The 2020 Microflix Awards and Festival is upon us and this batch of microlit is ripe for adaptation – but what’s the best way to make someone else’s story your own?

In Such a Transformation, Yasmine Gooneratne says; “The best adaptations imitate … capturing the spirit of the text …Imitation invites the reader to hold the old text and the new simultaneously in their mind and rejoice in their differences.”

Part of adaptation is recognising what works in the current format. What makes this story so compelling that you feel the need to tell it in a new and unexpected way? Was it the characters, the prose, or a feeling you got when you read it? It’s important to know what part of the story made it what it was so that you don’t lose it in the process of adaptation.

To make a text work dramatically on film, sometimes you have to lose your favourite parts.

The phrase “kill your darlings,” isn’t a popular one for nothing. Some of the best bits might not translate to the screen. It can feel perilous deciding what to cut and what to keep – but in a three-minute film, every second is precious and must be to the benefit of the characters and themes.

According to Linda Segar, there are three main categories of adaptation;

Reconstruction: in which you try to be as faithful to the original material as possible. To pull this off, you should decide first what the central story is – then focus on preserving and sharpening this narrative. A good example of reconstruction is Pride and Prejudice (2005).

Pride and Prejudice (2005) is an example of trying to remain as faithful to the source material as possible.

Reimagination: in which you remain faithful in parts to the original, but put your own spin on character, setting and plot. To reimagine a text, you should define the essence of the text and decide how to translate those themes onto the screen. An example of reimagination is Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), which is reimagined from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

An example of reimagination is Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

Deconstruction: in which you take the original as a jumping off point and create something almost entirely new and original. To deconstruct the text, define what is intriguing to you about the source material, and then take it as far as your imagination allows. An example of deconstruction is Marie Antoinette (2006).

An example of deconstruction is Marie Antoinette (2006).

So there you have it – reconstruction, reimagination and deconstruction. Which one is best for you and the story you have chosen?

So, why do some adaptations work, and others don’t?
What drew critics and audiences in their millions to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women? On the other hand, what was it about The Girl on the Train which alienated fans of the novel? You can’t make everyone happy – but when adaptations make changes which sacrifice what made the original text truly memorable, the result is often only an echo of the extraordinary source material. Big changes aren’t always a bad thing – but they should enhance the narrative, rather than distract from it. When Greta Gerwig changed the timeline of Little Women, shifting and rearranging events, she never lost the heart and soul of what made Louisa May Alcott’s novel so beloved. Moving between past and present created a moving, fluid narrative about the changing relationships of the March sisters.

Regardless of what form of adaptation you choose, the most important thing is to decide early and often what makes the source material remarkable – and then hold on to it at any cost.

Ashleigh Mounser has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong and a Graduate Certificate in Screenwriting from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Since graduating in 2018, she has written and produced five short films. Mounser was Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Writer of the Year in 2012; the overall winner of the Future Leaders Writing Competition; winner of the ‘Time to Write’ contest by the University of Melbourne, and recipient of two arts grants from the Bouddi Foundation of the Arts, presented by John Bell of the Bell Shakespeare Company. Her first feature comedy film, Questions and Comments was nominated for the Humanitas Prize by Thomas Musca, was shot in Miami and is due to be released in May 2020.