobby every time a character has to walk through a door and end up somewhere else.
On the plus side, by the way, it should be mentioned that theater does have a practical way of establishing places and times for viewers who might be slow-witted; they hand out programs before the show that will neatly clarify if it's "Later, the same day" or "Five years later in Amsterdam." (which is better than having your characters make goofy curtain-raiser remarks like, "My goodness! Is it Sunday morning already? Who'd have thought we'd be here in Cousin Midge's guestroom in the Catskills...") Speaking of time, it passes differently on stage than in the other two, even though all three employ an accelerated pace of storytelling. While books and films can flash-back, fast-forward, or hover in multiple zones simultaneously, a play is pretty much relegated to the structured increments of acts and scenes. Audiences can accept these temporal boundaries because they have already accepted the notion that 20 minutes of stage-time does not necessarily equate to 20 minutes of real-time. In fact, it probably more closely equates to dog-years, which means that 20 minutes of theatrical dialogue would take up at least an hour and a half anywhere else.
Unless you are reading aloud to someone, a book is an intensely personal and solitary experience--one in which we can superimpose our own personalities and vicariously "live the plot". With a book in hand, you can skim, you can linger, you can re-read, you can envision anyone you want in the key roles. You can even set the whole thing aside, think about it and come back a month later. For movies and plays, however, you are being told the story on someone else's clock and with someone else's definition of who the characters are. There is not as much room for your imagination to go wandering off to other things because, at any given time, you are being directed as to what to pay attention to. This is especially true of film, where you are seeing everything from only one angle and point of view--the camera's.
When it comes to arousing empathy, a play shares the novel's capacity to engage an audience in a seductive manner that movies cannot. Can you name a single musical, for instance, that was ever made better by its adaptation to the big screen? There's something electrifying about the presence of real, bodies, real voices, real music and real energy that even the glitziest cast-of-thousands blockbuster can't compete with. Suffice it to say, people on stage are also pretty much the same size as the people sitting in the audience (which always makes for better "bonding" than looking down the tonsils of a 30-foot-high face).
A related differentiation that can be made is how much we're allowed to "know" the characters in the story. In a novel, we get to know them pretty intimately because we can literally read their thoughts and emotions at every juncture. In a play, we learn about them gradually through the course of their conversations; we only know what they're thinking, though, if they actually express it out loud to someone else or in a monologue. In a film, we tend to get more distracted by, "Oh, here's Harrison Ford or Meryl Streep in another role" than we are captivated by the background of whomever they are supposed to be portraying. While flashbacks and voice-overs ala ANNIE HALL can reveal what's on their minds, too many of these become confusing for audiences to follow.
A final issue to compare is length and substance of the physical manuscript(s). A typical screenplay is approximately 120 pages and is comprised of master shots and dialogue. A three-act play is a little shorter, with the longest act being first and the balance of the show split between the remaining two (i.e., 40:30:30). An average book runs about 400 pages and, depending on genre, is comprised of roughly 65% narrative and 35% dialogue. Right away you can see the challenge in adapting a book to a feature film--if that bulk of narrative can't be explained in dialogue or conveyed through the lens of a camera--out it goes. Nor can every film smoothly segue to live theater or a paperback--the first requiring it to substantially contract and the second demanding that it expand with enough intellectual exposition or gratuitous scenes just to fill up space. Clearly, the easiest transition is from a play to a film, their respective lengths and content being the most similar. Keep in mind, though, that in putting a dialogue-driven story against a bigger and more colorful backdrop, you run the risk of killing the very charm that made it accessible and unique to begin with.