Adapting Text to Film

Adapted by Mary Ellen Dakin from The Elements of Screenwriting: A Guide for Film and Television Writing by Irwin R. Blacker, MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1986, and from materials provided by Allison Casper

Almost any print text -- literary, informational, technical -- can be transmediated into a video composition. Students in humanities classrooms can adapt a scene from a novel or play into a short film, or script a chapter in a history book into a documentary. In the sciences, students can script tutorials that inform their peers and the larger community about complex issues, ideas, and processes related to the environment, the economy, and technology.

Directions to Students

Your task is to adapt  _____________________ to film for a modern audience. Consider the needs and characteristics of your audience as you plan your film adaptation. 

You will need to compose:

1. Sluglines 

The slugline is the information line in a film script.  It should always be in caps and should always carry the same basic information in the same order:


[When at least 1 of the 3 pieces of information changes, write a new slugline.]

2. Dialogue

Borrow dialogue whenever possible directly from the text.

Speaker in CAPS: dialogue in upper and lower case.

3. Directorial Commentary

This is written in your own words in italics within parentheses, and vividly describes and explains what the video and audio will record. These directions can be about the speaker's line delivery, action and gestures, and/or facial expressions; they can be about the location or set, props, lighting, and/or sound; they can be about the camera work and editing techniques.


Sample of a Student-Composed Film Script

Water for Elephants

Adapted from the novel by Sara Gruen and written by RHS grade 10 student Alexandra Chorlian


(Jacob Jankowski is sitting in his wheel chair with his walker by his side in the doorway of his room. He speaks to himself on the following matters that are conveyed as thoughts. Voice over: actor does not speak.)

JACOB (V/O): I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other. When you are five or even twenty your age is always your boasting. On the tip of your tongue your answer to “How old are you”, sits. But when you hit thirty something happens. “Oh I am… thirty” you say but you aren’t. You’re thirty-five. Then you are anxious. You wonder if it is the beginning of the end. You will not admit that though for decades. Your children’s names never come out right the first time. There is a list instead of one single name. Then you forget simple words, the date, and what you were going to get once you reached the top of the steps. Or even when you last went to the grocery store, even if it were yesterday. But what does it really matter? What is the difference between three days, weeks or even decades? I am ninety or ninety-three. One or the other.

(JACOB wheels over into the hallway a few feet. He is caught wondering why this small group of women has formed by the window.)


(Four old women huddle by the window. One passing by stops and joins them. They are talking subtly but imposing several questions to each other. A lot of small talk. JACOB’s curiosity drives him to rise from his wheel chair and switch to his walker. He slowly approaches the women at the end of the hallway.)

HAZEL: Afternoon Mr. Jankowski! Here let me help you.

(HAZEL wheels one of the women (DOLLY) away from the window making a space for JACOB to stand. JACOB glances up but the sun hinders his view. Then a canvas tent (striped white and magenta) appears as we see through JACOB’s eyes. This shock causes him to cough. The women panic.)

HAZEL: Oh Jacob, oh dear! Nurse, nurse! Hurry! (She waves over the nurse.)

JACOB: I am fine Hazel.

HAZEL: (Worried at nurse’s delay.) Nurse, Hurry! (More violently waves over nurse.)

JACOB: I said I’m- (He is cut off as a flood of nurses come and one brings him back to his chair and to his room. Time passes. Scene changes. JACOB is being wheeled down the hall to the dining area.)

JACOB: So what’s on the menu tonight? Porridge? Oh let me guess. Tapioca, isn’t it? Or are we calling it rice pudding tonight?

ROSEMARY: Oh, Mr. Jankowski. You sure are something, with those comments. (Shakes head slightly, and proceeds to wheel JACOB into the dining hall. He is placed across from JOSEPH Guinty, a newcomer. He is a retired lawyer and has a small sense of arrogance in his posture. The old women begin to chat again about the circus at the table next to JACOB and JOSEPH.

DORIS: They’re here until Sunday.

NORMA: Yes. Three shows all together. Two on Saturday and one Sunday. Randall and his girls are taking me tomorrow. (She turns her head to face JACOB.)

NORMA: Jacob. Will you be going? (Before he can answer HAZEL blurts out a question to the women in excitement.)

HAZEL: Do you remember when the circus traveled by train? (Small talk is made between the women. JACOB has not had the chance to answer. They discuss old memories of the circus...)