The most fun and fulfilling writing experience of my life was adapting my children’s picture book into an animation. Here I’m going to divulge some tips about the art of adaptation and share my journey of taking ‘Hopscotch and the Christmas Tree’, from book to screen. If you’re considering writing an adaptation yourself, I hope you’ll find this article helpful, even if you’re not writing for kids.
How did it all start?
I never had a specific intention of writing for children. In the back of my mind animation seemed like a fun medium, but I’d heard that no-one was going to pick up an animation spec script. Animation costs too much, and animated stories are usually developed by multiple creative people, not just the writer. So, I left the idea parked deep in my subconscious.
Instead, I beavered away mostly on romantic comedy feature scripts – a genre I adore. But after a period of being busy with my day job, jaded with rejection and dropped by an agent, I paused to reassess my options. I loved writing, but I wasn’t making the progress I wanted. I was fed up and worn out. How could I keep writing, but make it less all-consuming and fun again?
On a whim, I decided to turn my hand to writing short films. They were quick to write, quick to read, easy to share with potential collaborators, and super creative. You can do so many weird and wonderful things with short films that simply don’t work in feature films or television.
So, I embarked on a fantastic year of brainstorming, developing and writing short films. Long ones, short ones, medium-sized ones, often funny ones, occasionally dark, sometimes fantastical. I also watched short films, went to short film festivals, met and networked with short film-makers. I fell head over heels with writing again, I got my confidence back and I had a blast.
What has this got to do with adaptation and children’s picture books, I hear you ask?
Well, it just so happened, that one of one my short films – a quirky, fantastical comedy – caught the attention of a producer looking to develop a pre-school children’s animation series. And she asked me if I’d like to get involved. I didn’t have any kids at the time, so I wasn’t in a habit of watching children’s TV or reading children’s books. But like so many people, I loved Pixar and Aardman movies – and I also remembered that little notion, lodged in the back of my mind about one day wanting to write animation. So, I immediately said, ‘Yes please!’
And there began a long journey of creating a children’s animation series, that came to be called ‘Happy Go Hopscotch’. I won’t go into the ins and outs of developing the series – that’s a story for another article. But I will just say this. It was a fun, intense, wonderfully collaborative roller-coaster of a ride.
One very important step along the way was our decision to produce a children’s picture book, based on the ‘Happy Go Hopscotch’ series. This was back in 2016.
Writing my picture book
After multiple failed attempts, I finally managed to write a story that we were all happy with. I called it ‘Hopscotch and the Christmas Tree’. With great joy, we found a publisher, Tiny Tree, who loved it as much as we did and thankfully, they were both eager and willing to publish it in time for Christmas that same year.
Our talented illustrator (and animation director), Katerina Vykhodtseva, set to work on some beautiful and quirky visuals. Once we had some illustrations to share, alongside the story, our determined producer started pitching it to broadcasters and potential co-producers. The wonderful producer, Tamsin Lyons, came on board, and RTE Junior expressed interest in commissioning it as a 30-minute animated Christmas Special.
But to convince them to greenlight it, I first had to write the script. There was a tight deadline – eek! So, the pressure was on. I had to make it good, and I had to do it fast.
How did I approach the adaptation? What were the steps involved? What lessons did I learn?
I started by talking with my incredible script editor, Mark Holloway. When you’re adapting your own work, as I was, it’s hard to have enough distance from the piece. You need to be willing to make significant changes to transform the story from one medium to another. An outside set of eyes can be more objective. Mark is both super creative and fantastic at helping me to step back and envisage a bigger story, that would work on screen.
When you’re adapting anything at all, you must consider how the medium you’re going from is different to the medium you’re adapting to. Changes always need to be made.
There’s no one size fits all, but here’s a broad overview of different mediums.
If you’re adapting…
A novel into a film, the chances are you’re going to have to cut out a lot of detail. If you’re turning it into a TV series, however, you’ll need to add more detail.
A play for the screen, you’ll probably have to make it more visual, add more action, increase the number of locations, and reduce the amount of dialogue.
A short story, an article or a children’s picture book into a film – you’ll very likely need more scenes and create more story.
Children’s picture books are very specific
Firstly, they’re extremely short – usually in the region of 500-700 words long. The characters don’t usually have a backstory, and the reader has to infer their motivation (in other words, make it up for themselves). There may not be very much if any, character conflict. The stories are often magical, but not necessarily logical. And there might be minimal drama and perhaps no antagonist. But if it’s a fun story, children won’t mind at all. It will simply make sense to their vivid imaginations.
However, as soon as you turn a picture book into an animated film it needs more depth and it generally has to appeal to a slightly wider audience.
Things I talked over with my script editor
- How can we make the world bigger?
- What are the big set pieces?
- Is there a clear, overall goal?
- Are the characters properly motivated?
- Is there enough conflict between the characters?
- The theme of my ‘Hopscotch’ series was the ‘Science of Happiness’. So, we asked, was the ‘happiness lesson’ neatly woven into the storyline – not in a preachy way, but in an organic way?
- How can we make it feel magical, as it’s a Christmas Special?
Once we’d mulled all this over and come up with some answers, I set about writing a Scene-by-Scene outline of the film.
The writing process
First, I simply lifted the words from my picture book and used them as the initial structure of my film. I broke it down into individual scenes then added detail. Next, I invented a wonderfully filmic opening – as I wanted it to feel visual – grand – special. I worked on the overall goal and created plenty of drama along the way.
Time for feedback. Then, I wrote another version, got more feedback and set to work on the script. I penned 4 drafts between early October and early December 2017, then it was submitted to RTE Junior, and all I could do was wait.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long. By early 2018 the news was in. RTE Junior was ready to commission our animated Christmas Special. Woo hoo! Talk about excited! The producers, along with director Katerina, set about the huge task of putting together a team of animators, artists, musicians, sound designers, actors and all the other essential people to bring the animation to life. Meanwhile, I was tasked with revisions. Over the course of the next 8 months, I completed 10 more rewrites.
I loved my beautifully crafted, fun, Christmassy opening sequence. But others worried that we needed to quickly introduce each of the 6 ensemble cast members. This made total sense – it was a big cast, and it could be confusing, but I was sad nonetheless and dragged my heels.
I also begrudged being given an alternative suggestion. I was the writer and I felt I should be the one coming up with all the story ideas. But that’s not how it works in animation, which is a hugely collaborative medium, and wonderful because of it. What we ended up with turned out to be equally fun, filmic and just as Christmassy. But more importantly, the audience got to meet all of the main characters from the get-go.
Different points of view
Another big change was the appearance of Santa. Or at least it felt big at the time. Santa doesn’t appear in the book; however, script editor Mark had the fun idea of introducing a special visit from Santa at the end of the film. It was a lovely idea and fitted the film perfectly. For some extra magic, I wanted Santa to arrive on his sleigh, flying through the sky. I adored this sequence and got such a kick out of writing it. Everyone who read it seemed to love it too. Until we received some feedback from one of our Scandinavian collaborators.
In the Nordic countries, Santa does not fly. He travels across the snowy land, instead. A flying Santa was distinctly American, to their minds, and therefore tacky. So, it was strongly advised that I cut the flying Santa to give it a more European feel. Once again, I dug my heels in. It was such an enchanting moment when the characters see Santa flying towards them on his sleigh. But in the end, I relented, and weirdly, it didn’t make a scrap of difference. Santa arriving on land turned out to be just as magical and I can’t believe how much time and energy I wasted stressing over that change!
There were many small changes and tweaks to be made. A lot of these related to getting the script into the right shape for several different voice recordings.
One peculiarity of animation is the necessity of writing every little grunt, groan, chuckle and reaction into the script. Because all these things need to be recorded by the actors and if they’re not in the script, they could easily be forgotten. And if they’re forgotten, that means going back into the recording studio at a later date and spending more money.
So, if a character almost trips up, you need to add a little ‘woahh!’, if someone gets hurt, you must add ‘ouch!’, if someone does something funny, there must be laughter, and if a character leaves, they must say ‘bye!’
This all seemed a bit alien to me, as I was used to more minimalistic script writing. But the thing is, animated characters don’t have the same range of facial expressions as actual actors do. Therefore, many things need to be revealed through sound. This was a learning curve.
We did it!
So, after 14 rewrites, several months of production, which took place in multiple countries across Europe, we finally had a finished film. Seeing my picture book come to life and brought to screen, thanks to the help of dozens of people, was utterly thrilling. And I can’t tell you how proud I was of the end result.
The script was enormously fun to write. Some scripts are painful, causing heartache and tears; they almost have to be dragged out of you. But this script was pure delight. Of course, there were ups and downs along the way. I remember having to do urgent, last-minute rewrites in time for a voice recording, whilst pregnant and on holiday in Crete with terrible WIFI. That was not so fun. But despite a few stressful moments, my overall memory is one of magic.
‘Hopscotch and the Christmas Tree’ premiered on RTE Junior over Christmas 2018, garnered some lovely reviews, reaped nominations for Best Film and Best Animation at the Irish Animation Awards and went on to be broadcast on multiple other channels worldwide over Christmas 2019, including screening in 200 cinemas across France.
Quick Summary if you’re embarking on a picture book adaptation
- If you’re adapting your own work, make sure you get input from someone less close to the source material.
- Think hard about the medium you’re going from and the medium you’re going to. Do you need to expand or condense your story?
- Are your characters fully rounded and properly motivated?
- Is there a clear goal?
- Is there enough drama and obstacles along the way (even in a comedy)?
- Be prepared for feedback. Leave your ego at the door. This is no longer your baby, it’s a collaborative work of art.
- If you’re writing animation, make sure you’re familiar with the technical side of writing, when it comes to the voice recording.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful. I’d love to hear about your experiences of writing an adaptation. Do let me know.
By the way, do you have a writing-related question? Get in touch as I might be able to offer a useful suggestion in a future post.
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