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.