The differences between a novel and a screenplay

t37349h39wdI read recently (but forget where) that when John Huston was late with his screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, he got his secretary to type out the text of the novel in screenplay format while he went on holiday. Jack Warner, one of the Warner brothers, showed up at Huston’s office, found the transcript and assumed it to be the draft screenplay. When Huston returned from holiday Warner told him he loved the script and that he needn’t change a thing.

A great story, and just out of interest I took a look at both. Below is the opening paragraph of Dashiell Hammett’s novel:

‘Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by the thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point upon his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.’

This is from the first page of Huston’s screenplay:


behind his cheap office desk, back to the window. His jaw is long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. The V motif is picked up again by thickish brows rising upward from twin creases above a hooked nose. His dark hair grows down to a point on his forehead. He looks rather pleasantly like Satan.

The similarities go right through Huston’s screenplay but that short bit on its own really shows some of the main differences in how screenplays and novels are written.

Format is the first very obvious difference. The layout of a screenplay is just way more complicated and pretty much impossible or, at the very least, very time consuming without software like Final Draft, etc.

Introducing characters. Hammett introduces the reader to Sam Spade in the first sentence of the novel. Although the screenplay reader gets his name on the first page, when you watch the movie you don’t find out Spade’s name until nearly five minutes in, and then only by a process of elimination when Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, enters the office (the names ‘Spade and Archer’ are written on the window behind Sam).

Past tense. You just can’t write a screenplay in the past tense. Can you?

Physical appearance. Hammet’s Spade is blonde but Huston’s has dark hair. Maybe that was just because no blondes wanted the part. George Raft famously turned down the role (was he blonde? I’ve only ever seen him in black and white) so maybe they had to ‘settle’ for the dark-haired Bogart.

And this little excerpt above shows just how important the actor is. The Satan reference in Hammett’s novel instantly gives the reader and good idea the type of man Sam Spade is. But in the movie, the actor has to try and put those aspects of his character over to the audience. Or not. I have to say, I never really thought of Sam Spade as very devilish any time I watched the film. Maybe Bogart decided he wasn’t.

Speech. Novelists often struggle to find the right word to convey the exact emotion carried in the voice of a character. They use phrases like: she said tearfully, he shouted angrily, he replied mechanically. The first words Miss Wonderly says in The Maltese Falcon, for example, are ‘Thank you’ as she is lead into Spade’s office by his secretary. In the novel, she says these words ‘so softly that only the purist articulation made the words intelligible’. John Huston writes this as:

Thank you.

This probably points to the most important difference between novels and screenplays. While editors, agents, publishers and even marketing people can all have a say in how it looks, a novel is generally considered to be the work of one person – the novelist. But a screenplay isn’t the end product. The movie is. And look at the list of people involved there. Making movies is a much more collaborative process than producing a novel. There, the screenplay is only the beginning.

There are lots more differences in structure and the like; the story climax can come much earlier in novels, you don’t have to come with 3 distinct acts and you can ramble a bit more in books.

Dashiell Hammett is considered by many to be the greatest thriller writer of all time, if not for his novel writing then certainly for his influence on cinema. And probably the only reason his work is so easily adapted to the screen is that he writes in ‘pictures’ – and that’s probably the most important similarity between the two. Any others?

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Book editor with, considering the links between therapy and fiction at and reviewer for @bookmunch.

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