A guest post by Ken Miyamoto
Some of the greatest films of all time, in a wide variety of genres, have been adapted from short stories and novels.
Despite the fact that the literary and cinematic storytelling mediums are often vastly different, some talented writers have managed to bridge the gap between the two — to varying degrees of success. But crossing that bridge is no easy venture.
Screenwriting is a visual medium, so those writing screenplays do not have the benefit of being able to write detailed back stories and inner thoughts of characters. Every single line of scene description and dialogue translates to the screen, which is why screenwriters can’t go into such detail. They have 90-120 pages — give or take — to convey a visual story. One page equals one minute of screen time.
With short stories and novels, authors don’t have those restraints. You can go into detail describing a character’s wardrobe, mannerisms, and background. You can write long prose detailing a particular location. You can spend pages and pages on those elements without worrying about pacing and lack of engagement. With short stories and novels, most readers revel in those details.
With screenplays, those reading them don’t have the time. They are blueprints utilized within a collaborative medium where literally hundreds of people will work to make those visuals come to life. Authors of short stories and novels rely only on the reader’s imagination and the help the author can give to feed that imagination with details.
So making the jump from short stories and novels to screenplays is a huge undertaking, even for the most skilled authors.
Here are some of the greatest examples of famous authors that became screenwriters — and how they fared.
Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time — known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections.
She was born on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, Devon, South West England. She taught herself to read by the age of five. In 1902, Christie was sent to Miss Guyer’s Girls School in Torquay, but didn’t like the discipline. In 1905, she was sent to Paris and educated at Mademoiselle Cabernet’s, Les Marroniers, and then Miss Dryden’s — the last of which was a finishing school.
Christie published her first book — The Mysterious Affair at Styles — in 1920. Her first successful novel was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, written in 1926. It was always remembered by Christie as one of her favorites. That same year, her mother died and she discovered that her husband had been having an affair with another woman. She disappeared — clearly traumatized — and was missing for ten days until she was found in a hotel registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. She divorced in 1928 and remarried in 1930. That year, she released Murder at the Vicarage and it became another instant classic. The book introduced Miss Jane Marple, one of Christie’s most utilized and celebrated characters that appeared in dozens of her novels and short stories.
Christie would go on to become known as the “Queen of Crime” with her writings selling more than 2 billion copies worldwide. She was also a renowned playwright as well. Her play The Mousetrap opened in 1952 at the Ambassador Theatre and holds the record for the longest unbroken run in a London theater, with more than 8,800 showings over the course of 21 years.
She never liked the many adaptations of her work to the big and small screen. But, unbeknownst to most, she did dabble in screenwriting. Christie adapted her story The Wasp’s Nest for a television play, which was broadcast live in 1937. Through the 1940s, she was reportedly penning many addition TV scripts, but rarely showed them to anyone in the industry. It was almost like a hobby for her. In the early 1960s, Christie partnered with MGM to adapt the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House for the big screen. Dickens was one of her favorite authors. She wrote what recollections stated was an overly long screenplay and sent it to MGM with a note stating that she knew it needed to be shortened. The script was never produced.
Her work continues to be adapted to film. Murder on the Orient Express was remade in 2017 (it had been adapted before in 1974), directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is also directing an adaptation of her novel Death on the Nile. It has also been announced that Ben Affleck is attached to direct and star in the adaptation of her novel Witness for the Prosecution.
George R.R. Martin
Martin is most known as the creator of Game of Thrones — specifically through his successful series of A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
He graduated from Northwestern University in journalism. He then dabbled in teaching while making an effort to be a fiction writer, writing short stories primarily in the science fiction genre. His first story to be nominated for the Hugo Award and Nebula Awards was With Morning Comes Mistfall, published in 1973 in Analog magazine. His first novel, Dying of the Light, was published in 1977.
His genre novels led him to Hollywood as he was staffed as a writer and executive story consultant for the revival of The Twilight Zone in the 1980s. When CBS cancelled that show, he wrote for the science fiction show Max Headroom. Sadly, the show was cancelled before his scripts went into production. He then was hired as a writer and producer on the dramatic fantasy series Beauty and the Beast. In 1989, he became the show’s co-supervising producer and wrote 14 of its episodes.
He would return to the literary storytelling landscape with some horror short stories and working as a book series editor. In 1996, showcasing a love of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin wrote A Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
The series would later be picked up by HBO and the rest is Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning history.
While Martin made a grand effort as a screenwriter within the television industry, we’re still waiting to see if he can truly deliver on a big cinematic project.
During the turbulent times of the 1960s and 1970s, Didion became a cultural icon with her work as a columnist, editor, essay writer, novelist — and later a screenwriter. She graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1956 and later worked at Vogue magazine shortly after graduation. She started as a copywriter and then moved her way up the ladder to become an editor until 1963. Her first novel was Run River (1963), a portrait of a marriage with wrong turns and betrayals — all of which played as a commentary on the history of California. In 1968, she wrote a collection of magazine columns that were published under the title Slouching Towards Bethlehem — the columns established Didion as an essayist that was reflective of her era. Her second collection — The White Album (1979) — continued to showcase her perspective of the turbulent 1960s.
She wrote short novels like Play It as It Lays (1970), A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) — as well as the essays Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), and Where I Was From (2003). She would later write essays centered on U.S. politics, all of which were collected in Political Fictions (2001). One of the standout pieces of that political collection covered the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
She was a true voice of her generation and her gender throughout an impressive career. But she didn’t stop there. Didion also wrote screenplays with her husband. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) was a memoir she wrote, recounting her marriage and the mourning of losing her husband. It won a National Book Award and she later adapted it for the stage in 2007.
Movies like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It as It Lays (1972 adaptation of her own novel), A Star Is Born (1976), True Confessions (1981), and Up Close and Personal (1996) were a collection of noteworthy and heralded cinema, cementing her status as a talented writer on multiple platforms. She was honored with the National Humanities Medal in 2013.
Long before Francis Ford Coppola brought the life of Mafia gangsters to the big screen, Puzo wrote the original novel, The Godfather.
Puzo drew heavily from his upbringing in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. He graduated from the City College of New York and later joined the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, only to never see combat due to his poor eyesight.
His first short story, The Last Christmas, was published in American Vanguard in 1951. His first book, The Dark Arena, was later published in 1955.
He later worked in publishing as a writer and editor — and also wrote World War II adventure pulp serials under the pseudonym Mario Cleri for True Action.
In 1969, The Godfather was published and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for months. Puzo was hired by Paramount Studios to write the script for the big screen adaptation, for which he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Puzo and Coppola would go on to work on the film’s two successful sequels as well.
But his screenwriting didn’t stop there. He wrote the original draft of the film Earthquake and then went on to write the script for Richard Donner’s Superman. He also collaborated on the stories for the 1982 film A Time to Die and the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club.
Puzo’s screenwriting skills are clearly evident, having adapted his own novels to the big screen and also writing one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. However, if you read his drafts you’ll quickly see that within the realm of screenwriting, he did tend to take his literary writing and apply it to sometimes overwritten screenplay drafts.
Crichton is perhaps best known for his blockbuster best-sellers like Jurassic Park, Sphere, and Disclosure, all of which (and many more) would go on to be adapted into major feature films.
He attended Harvard, at first pursuing an understudy degree in literature until he decided to switch tracks towards a Bachelor’s Degree in biological anthropology. He later attended Harvard Medical School, all while beginning to publish novels under various pseudonyms like John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson.
“My feeling about the Lange books is that my competition is in-flight movies. One can read the books in an hour and a half, and be more satisfactorily amused than watching Doris Day. I write them fast and the reader reads them fast and I get things off my back,” Crighton once told The New York Times.
In 1968, he published the novels Easy Go and A Case of Need using his real name.
In 1969, The Andromeda Strain was published and launched his career as he became a best-selling author. Other successful novels would follow, including the aforementioned Sphere, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure.
His turn at screenwriting started in the 1970s after he became a best-selling novelist. He wrote three episodes of the series Insight, and also made his directing debut with the TV movie Pursuit, which was based on his novel Binary.
He then made the jump to the big screen, writing and directing the 1973 science fiction western-thriller film Westworld. Other films that he both wrote and directed were The Great Train Robbery (1979), Looker (1981), Runaway (1984) and Physical Evidence (1989). He also wrote the screenplays for Extreme Close-Up (1973) and Twister (1996). He then went back to television as the creator and executive producer of the celebrated television drama ER, based on a pilot script he wrote in 1974.
Needless to say, he was a blockbuster writer for novels, film, and television. Crichton not only wrote some quality screenplays — he also managed to take on the reins of director and executive producer. Impressive, to say the least.
Flynn shot to fame when her third novel, Gone Girl, became an international sensation. But before that novel took off, she worked in journalism.
She first received her undergraduate degrees in English and journalism at the University of Kansas. She then lived in California for two years writing for a human resources trade magazine until she moved to Chicago and attended and earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. In 1998 she was hired by Entertainment Weekly as a featured writer — later becoming a lead television critic and writer for feature films. She was laid off by the company in 2008.
During Flynn’s Entertainment Weekly days, she was working on her own writing in the form of novels. She wrote Sharp Objects, which was published in 2006, and then went on to write Dark Places (2009) and Gone Girl (2012). The latter would earn her the number one spot on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list for eight weeks. Gone Girl would go on to sell two million copies in print and digital editions in 2012 alone, according to the book’s publisher.
Fox paid $1.5 million for the screen rights to Gone Girl and later hired Flynn to write the screenplay for the cinematic adaptation. The film was directed by David Fincher, becoming a box office hit with critical acclaim. Flynn’s screenwriting work for the film adaptation was nominated for a Golden Globe, Writers Guild of America Award and BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. She also co-wrote a film adaption of the ITV series Widows with Viola Davis set to star.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is now widely known as having written one of the greatest American novels — The Great Gatsby.
Before that, he was a Princeton student that later dropped out after being put on academic probation when his studies became less of a priority as he pursued his passion for writing. He then joined the Army and floundered after his service, working in an advertising agency while continuing to write short stories.
He moved back in with his parents as he revised a novel that would become This Side of Paradise. The novel was picked up by Scribner’s and then published in 1920. It was an instant success, selling 41,075 copies in the first year alone. He was finally a successful writer with a steady income. He would later befriend celebrated author Ernest Hemingway while living in Paris.
Like many writers during the 1920s and 1930s, Fitzgerald made a living writing short stories for such magazines and would also sell his stories and novels to Hollywood studios. He struggled through alcoholism and his wife’s mental illness, all of which sadly lead to further financial struggles.
While his passion was with his novels, he was forced to continue to work in Hollywood. In 1937 he signed an exclusive writing contract with MGM. It was there that he earned his highest annual income up to that point — $29,757. As a screenwriter, he wrote a draft of Gone with the Wind (which was never filmed), rewrites on Madam Curie, and other uncredited work until his contract was terminated in 1939. He then went freelance and wrote Winter Carnival, but his screenwriting career would never go on to flourish as he went on an alcoholic binge which eventually led way to poor health and his eventual death in 1940.
The popularity of The Great Gatsby wouldn’t occur until after Fitzgerald died. It is now one of the most celebrated novels in literature and a definitive literary piece of his era. While he surely did his time as a contracted studio screenwriter, his screenwriting never matched his literary relevance.
Atwood is often referred to as Canada’s most famous author. She has written award-winning poetry, short stories and novels, most notably The Circle Game (1966), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Tent (2006). Her writing has been translated into many different languages.
She was born in Ottawa, Ontario Canada on November 18th, 1939 and began writing plays and poems at the age of six. She graduated with honors from Victor College in the University of Ontario in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and also minored in both philosophy and French. Later that year, after she won the E. J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems — Double Persephone — she studied at Harvard’s Radcliffe College where she earned a master’s degree in 1962 and began her doctoral studies at Harvard University for two years — but Atwood did not finish her dissertation.
Throughout her literary career, she would also go on to teach at a number of colleges and universities in both Canada and the United States. If that wasn’t enough, Atwood also invented and developed the LongPen and its associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.
Although she is known as a science fiction novelist and visionary, Atwood rejects this notion by calling her work speculative fiction, saying, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”
Her most celebrated novel — The Handmaid’s Tale — was adapted into the 1990 film of the same name starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, and Robert Duvall. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace each became miniseries in 2017 as well. Atwood didn’t write scripts for any of these adaptations. However, she did first try her hand at screenwriting by penning a television episode of the 1981 Canadian series For the Record, as well as an episode of the 1987 BBC series Screen Two. She recently optioned a TV movie she wrote called The Heart Goes Last to MGM Television, telling the story of a couple that takes part in a social experiment involving them living in prison.
Faulkner’s work was first published during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, but his popularity wouldn’t truly soar until he won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962) both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but his most popular novels were The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932). His first published short story, A Rose for Emily, remains to be one of the most famous short stories written by any American.
He was educated at the University of Mississippi, but didn’t even last a year when, like Fitzgerald, he dropped out with dreams of making a living as a writer. And much like Fitzgerald, Faulkner would struggle to make ends meet until he was offered a contract with MGM to write screenplays. He worked with legendary director Howard Hawks and they quickly became friends. Hawks’s brother even became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent, leading Faulkner to a successful screenwriting career from the 1930s through the 1950s.
His screenwriting credits include Today We Live, The Road to Glory, Submarine Patrol, Drums Along the Mohawk, Air Force, To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep.
In his writing career, Steinbeck wrote 27 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories — and in 1962 he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He studied English Literature at Stanford University, but after a few years he left the school with no degree, instead choosing to move to New York in hopes of a writing career. He worked odd jobs while struggling to get his writing published, but later moved to Southern California, taking on a tour guide and caretaker job at Lake Tahoe.
His first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1935 when he finally found success after years of struggling through The Great Depression. His Tortilla Flat became a successful novel, winning the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal and later going on to be adapted into a film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield in 1942.
But it was his later work — known as the “California novels” — where Steinbeck truly made a name for himself. Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath were the standouts, and emulated Steinbeck’s own observations of The Great Depression.
While he didn’t write the screenplays for the film adaptations of those books, he was always on set as they were both in production at the same time. He would alternate days between the two sets.
He did dabble in screenwriting with movies like The Forgotten Village and Viva Zapata!, but his Hollywood days were rightfully overshadowed by his literary work.
McCarthy is one of this generation’s greatest literary voices and his novels have been adapted into some of the best films in the last decade. His fifth novel, Blood Meridian, was featured within the 2005 Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best English-language Books Since 1923. His novel All the Pretty Horses won both the U.S. National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Unlike his previous novels at the time, All the Pretty Horses was a publishing sensation. It became a New York Times bestseller and sold 190,000 copies in hardcover within the first six months of publication, finally giving McCarthy the wide readership that had eluded him for so many years.
The breakthrough novel was later adapted into a feature film directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starring Matt Damon. His No Country for Old Men — originally written as a screenplay — was adapted into the 2007 feature film of the same name, adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, and went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Read The Script Lab’s From Script to Screen: No Country for Old Men
His novel The Road was celebrated with international acclaim, winning a Pulitzer Prize and then later adapted into a feature film starring Viggo Mortensen.
Early on in his adult life, he attended the University of Tennessee from 1951–1952 and then 1957–1959 but like Fitzgerald and Faulkner before him, he never graduated.
Despite the cinematic success of the movie adaptations of his novels, McCarthy had never been paid for writing a screenplay — until 2012 when McCarthy sold his original screenplay, The Counselor, to producers that later attached director Ridley Scott to direct. With a star-studded cast, the film went into production quickly. When it was released in 2013, it was critically panned. Most would love to see him try his hand at screenwriting again, but hopefully in better fashion next time around.
Capote first flourished as a short story writer, published in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Magazine, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, and Story.
His novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and novel In Cold Blood stand out as his most signature work, but it was his fame as a celebrity that drove most headlines during his time. His social circles included those from Hollywood, royalty, and members of high society.
He was never formerly educated after high school. He worked as a copyboy for The New Yorker for two years until he left for Alabama to live with relatives while writing his first novel, Summer Crossing. That novel was never published during his lifetime and was later discovered and published posthumously in 2005.
One of his most famous short stories, Miriam (published in 1945) earned him a contract with Random House to write a novel with an advance of $1,500. Other Voices, Other Rooms was published in 1948, made The New York Times bestseller list, and stayed on that list for nine weeks, selling more than 26,000 copies.
Capote’s sole screenplay was a co-writing venture for John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953). He did attempt to write a screenplay adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which Paramount was looking to produce, but his draft was rejected. So while he mingled with the Hollywood elite, it was clear that his place was behind the typewriter writing short stories and novels, as opposed to movies.
Bradbury’s name is synonymous with science fiction. He is perhaps the most celebrated name of the genre. He is most known for his novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), as well as his science-fiction and horror-story collections, The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), and I Sing the Body Electric (1969).
After high school, he had no formal education. From 1938 to 1942 he sold newspapers around Los Angeles to support himself while writing. In 1941 he celebrated his first paid gig when the pulp magazine Science Stories published his short story Pendulum. By the end of 1942, he was a working writer, publishing short stories of horror and science fiction to various pulp magazines. It was The Martian Chronicles that shot him to fame, followed by Fahrenheit 451 three years later.
In the 1950s, Bradbury’s work was adapted into pulp comic books and televised science fiction and horror anthologies. In the 1960s, the trend continued with his work adapted into Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone series. As the decades went on, his work was adapted for the big screen as well.
Bradbury rode his genre fame to a successful career as a screenwriter. From 1985 to 1992, Bradbury hosted a syndicated anthology television series of his own — The Ray Bradbury Theater — where he adapted 65 of his stories.
His additional screenwriting work included further adaptations of his own work with the 1993 animated television version of The Halloween Tree, The 1998 film The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, among others.
His most infamous screenwriting job came in 1953 when he teamed with director John Huston to adapt Moby Dick for the big screen. The two had a horrible working relationship and the film would go on to fail at the box office.
Bradbury excelled in adapting his work to television, but we never had the pleasure of seeing a hit Hollywood movie written by the science fiction legend.
Rowling has sold an astronomical 400 million plus copies of her novels. Her Harry Potter franchise is the best-selling series of books in history and the film adaptations comprise one of the most successful cinematic franchises the big screen has ever seen.
Years before Harry Potter, she took the entrance exams for Oxford but was not accepted, instead enrolling in the University of Exeter for a B.A. in French and Classics. She worked at Amnesty International in London and then at the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester.
However, seven years after graduating high school, Rowling had hit on hard times. Her marriage had failed and she was a jobless single parent diagnosed with clinical depression and — in her words — on the verge of suicide. During this time, she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on an old typewriter. Twelve publishing houses rejected her submissions until Bloomsbury decided to publish the magical novel. The rest is literary and cinematic history.
Despite having overall script approval for each of the uber-successful film adaptations, Rowling never wrote a script for any of them. Her sole screenwriting credit came in 2016 when she wrote a script based off of her Harry Potter supplementary book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film adaptation of the same name went on to become a box office success, launching a new Harry Potter universe franchise with four additional films in development, all of which she is currently attached to write.
Goldman is famous for both his literary accomplishments, as well as his cinematic screenwriting. He has won two Oscars as a screenwriter. One for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and another for All the President’s Men. His novels include Marathon Man and The Princess Bride, both of which he adapted to film.
Earlier in life, Goldman received a B.A. from Oberlin College in 1952 and then enrolled in the Army. He was sent to work at the Pentagon until his discharge as a Corporal in 1954. From there he went to Columbia University, earning an M.A.
He wrote short stories throughout his time in school, but never was able to get them published anywhere. He initially had little to no interest in screenwriting. He wanted to focus on poetry, short stories, and novels.
Goldman wrote his first novel, The Temple of God, in three weeks. A publisher agreed to pick it up for publishing if Goldman could double the length. He did and the novel went on to become a moderate success in paperback. He followed that book up fifty weeks later with Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow — which he apparently wrote in just a week. His third book, Soldier in the Rain, was a success in paperback as well and led to a film adaptation. Goldman didn’t write the script for that film.
He was enlisted by actor Cliff Robertson to adapt a short story in a film and also did some rewrites on one of the actor’s other films in development. The short story adaptation was shelved in favor of another writer after Robertson disliked Goldman’s draft.
Goldman later made a pitch to producer Elliott Kastner to make a film of the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald. Kastner chose the novel The Moving Target and hired Goldman to adapt it. The retitled film, Harper (1966), was a success at the box office and established Goldman as a screenwriter.
He wrote one novel after that film and then couldn’t decide on what to write next, so he turned back to screenwriting and wrote his first original screenplay, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sold for $400,000 — the highest payment for a script at that time.
After this, Goldman would bounce back and forth from screenplays to novels — even adapting his own work successfully with the likes of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. With many other hits, in both the literary and cinematic platforms, Goldman would go on to be known as one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of cinema, as well as one of the American greats in literature as well.
As you can see, some authors made a successful transition to and from screenwriting, while others sadly failed. Hollywood and the literary industry can be two very different beasts. But they also have their similarities.
Short stories are often more cinematic than most novels, thus they afford the screenwriter certain freedoms while adapting. So, for screenwriters and producers especially, instead of looking for highly unattainable — and sometimes unadaptable — novels on bestseller lists, they seek out those amazing and more accessible short stories, novellas, and even flash fiction.
If you have short stories with cinematic potential, consider ScreenCraft’s Cinematic Short Story Competition.
With a judging panel that includes editors from Random House Studios, Tin House Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine, the competition is looking for short stories (not screenplays) with special cinematic potential. Whether you’re writing flash fiction or a novella, they want to read your story. The grand prize winner will receive $1,000 and personal introductions to literary agents, managers, producers and publishers. The top five finalists will be read by our network of over 40 literary and entertainment industry professionals. All rights and ownership to stories submitted to this contest remain with the author, until and unless other agreements are made.
Ken Miyamoto is a produced screenwriter, former Sony Pictures Script Reader/Story Analyst and is currently the content manager for ScreenCraft.