How to Adapt a Book for the Stage

Ever read a novel and thought it would make a great play? Some tips to go from page to stage.

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Six or so years ago I was in a Very Bad Place. I won’t burden you with the details or how I overcame the situation, only that one evening, while housesitting for a friend, and while reading Dashiel Hammett’s extraordinary novel The Maltese Falcon, an inner voice said to me, “Adapt this novel for the stage! You can direct it and play the central role! This will occupy you for the foreseeable future!”

But how does one go about this?

Firstly, it’s vital to catch the flavour of the novel. So it’s important to note if the tale is told in first or third person. If in first person, you really need either a narrator or to have the protagonist speak to the audience. But if the book is in third person, I guess the choice is yours. As you progress through your adaptation, make fierce executive decisions on scenes. Is it necessary? A novel can take many hours to read. You will only have a couple, so choose what is essential. This doesn’t necessarily mean a much-loved passage must be ditched, because it does nothing to progress the story; there may be a way to combine scenes with perhaps the protagonist speaking said passage to the audience whilst the other cast members look on. You might like to convey the sense that the rest of the cast is aware of what is happening, with a simple nod or a reference – “Finished? OK, so how did…”

A narrator is the simplest way to overcome the difficulties of action; say, staging a car chase. “I jumped in my Buick and gave chase. He sped down a series of side lanes hoping to ditch me, but such lanes are bread and butter to a guy like me….” See what I mean?

Of course the novel you’re adapting may very well not be a detective or any kind of action story. Perhaps it’s a love story, or something like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in an Edinburgh classroom. Whatever your choice, try in the way you set your script not to exclude the audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean audience participation. I’m thinking of the many plays I’ve seen unfolding distantly under a Proscenium arch, when they might have been so much more successful had they spilt from the stage a little. Why not consider staging your play in the round? That can really bring life to a performance, and whole new vistas for the way your characters can speak.

But one important point: you are now working with a stage and not a page, and if your book has been adapted into a film, it’s not a screen either. Now that you’re on the stage it is vital you pull your audience in, and you will have none of the advantages of these two mediums. All you have is the spoken voice. So use it. Break down the fourth wall. Reference the audience. Or even the theatre. Whatever, don’t leave your characters helplessly toiling away like shadows. After all, the novel you picked spoke directly to you. Why shouldn’t the characters speak direct to the audience?

It may seem as if a certain amount of the advice I’m giving is on staging rather than scripting. But these aren’t mutually exclusive concerns. How you script it will give very clear indications as to how it should be staged.

I haven’t entered into the legal requirements necessary to make use of a published work (see here for that) but a word of advice: don’t pick Stieg Larsson or JK Rowling.

So there you go. Set the scene with a narrator if necessary, be economical, confident, and if the story calls for it, witty (after all, most of your lines are written for you!) But most importantly, preserve the essential feel of the book you have chosen.

Can you do this? You bet!

Mr Todd is a published playwright and Director of Hags Ahoy Theatre Company.

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