So – you’ve written plays intended for film adaptation that you want to get a cover on, but you don’t know what a script reader considers when reading them? Well, I’m a script reader and I can tell you that.
To begin with, a few caveats. (Huzzah! Warnings!)
While there are many ways to approach the process of reading scripts, there are things that almost every reader will be looking for. I’ll walk you through how I do it and tell you what I consider for any script someone is looking to adapt. Different readers will have different processes, but most considerations will be the same.
Plus, for any “rule” in the art world, there are plenty of examples of things that have broken that rule and become hugely successful. Award-winning writers with hundreds of rejection notices, Van Gogh selling a single painting during his lifetime, each passing studio The Raiders of the Lost Arketc The wonderful and terrible thing about art is that there is always hope.
OK. Enough dithering. Here’s how it goes for me.
Reading plays: the first reading
I’ve always read the play at least three times, and usually more. Since the strength of an adaptation largely depends on the quality of the source material, early readings are about determining the strength of each element of the script as well as the quality of the piece as a whole, while the final round is adaptation specific. .
To what extent does the play function as a play? Did I enjoy reading it?
Is the writing guaranteed?
And did I feel like I was in good hands with the writer? Was it a quick read or did it feel longer than the page count would warrant?
How did I feel after reading it?
Was I turned on and excited? Have I been inspired and/or challenged to reevaluate old beliefs or ideas? Did I feel like I read something special, or just a new take on something I’ve seen many times before?
Did I stay engaged throughout the play?
Or were there sections where my interest waned? If so, did it reflect a weakness in the writing and/or story, or was it simply a reflection of my subjective and personal interests? (For example, if it’s a play about professional wrestling, do I have a hard time staying engaged because I’m not that interested in wrestling, or is it because the characters and the world aren’t strong enough to keep my interest?)
On that note, I will say unequivocally that readers are human. We have interests and preferences, like all other humans. However, good professional readers learn over time to separate what interests them personally, but perhaps not so strongly in terms of execution; and what engages them less intrinsically, but is well-written, dynamic, or compelling. Some of the scripts I’ve pushed the hardest for are on topics that have no inherent interest to me, content-wise, but the characters and world-building are strong enough that I got sucked into the story and intellectually and emotionally engaged, whatever.
The second reading: character and themes
It’s actually several quick reads. Depending on the number of characters and story arcs, I will read the script looking at just that character or the storyline.
Read for character
So, for example, if I read Danny and the deep blue sea, I was reading the play once while watching only Roberta. Who is she at the beginning of the play, what happens to her during the play, and who is she at the end of the play? Do I care about her? Does her story feel like it has a beginning, middle, and end? Is there an emotional journey, or does she remain largely the same throughout? Is there emotional satisfaction in the journey, and does it feel “honest” and believable/organic?
Then I would read it a second time looking only at Danny, asking the same questions. Are these characters that actors and actresses would fight to embody, or are they generic archetypes?
Reading for plot and themes
Then I would read it a third time examining the plot and the themes. What happens in the play? Is it easy to follow? If it’s not easy to follow, is there pleasure in confusion, and is there ultimately understanding? What is the play about? Do the themes resonate and are they timely and compelling? Does the play say something surprising or new, or if not, does it offer a new angle or a beautifully realized reflection of a well-honed concept? Does the plot hold any surprises, or does it largely go from point A to point B to C to…etc. ?
The third reading: the potential for adaptation
The third reading is the only one specific to adaptation. I read plays watching every element that would go into transferring that story and those characters to the movies. It’s also the only reading where I move away from how the piece works as a whole and look at it in terms of each element and how it might translate.
Is the script dynamic?
Begin, is the dynamic script? Some plays are amazing works of theatre, but they would be incredibly difficult to adapt to film, and it’s unclear if a film version would bring anything new to the table.
For instance, Waiting for Godot is one of the “great” plays of Western literature, but it is highly stylized, set in a single ambiguous location, and has almost no action of any kind. An attempt at a direct adaptation (even disregarding Beckett’s rigid control over the text) would necessarily look a lot like the play, just in film, rather than on stage.
Is there action in the stage play?
Is it largely people sitting around talking? Can the theater world be “open”? Are there moments that happen offstage that (on film) could be shown, and if so, does that add anything? For example, the film version of Ribbon is very faithful to the source set and also takes place in a single location, but the claustrophobia of the motel room is integral to the events, so including other locations or flashbacks wouldn’t be helpful.
The game Doubt also takes place in limited locations, but by opening it up in the film and including the school environment and church/congregation etc, an additional element is introduced which reinforces the themes of isolation, judgment and faith.
Will the world make sense of a film adaptation?
Conversely, is the world of the stage going to be an obstacle, and is there a way around this? For instance, Amedee is one of the great triumphs of film adaptation, but the idea of adapting it the same way today is unlikely. It’s a period piece with multiple historical locations and hundreds of extras, on a subject matter that likely won’t appeal to a huge demographic.
I mean, the thing cost $18 million to make. in the early 80s (just under $50 million, today), and it lasted almost 2.5 hours. Yes hindsight is 20/20, but selling it like this movie today is a tough proposition. However, it could be well suited in many ways other than as a lavish period piece, and it’s a beautifully written play. Just because it’s a challenge doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and sometimes budget restrictions can serve the end product by forcing creative solutions.
Do all the elements make sense on a film?
Are there any elements that work for the stage play, but could hurt a film version? For instance, The Phantom of the Opera seen on stage has a grandeur and magic that is lost in the film version. A person disappearing in front of us on a live stage is very different from a character disappearing in a movie. Or the play Battle horse is partially powerful because the puppeteer is so skillful and moving, but that element doesn’t hold up in the same way on film. (That’s probably why they chose to film it without that element.)
Dialogue vs Monologue
Is there a lot of dialogue in the piece, or is it mostly monologue? I’m sure there’s a movie based on a play that’s mostly a monologue, but I can’t think of what it is. Swimming in Cambodia probably fits that description, but I’d say it’s largely a filmed play rather than a movie.
Will it appeal to a director or a producer?
Are there elements that will appeal to a director or producer? One of the reasons Hamlet is so popular (besides being in the public domain) is that the themes are universal, but the details can be adapted in many ways. Consider Zeffirelli Hamlet against those of Branagh against those of Almereyda. Very different films with the same dialogue. Or, considering only themes, consider Haider versus.The Lion King versus. strange brew. All are adaptations of Hamletbut, in some cases, are almost unrecognizable.
Yeah. That’s pretty much how it goes. All readers will have a slightly different process, but most of us will be looking for the same basic elements that will give the script its best chance of being a strong candidate for adaptation.
Contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of readers love scripts and we always hope that everything we read will be amazing. So on those days when it’s hard to get the words across the page, know that we’re really here to support you!