Study This: At the Movies

I read recently that John Harrington, in his book Film And/Is Art, estimated that a third of all movies ever made have been adapted from novels; another writer claims that 51 percent of the top 2,000 films of the last 20 years were adaptations (from novels, short stories, or stage plays). And the most common source for movie adaptations? Literary fiction. Harrington says,

Nearly all of the works of classic literature students study in high school have been adapted for film—some many times and in multiple languages, settings, or formats. For example, there are over 200 film versions of Sherlock Holmes, from a silent film made in 1916 by William Gillette to the reimagined 2010 Masterpiece version starring Benedict Cumberbatch. There are nearly 50 film versions of Romeo and Juliet, from a 1900 French version called Roméo et Juliette to the 2011 animated American film Gnomeo and Juliet.

Still, I have spent a lot of time explaining to writers that books aren’t movies. Yes, yes, both tell stories about characters. And the same elements—plot, motivation, conflict, and so on—have to be conveyed to the audience. But they tell them in such different ways that I usually balk at ever using an example from a movie to illustrate a point.

It’s just a completely different way of telling a story.

That said, good writing is good writing. There are things you can learn from movies with some intentional viewing.

For example, I often recommend the study of scriptwriting for authors who struggle with writing realistic dialogue. Take that one step further and study dialogue-driven movies—say, Pulp Fiction or Fargo (actually, anything by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers). Notice these are original screenplays, not derived from plays or novels. (Because we’re studying movies here, yo.) Woody Allen excels at you-are-there dialogue too—Hannah and Her Sisters, Midnight in Paris, Annie Hall all won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. And for my money, Aaron Sorkin’s original television series The West Wing is a brilliant lesson in dialogue.

Authors sometimes have trouble keeping contemporary speech patterns out of their historical novels, too, and it can be helpful to watch period films for ideas. We don’t know for certain how folks in the Regency period, for example, spoke to each other—and modern viewers probably wouldn’t understand them anyway, between the syntax and the unfamiliar words—but writers can glean ways to bridge the gap between complete authenticity and what feels authentic (which is good enough).

Agent Wendy Lawton points out that we can learn a lot about POV from studying camera angles: wide angle gives us context, while close-ups give us detail, and the author is the one holding the camera, so to speak:

The use of wide angle in storytelling was never so expertly used as in the opening of the movie, Forrest Gump. A feather floats over the town so that we’re given a bird’s eye view of the entire scope of the story-world until it drifts down and settles on one Forrest Gump. Brilliant. From context to close up.

There are other elements of POV to study, too, in films like Best in Show, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Rear Window, The Terminator, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watch these to see how much story can be conveyed with a limited POV. It’s relatively easy to show context in a movie; but in a book you can either show (like the movie does) context or tell context … and if you’ve been hanging out here, you already know showing is better.

You can watch great movies for storytelling—plotting and foreshadowing—and pacing. It doesn’t matter whether they move fast or slow, these films dole out the clues so cleverly that you’ll be convinced you were lied to: Chinatown, Memento, Psycho, Se7en, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Vertigo. But they’re the real thing. Watch them again and you’ll see what I mean.

Seems like movies are pushing the boundaries of storytelling too. Consider the Before SunriseBefore SunsetBefore Midnight films cowritten by director Richard Linklater and the actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, with their minimalist plots but lots of talk. Boyhood, written and directed by Linklater, was filmed over a period of eleven years and, according to Wikipedia, was largely unscripted. I haven’t seen The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, but Time magazine notes the director wanted to tell the story of a broken relationship from both viewpoints and ended up making three separate films: him, her, and them. Stranger Than Fiction follows an average guy who begins hearing a disembodied voice narrating his life as it happens, which sounds a bit strange but really works. Even Love, Actually, with its multiple storylines, has something to say about pacing. And I’ve always loved Shakespeare in Love for sheer creativity—think of what you can do (and what Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and E. L. Doctorow have done) building fiction around historical characters.

So, yes, you can pick up some writing tips from studying movies. Just remember: a movie tells a stripped-down story consisting of action, dialogue, and all the things the camera can show… like

• acting (looks, facial expressions, gestures, movement);
• sound (music, sound effects, ambient noise);
• POV (camera angle, lighting, color, movement); and
• milieu (setting, costumes, props), just for starters.

Just think about how much that five-second wide-angle shot tells you. A pan across a large city … say, with trees in bloom, leafing out—ah, it’s spring! … which happens to have the Eiffel Tower in it (Paris!) … with a zoom showing actors in period costume … See? The camera is, in effect, the narrator. Or, at least, a substitute for narrative.

In a novel, all those things must be written. But there are other advantages:

• a narrator who can speak about other characters or interpret meaning directly or indirectly;
• narrative in general (including description);
• inner monologue (thoughts, say, of a protagonist with inner conflict);
• figurative language (images, metaphors, symbolism);
• no limits on time (stretching a timeline over decades or centuries) or
• budget (a cast of thousands? no prob!).

Have a look at this article for a good overview of the difference between screenwriting and novel writing.

No matter where you look for inspiration, though, you must remember that books and movies are different. You can’t just watch a story play out in your imagination and then write it down.* Well, you can, but don’t send it to me, because that ain’t no novel, kids.

* I discussed this in a little more detail here.


Tweet: A third of all movies ever made have been adapted from novels. Think about that.
Tweet: Watch great movies for storytelling—plotting & foreshadowing—& pacing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Jamie – I was pleased and honored that you included a link to my article on adaptation in your blog. Thanks! I would also recommend to your readers the books SHOOT YOUR NOVEL by C.S. Lakin, and LIGHTS, CAMERA, FICTION by Alfie Thompson.
    – Michael Hauge

  2. […] to note is how much the film industry draws upon the book industry for its source material. In this article on her website, editor Jamie Chavez talks about a similar subject to this and reveals it has been […]

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  1. […] to note is how much the film industry draws upon the book industry for its source material. In this article on her website, editor Jamie Chavez talks about a similar subject to this and reveals it has been […]