Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Andrew Davies Talks About the Art of Screenwriting

Here are tips from Andrew Davies on how to adapt literary classics for TV as it appeared in The Telegraph. Andrew was the screenwriter for the 1995 Pride and Prejudice as well as Middlemarch and Little Dorrit, among a host of others:

1. Read the book, or better still, listen to an unabridged recording, and immerse yourself in the characters, the language, the emotions the book calls up in you. You’ll note the high points that simply ask to be dramatised, and also problems that will need addressing.

2. Ask yourself: why this book, and why now? It may simply be that the book (Pride and Prejudice, for example) deals with themes of perennial interest: love, sex, money, class, generational conflict, and so on. But sometimes a particular note will reverberate across decades and even centuries... (South Riding is set in the Thirties, in a recession, with lots of parallels to the situation we are in today.)

3. Ask yourself: whose story is this, really? Not always obvious. Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice from Elizabeth’s point of view. But the story is just as much Darcy’s. So I allow the audience to see Darcy on his own, or with other men, enabling us to know him better, and like him more... But the book is also a portrait of a whole community (like Middlemarch) and it’s important to show how the lives of all the characters are interconnected.

4. Don’t be afraid to change things, especially openings. Novels often have leisurely openings: a TV drama needs an arresting opening... In Pride and Prejudice, instead of a tea table, I started with Darcy and Bingley on galloping horses, with Elizabeth watching from a distance, intrigued and unaware of how her life is going to change.

5. Don’t start without a plan. You might change it later, but you need a clear idea of how many episodes, and roughly where each one will end – preferably with a cliffhanger. Plan for each episode to be a satisfying experience, but still leave the audience thinking: "Oh, my God! Now what?" Cracking the structure is often the hardest part, especially with a massive rambling beast like Vanity Fair. (Jane Austen’s plotting, however, suits a TV serial perfectly, and you meddle with her construction at your peril.)

6. Never use a line of dialogue if you can achieve the effect with a look. The most moving scene for me in Pride and Prejudice is the Pemberley music room scene: Elizabeth has just saved Darcy’s sister from embarrassment and confusion, and as the music plays on, Darcy’s look of gratitude becomes a look of love, which we see reciprocated in Elizabeth’s eyes. (I absolutely agree with this!)

7. Though dialogue is important too... the trick is to crystallise dialogue to its essence. Sometimes you can get away with “copying out the best bits” – at these times adaptation feels like money for old rope. But at other times you will find you have to write scenes that aren’t in the book, and for this you need to learn the individual tune of a character’s voice and be able to produce sentences for them that no one can tell from the original.

8. But why should you need to write scenes that aren’t in the book? Because a drama is a different animal from a novel. Novelists use summary to cover anything from a few minutes to a few years. Here’s an example from Sense and Sensibility: “This circumstance was a growing attachment between her eldest girl and the brother of Mrs John Dashwood…” But we never hear their conversations, and it’s hard to see what attracts Elinor to Edward Ferrars. Jane Austen simply doesn’t do the necessary work, so I had to do it for her... Inventing scenes like this, and making them seem an integral part of the book, is one of the great joys of adaptation.

9. Avoid voice-over, flashbacks, and characters talking directly to camera. Techniques like these draw attention to themselves, and distance the audience from the drama. Having said that, I confess to using all three (not usually at the same time) and sometimes, with the right actor (Alex Kingston in Moll Flanders, Ian Richardson in House of Cards), talking to camera in particular can be brilliantly effective.

10. Break your own rules when it feels like the right thing to do.

All this from a master storyteller. The full interview is here.


  1. I LOVE Andrew Davies!!! This man needs to live forever, as he is one of the most amazing screenwriters ever to have walked the earth. I am watching Little Dorrit for the second time this month as once through the 14 part series wasn't enough for me!

    Love this man. Did I mention that I love him?

    Thanks for the link Mary. By the way, I am also reading your book Searching for Pemberley and am enjoying it immensely. I will move on to your new one The Perfect Bride for Mr. Darcy after this one.

  2. Hi Jenny, Thank you for your compliments. You are now officially my BFF! Mary

  3. Mary,

    Thanks for this post. I like all of Andrew Davies adaptations, but have been puzzled why some scenes are left out, some bent a bit. This helps explain it. I get so into the words of a book that making the leap to film sometimes messes with the picture I had in my head.

    The Beach Girls and I watch his P&P every fall when we go to the beach. Invariably someone (me) wants to fast forward to the"Look" in the music room. We are besotted by that one scene. Yet, Austen didn't write it, Davies did. But I'm sure that Jane would have written the scene had she known her book would be made into a mini-series.

  4. Hi Lucy. I think Jane would have been pleased with Davies' adaptation, and "the look." Oh, it brings back memories when my husband I were dating. There's nothing like it.

  5. Great find! Excellent advice, not that I'll ever write a screenplay.

  6. This was wonderful to read.
    This is why JRR Tolkien wouldn't give the rights out to anybody who wanted to make a movie on his great works, he was afraid it would not be done the way it should be. I personally think he was right. At the turn of the century in comes Peter Jackson and bamm, you have an extroadinary excellent movie. Different than the book, yet still the same. Certainly the movie is in keeping within the same spirits as Tolkien's own writings.
    I loved Davies Little Dorrit adaptation, even more so than his P&P. I think it's the atmosphere that you feel according how you read and when you watch the movies if it brings those same feelings out of you then you are going to love it and it is going to be ever so better for you. He is really good at being that kind of screenwriter - making you feel like you are reading the book in action.

  7. Trez, It sounds like you and Jenny Allworthy are kindred spirits. She loves Little Dorrit. You should visit her blog: I'll have to take your word on Tolkien. I don't read fantasy at all, but it seems that I am in the minority.