The art of adaptation – Nicole Murphy

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By Nicole Murphy

Taking another story and adapting it to a new genre or purpose is an age-old tradition. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw used the Greek myth of Pygmalion as part of the process of writing his play Pygmalion. Which makes it ironic that his play was then adapted to become the mega-musical My Fair Lady. Oh, and that I adapted it for my contemporary romance The Making of Henri Higgins.♥

I have just finished a series where I took three of my favourite plays and adapted them for contemporary romances – Much Ado About Love, The Making of Henri Higgins and The Importance of Ernestine. It takes a very different way of thinking about story and writing to write an adaptation, versus an original novel. So, how do you approach writing an adaptation?

1. Choose a good work to adapt.

Plays are actually a great choice, because so much of the story is intended to be imagined and presented by the people putting on the play, so there’s a lot of scope to fill in your own details. But they aren’t the only option – Pride and Prejudice is a very adaptated book (in the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, brilliantly so – love that movie!). It needs to be a story that you believe in, that you can see where you can move it to make it your own, and preferably out of copyright so there are no issues there. It also needs to be a story with depth – the issues it is canvassing, the things it is saying will be important in developing your version.

2. Work out what you are going to take from it.

Even with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as an example of a good adaptation, I would argue against using a story holus-bolus. Instead, in order to make it truly your own, work out the elements of the story that you will keep and discard the rest. The general pattern of the plot should make it in, and elements of the characterisation. I think working out the theme of the work you are adapting and keeping it as part of your work is a great idea.

For example, one of the themes of The Importance of Being Earnest is how ridiculous people are at making trivial concerns important and trivialising the really important ones. Thinking on that theme led me to set my version in the place most famous for doing that – Parliament. That was the big step in making the adaptation work. In Much Ado About Love, I followed the basic plot but added my own elements to it to make it work in the modern world. I also condensed some characters into one and did away completely with other characters to lessen the amount of people I had to deal with. I also decided to make some of the originally male characters female, because Shakespeare’s version is very male heavy. Think carefully about what you will keep and what you throw away – it still needs to be recognisable as based on the original, but you don’t want to be caught in plot or characters or ideas that won’t work in your version.

3. Plan it out.

An adaptation is something you just can’t wing (sorry pantsers). You need to take the elements that you have pulled out of the original work and make them all work together within the work you are creating. In The Making of Henri Higgins, I chose to use Pygmalion as my base rather than My Fair Lady. The issue with that is that Pygmalion is NOT a romance – Eliza and Higgins do not get together at the end of the book. In face, Shaw wrote that in his mind, Eliza marries Freddie and ends up owning that flower shop, although she and Higgins and the Colonel have formed a family and they all continue to live in Higgins’ house.

So while I had the basic (and brilliant) plot of the bet about transforming someone, it needed a lot of work in order to hit the transitions and beats that make a good romance storyline. I also had to come up with a new setting, because it’s a contemporary romance. One of the themes of the original for me is about class and wanting to move between classes and better yourself, but if you aim for that, you can’t go back to the life you had if the new doesn’t suit you. You can end up, as poor Eliza did in a way, stuck between worlds and not really belonging to either. In my mind, the modern equivalent of that is the chase for fame. So many people want to be famous, but being famous isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries, particularly if it goes wrong. From there, it was easy to make the bet about making someone famous, and it developed from there.

4. Go beyond the story.

In order to make it your own, and make it new and unique, you need to be prepared to go beyond the story. In my version of Much Ado About Nothing, Trix (Beatrice) is the owner of a small country conference venue (thus giving a place and reason for the visit of Ben (Benedict) and the rest). Apart from dealing with Ben, and her cousin falling in love, Trix also is having issues with the local council – they want to shut her down and it turns out there were problems with the paperwork when her grandparents started the centre and she may lose everything. It gives the story an added layer of tension – which every good story needs. Will Trix be okay? Will she let Ben in on her problem? Those questions get layered on top of the originals from the story – Will Trix and Ben admit they actually love each other? Will John get away with his villainy? Romance comes with the guarantee of a happily ever after ending – but you need to make the reader sweat a bit before they get their reward.

Some people might think that using someone else’s work as the basis of yours is cheating – you’ve got most of the work done, so it’s easy. But it actually requires as much (if not more) work than developing a story from scratch. It also poses new problems – problems that flex your writing muscles and will have you developing skills that original works will not.

So go ahead, grab a good story and have a go. You’ll have fun and learn a lot.


Nicole Murphy has been telling stories for as long as she can remember and been writing them down since primary school. She’s had 12 novels published – six as Nicole Murphy (the Dream of Asarlai trilogy with HarperCollins Australia and the Jorda trilogy with Escape Publishing) and six as Elizabeth Dunk (contemporary romance with Escape Publishing). Nicole works as a professional conference organiser. She lives in Queanbeyan with her husband Tim, a woodworker and their two budgies, Freddy and Pinky.

nicolermurphy.com

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