Filmmakers are increasingly being inspired by literature in their search for strong content. What is the most effective way to adapt the written word to celluloid?
Artistes including filmmakers have often drawn inspiration from the adage ‘art imitates life’ but there are times when one art form inspires another. It’s a trend that’s currently sweeping Hindi cinema, where filmmakers are increasingly turning to literature in their search for powerful content for their films.
But book adaptations are not a new phenomenon in Hindi cinema. From Dilip Kumar’s Devdas in 1955, which was adapted from Sarat Chandra’s book of the same name, or Guru Dutt’s Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam in 1962, which was inspired by Bimal Mitra’s novel, filmmakers have adapted books to celluloid from time to time. That seemed to change when remakes became the fashion in Bollywood, first from Hollywood movies and then from South films.
Now, the industry seems to be rediscovering the joy of adapting a work of written fiction to the big screen. In the last year or so, filmmakers have been casting about for out-of-the-box stories, from not only the classics but also contemporary literature. We saw Vishal Bhardwaj bringing Shakespeare to life with an Indian twist in his movies Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello), Haider (Hamlet) and a few others. Then there are new-age writers like Chetan Bhagat with their works like Five Point Someone, 2 States, 3 Mistakes Of My Life and Half Girlfriend, which were made into successful commercial films.
The number of Hindi films being adapted from books is increasing rapidly. With the success of films like Raazi and Hichki along with web series like Sacred Games, we have Manto, The Accidental Prime Minister, Kizie Aur Manny, The Zoya Factor and others being announced too.
This week, we spoke to filmmakers to discover why they back stories based on books and to writers to find out how they go about adapting a book into a script for a film. Here’s what they had to say.
Nandita Das, Actor-Writer-Director
For both my films, Firaaq and Manto, I did not have to really search for the scripts. In both cases, the stories came to me. They were a means of sharing my concerns and connecting with people. When I started reading Manto’s essays and got to know more about him as a person and a writer, I felt that through a film on him I could respond to everything that was happening around me. Cinema is very powerful in the way it reaches and impacts so many people at once. That is why I chose to tell these stories because I felt that they represented real voices that needed to be heard.
I faced many challenges while making Manto! One of the major challenges was that much of the research had to be based on his writings. Manto died at 42, so there are very few people alive who actually met him. Also, there is no audio or visual recording of Manto, despite the fact he did close to 100 radio plays and even acted in films. So, recreating his character required extensive research on his own writings and from those that wrote about him. I reached out to his family, who generously gave me nuances and nuggets that cannot be found in any book.
I am not a trained filmmaker and neither have I assisted anyone on the job. I had to use my creative instincts and life experiences to make both my films. I do not believe that there are set ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in filmmaking. But with that said, I will share some advice I received, some which I follow in my filmmaking process, and some which I do not. The best advice I have received (and I paraphrase): ‘Don’t look back at what you couldn’t do. Be calm and focus on what you can do!‘ I am still working on it, but happy to have found a way to be kinder to myself and others. As for advice I didn’t take – some of my film colleagues advised me to always give the impression of having all the answers even if I didn’t know them. I think this is a ‘don’t’ because I feel that being honest and vulnerable about things one doesn’t know is absolutely fine. Just because you are helming a project doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
Meghna Gulzar, Director
Raazi was the only film I directed that is based on a book. That had more to do with the story itself than with strategy. If the story connects with me, I would like to make it into a film. If a story connects with me, irrespective of whether the story comes from a book, a short story, a novel, a real-life incident or even a conversation or a news article, I would like to make a film on it and tell that story cinematically. Personally, there is no strategy I follow.
I think the trend to adapt books into films is not new at all. We have been digging into our literature for a very long time. We have been going back to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Devdas was earlier made by Bimal Roy, which was based on a short story. Digging into literature is not new. Then there were movies that were made on Chetan Bhagat’s novels and I think we have just cast our net wider now. Today, we are looking at international authors and at non-English writing. It is a good thing because it broadens the content, and it is better than plagiarising foreign films or simply remaking a film from a different language. Isn’t it always better to generate original content?
No matter how expansive a book may be – and I will give you the example of Kane And Abel, The Da Vinci Code and The Godfather – there is a core thread of the story which jumps out at you as a reader. Sometimes, there may be more than one core story. I would pick the one that is the strongest and would lend itself best to be interpreted cinematically, and then try and tell that story in the best way possible cinematically.
We don’t have the advantage that the written word has, where you can go into paragraphs of description and actually put in words what the character is thinking and what their personality is. You need to visually capture a lot of adjectives. There are a lot of things which exist between the lines and you need to capture them visually in a way that the communication is very clear to the viewer.
I don’t follow any ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. A very big thing is the respect for the written word. That should not be distorted from its originality. One must inherently maintain that. There is a fine balance between maintaining that and yet being true to the cinematic interpretation that you are going to give. You can’t get carried away by the book so much that you end up telling a three or three-and-a-half-hour film because you wanted to do the justice to the book. To be able to make a film in the desired running time without distorting the core values of the book is what my writer Bhavani Iyer and I kept absolutely in the centre.
Vijay Singh, CEO, Fox Star Studios
Yes, we are seeing a slew of books being adapted into films. It’s the search for a good story that takes us to the world of literature. The quest is to find a compelling story, and interesting, off-beat stories have immense appeal, as we’ve seen in the recent past. The adaptation of a bestseller novel also comes with a huge responsibility as you have to craft an equally compelling screenplay, which is loved by movie-goers.
We are very excited to collaborate with Adlabs Films on The Zoya Factor, which is a screen adaptation of Anuja Chauhan’s bestselling novel of the same name. We are equally thrilled to have southern superstar Dulquer Salman alongside Sonam Kapoor, a fresh new pair in Bollywood, on this film.
Our other adaptation is of the global bestseller The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, which has been a Hollywood blockbuster too. Titled Kizie Aur Manny, it is directed by debutant Mukesh Chhabra. We are introducing a fresh actor, Sanjana Sanghi, opposite Sushant Singh Rajput and it will be exciting for both, book lovers and movie-goers, to see this adaptation come to life.
Shonali Bose, Director
First off, I want to clarify that my film which is tentatively titled The Sky Is Pink, is not an adaptation of any literary work or written material. None exists. It is the true story of a family’s journey as narrated to me by the parents. I heard their story of their lives from when they were 16 and fell in love, to present times, when they are 54 years old. I absorbed all this and then fashioned the narrative that I found most interesting and compelling from this material.
There can be many ways to tell the same truth. It’s all about the point of view you choose as a writer. What do you want to come across? And that’s what I did. I’ve always been drawn to reality. I love framing and crafting a story that will move, uplift and provoke audiences to think about something they may not otherwise have. I am told I was successful in doing that with my previous work – Amu and Margarita With A Straw. I hope I can do the same with my third baby.
It is a trilogy. They are all mother-daughter stories at the core. It’s always challenging to tell true stories/events because you can’t distort reality just for creative reasons. You need to be true to it and, at the same time, make it dramatic. That’s the challenge. The main ‘don’t’ as a writer (not just of true stories) is to bury your own POV. It should never feel as if you are pushing a certain position whether feminism or politics or disability or sexuality or life and death. You must write in a way that it will come through your characters and your story. I always trust my characters.
Siddharth P Malhotra, Writer-Director
As a writer, you have to see if the book appeals to you. In Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, the Tourette syndrome appealed to me. Brad Cohen and his journey appealed to me. When I watched the film and read the book, Front of the Class, I thought this is the journey of a teacher who as a child has so much trouble getting acceptance and then it became a story of making a difference, of being a child whose mother was so supportive that it came to a point where the child said that he would be the teacher he never had.
The thought was so noble that while other people take disability as a weakness, he calls it his best friend. He says his disability is his best friend and he has no problem with Tourette syndrome. If others have a problem, then they must deal with it. He had a very positive attitude. He was not a bechaara. That is how Brad Cohen is in real life.
Once I connected with him on Facebook and I put it out that Rani Mukerji would be playing the role, he was the first one who was so proud that she deserved it. The Hallmark Hall of Fame people were also very proud. The people we were adapting it from and those we bought it from were aware of the process. Once you fix the subject, then you have to stay true to the soul of the book. I changed a few things here and there. I brought in a conflict among the students. You take the film and then you have to be committed to the honesty of the intent of the story and what the author tried to say in the book. Then, you adapt it to your sensibilities.
When I was writing the film, I kept Brad in the loop. He knew what we were doing. He read the Hindi screenplay before we shot it. Hallmark knew what we were doing. Even they had read the Hindi screenplay. We kept all the writers in the know of the adaptation of the book, and we thought that if there were any inputs, we would welcome them. That is how we adapted the book. I had lots of people whose names appeared in the credits of the film. We thanked so many writers who had helped us shape the film.
The biggest challenge you face while adapting a book is that a book can contain a lot of information, and so you have to figure out what information you have to convey in 2 hours. But the thing that you liked in that book or story that made you adapt it needs to come shining through the film too. The way it touched you while reading that experience in words should come through, in the same way, while watching that experience on celluloid.
This is always a limitation and a challenge – how do you convey something that is beautifully described in words on celluloid. Apart from that, you have to follow your instincts. My process is simple. I do a lot of narrations. I narrated Hichki to pretty much everyone in the film industry before it finally got made. For every film I do, I take a lot of feedback. At the end of the day, you are making a film for the audience. I take feedback to understand if people are getting what you are trying to say. Then you can make the films that you can set out to make.
Hussain Dalal, Writer-Actor
The adaptation for 2 States was done by Abhishek (Varman). If a bestseller or a book that is widely read is adapted into a screenplay, then the one per cent of the people who have read the book will complain that it has not matched up to the book, irrespective of the quality of the film. But that is not your audience anyway. The cinema audience is mostly non-elitist. The reason people are moving towards adapting bestsellers is that you know people have understood and liked it. Inherently, the screenplay is set.
The toughest part of film writing is screenplay. When you pick up a book, you know your screenplay is set and now you have to structure it like a film. That is a very big advantage. Amazon and Netflix will be happier if you go to them with a book idea, as opposed to anything else. Content based on books is a sure-shot success because once you read a book, you know what it is going to be like. Sacred Games is a fantastic show. Part of the reason the show worked is because you know on paper that it fits structurally.
The primary criterion of screenplay writing is cracking it in the most effective and entertaining way. In the book, you already know that it has worked. It takes a lot of foresight for people to buy a book when it is not a bestseller. Game Of Thrones is a classic example of that. The show was a bigger legend than the book. That is a great creative call that five intelligent people in the world took. They read this fantasy book and decided to acquire its rights.
That is rare, however. Normally, people would only go for bestsellers, like we went with 2 States, the makers of Sacred Games went with Vikram Chandra’s book and the makers of Raazi went with Calling Sehmat. When you adapt a bestseller, the toughest part of writing is 50 per cent solved for you. Books have always been the ultimate form of knowledge. You buy a book for `300-400, and your imagination takes you on a fantasy ride worth $5 billion. You can imagine a shot that can’t be taken in cinema.
We are going back to our roots. It is a primal instinct to pick up a story that has been written. As time goes by, you are going to see this happen a lot more. Making a film is one thing but adapting a book is a way more creative process. From a book to a film is a whole different journey. However, when you have a remake, there will always be a parchaai of the old film.
One basic criterion I follow while adapting a book, an old film or a play is knowing my audience. You need to know whom you are adapting it for. If you know that, you are set. I can’t possibly make a Hindi blockbuster out of the book, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck. It is an unbelievable book. But I cannot make a Hindi film out of it, because it will take us a decade to understand anxiety. How you adapt comes later. What you adapt is primary. You have to choose that wisely. Inherently, writers are better-read than the rest of the world.
When your education starts to come in the way of your craft and you try to do something very elitist, we tend to miss out on our audience. There are only two kinds of cinema. One is made for the audience and one is made for creators. Personally, in my journey, I don’t want to make films for creators. If you can’t convert intelligence into reach, what is the point of that intelligence? If Sacred Games was made into a film, it may not have been successful. At the box office, you would have had to remove all the nudity and the expletives, but then you would lose the realism. So choosing the right platform and the right book is critical.
Sunhil Sippy, Director
In the case of Karachi, You’re Killing Me, what prompted me to translate the book into Noor, the movie, was the character. It was the character in the book that was very appealing. That is what I related to most. Then, it became a journey of adaption, which was very complex but it was the character that drove us to make the film.
The hardest thing in this case was that the book was not very plot-oriented. For example, out of 280 pages, the plot began on page number 250 or thereabouts. When drama unfolds so far into the book, you are banking on the character to carry the story forward. What I learnt through the process is that it is the plot that everyone looks for in a movie. We loved the character in the book and we wanted that to guide the story of the film.
I don’t believe there are set rules that need to be followed to adapt a book into a film, apart from being aware of the rules of screenwriting and drama. We banked more on the character to drive the plot. I don’t think there is any prescription of how some things should be. It is not that we did not do it with conviction but a large section of the audience did not agree with us. Broadly speaking, the information in the form of a novel is beautiful and can carry you. Unfortunately, in movies, incidents and plot-points are of equal importance, if not more important than the characters.
Vasanth Nath, Writer
You have to understand the tone of the book, the intent of the book. Once you have put your finger on that, you have to decide whether you will be translating the book as it is or whether you will be developing the story. Once you take that call, it affects all your decisions with regard to the plot. Of course, you can’t fit everything from a book into a screenplay, so you have to decide what to leave out. Simultaneously, you have to create other things as well, sometimes new characters and sometimes a new story line. Those decisions are taken early on.
With Sacred Games, there was so much in the book and it was difficult to decide what to keep and what not to keep. Those are usually the big challenges when it comes to adapting a book into a screenplay. Also, you are always wondering whether you are being staying true to the adaptation.
An approach I recommend is, after a good first reading of the book, set the book aside and take what remains in your mind rather than go back to the statistics of the book. Don’t feel pressured to replicate the book and don’t feel pressured about what fans of the book have liked and want they may want to see in the series. They are driven by what they have read on the page and your task is very different in terms of how you would adapt it dramatically. Some of these decisions will affect how things are. You need to relieve yourself of that pressure to be able to do it well.
There is a little difference when it comes to translating a book into a movie compared to translating it into a web story. In a movie, you have a lot less space and you have to hurry things up and you have to come to a conclusion quickly, whereas in a series you have much more space to expand a character and you have adequate time to draw out much more from the dramatic narrative.
Pradhuman Singh, Writer
It is very difficult to adapt a book into a film and, usually, people don’t like the film as much as they liked the book. One of the biggest challenges is that a book has about 400 or more pages and you have the space to explain things in beautifully. However, in films, we are time bound and lot of stuff is visual and it becomes a challenge.
When I was trying to adapt The Zoya Factor, I tried to retain the essence of the book. At the same time, I wrote it from an altogether fresh perspective. I think that is the best way to adapt any book. You retain the essence and, rather than thinking how do I put this book into a film, you write a film. Keep your focus on the film and then add stuff from the book that you know works in the film. I usually play it like that.
This is Anuja Chauhan’s book and she is a fabulous writer. There was no point in me trying very hard to fit in everything from the book, so we gave it a completely fresh perspective. However, it is still the same book, the essence is the same, the story is the same, because that’s what a reader wants when he watches that film – you should not give something completely different. My process was very simple. I wrote a film with this book as the backdrop. It takes a lot of time because everybody has their own favourites in a book, and when you are doing your reading session there will always be one person saying ‘arre where is that scene that is so funny in the book’? Then you take all that feedback and you try to put all those scenes into the structure and see how that works.
Harry Potter is one of the best examples of a book adaptation into film. It was brilliantly written and brilliantly adapted as well. One of the reasons it is so is because when they were writing the film, they were only focusing on the film and not thinking about whether they were getting all the characters in or whether the entire milieu in the Harry Potter book was there in the film. I think that is how one should adapt a book.
A lot of people try to just copy-paste. I do it as the first step of writing. First, just copy-paste whatever is working for you but that is an internal process and not something you share with somebody. Finally, take the script to the producer, who has hired you as a writer, and the script should have your own take. Then the marriage happens, of the book and your idea and something fresh comes out and everybody likes it.
One of the biggest ‘dos’ is that I try not to please everybody. Not everybody will be happy with what you have written but you have to go with your own conviction. Either they are going to say this is fabulous or they will say this is crap. If they say this is crap, you go back to the drawing board. It’s not a big deal. At least experiment. Try and do something new and different. Sometimes you might just surprise yourself.
I remember, for The Zoya Factor, it was a constant struggle for all of us to get this film made. It is a tough book to crack because it has been written from a woman’s perspective and there’s a lot going on. But this is the biggest ‘do’ and that is also a ‘don’t’. The point is that there are 400 pages and you have to condense it to just 120. One should not worry about omitting a few things or characters. You just have to look at it from a perspective that this is going to be a film and if there are 80 characters in the book, and if I have space for only 40 of them, let me make those 40 so enticing and exciting that people don’t think of the other 40 characters that have been left out.
Smita Singh, Writer
The adaptation will depend on what kind of book it is and what specifically about the book lends itself to adaptation. It can be an idea, it can be characters or the world, it can be a combination of elements. The idea is to understand the strength and weaknesses of the work for the purpose adaptation to screen.
It can be challenging to adapt literary novels like Sacred Games because a large part of the plot is the internal growth of the character; it plays out inside the character’s head. Such novels are also not plot heavy but they can be a wonderful opportunity to bring to life the internal dilemmas and manifest in your writing some of the conflicts that provide your character outward action. For example, in Sacred Games, the Bengali Bura track that leads Katekar to try and do the right thing was built to allow the character some growth.
A story taken apart is not just what you see playing out on screen – dialogue and scenes. The components of a story begin to assemble at a very early stage, and lay the basic foundation of a screenplay. The characters, the themes, the ideas, the world, the plot, the sequencing and design of the story, it all builds up the overall arc even while it engages you from episode to episode.
One of the things that can make your task difficult is to aim to do a literal translation, to divide the book as it is into various script elements. An adaptation by definition is to modify to convert. So, to be married and committed to the original work in its entirety is boring, uncreative and sometimes just lazy.
A serial format is interesting for a book because it allows you to delve deeper into the story and explore many more aspects than a film would allow. It is not that films cannot do the same; it just allows the writer more room to stay connected.
Aditya Kripalani, Writer
You need to first break down the book, which could be a five-act structure, whereas a film is supposed to have a three-act structure. You first need to convert the writing into a three-act structure – beginning, middle and end. It is called set-up, confrontation and resolution. Essentially, this is the process.
Once you do that, a lot of excess elements will automatically get weeded out. You need to keep in mind the core premise, the core conflict of the film, and take out anything that is excess. Then you will be able to adapt a book in a much better way to a screenplay. In my film Tikli And Laxmi Bomb, there was plenty of material and it was a challenge to adapt it into a two-and-a-half hour film. This was the only challenge because the book as well as the dialogue of the film had been written by me.
Basically, while adapting a book into a film, you need to wait a bit after writing each draft. It makes you more objective about the script you are writing. If you write it in a hurry, it can become a problem. You could think, okay, this is done, it works. That is something one should always keep in mind while adapting a book. There is always a lot of pressure on you to write quickly. With us, we want to make one film a year. We have done the second one and it is out, now we want to shoot the third one in February 2019. This way, thoda pressure hamesha rehta hi hai.
Also, your central context should be very strong and you shouldn’t proceed till you have a premise. This is basically the structured approach to writing for films. Many writers do not follow any structure and they still write beautifully. It’s just different approaches.
Mayank Tewari, Writer
The film The Accidental Prime Minister is based on a non-fiction book. We had to make a dramatic story out of it, so the challenge was to stay true to the material. The big challenge was to retain the soul of the material and make it entertaining. You have to stay loyal to the book but also take certain dramatic liberties while staying true to the material.
My first step in my process of translating a book into a screenplay is reading the book. Then, I find the dramatic points within the book and remove everything else. A non-fiction book can be very scattered. It can talk about a lot of things. So, I have to find that one underlying theme from the book that is prominent. I stick to that theme and set aside everything else.
One of the biggest ‘dos’ would be to read the book closely, try to get into the mind of the writer, and try to be able to capture the spirit of the book. That is very important. This is paramount for me. There is always a trade-off between the dramatic liberties you want to take versus how closely you want to stick with the book. If there is a choice between the two, I always go with the book.
- Bhakti Mehta, Bhavi Gathani, Titas Chowdhury