I am trying to convert a fiction book into a film script. The book uses third-person past tense narration that switches between several characters from chapter to chapter and thus is always from a particular character's viewpoint. There is quite a bit of indirect thought from the narrator/character in which they add more details about characters, setting, past events, etc. Direct thought is also used to show character reactions/feelings in situations where they don't want the other characters around them to hear those reactions/feelings.

I would like any thoughts (indirect or direct) of the narrator/character to become voice-over narration in the film since I cannot see how these would translate over otherwise. However, the challenge I'm having is that indirect thought is in third person past, direct thought is in first person present. At first, I thought, just convert all indirect thought to direct thought. This would make everything very simple since all thoughts would become voice-over in the film script, and action narration would stay as action on screen. But this isn't very straightforward, for me at least. A large part of the problem is that it doesn't make sense for the narrator/character to be having direct thoughts about things they already know, and therefore makes it very contrived and obvious that these thoughts are there just for the audience and each time it happens it feels like a fourth wall break. At this stage, I have been doing rewrites of the indirect thoughts to make them convey the same details but in a way that would make sense when the narrator/character is talking to themselves in a sane way.

For example, to demonstrate the above, bold is indirect thought, italics is direct thought.

Jill arrived earlier than expected and so decided to visit a block of flats nearby. Ruth, Jill's sister, was living here, she had moved to the docks after her divorce. I hate the docks, thought Jill. The smell of the water reminded Ruth of her ex-husband which is why she decided to stay here. Next year I'll have to move away, I should tell Ruth soon. "Hi Jill," said Ruth suddenly, appearing from around the corner. "Your son tells me you're planning to move next year. Explain." Damn you Ruth!

So as mentioned, simply changing the bold above to first-person present as direct thought, seems to just make the narrator/character sound a little crazy or suffering from memory loss. Here is an example of a rewrite:

  1. Original (indirect thought)
  • Ruth, Jill's sister, was living here, she had moved to the docks after her divorce.
  1. First Rewrite (direct thought with tense change only)
  • Ruth, my sister, is living here, she moved to the docks after her divorce.
  1. Second Rewrite (direct thought with additional changes)
  • My sister Ruth should be home around now, maybe she'll have more funny stories about when her ex-husband and she used to go sailing.

The third sounds the best to me but still feels a bit forced, however; I can't come up with anything better.

Is there a better way to approach this kind of "conversion" while staying as true to the source material as possible yet still taking advantage of film as a medium?

A similar question has been asked at Movie and TV Stack Exchange, some very useful suggestions over there.

  • 4
    This is why books and films are different. I'm not sure there's any way to directly translate (any more than you could, say, translate English to French by translating one word at a time and ignoring grammar). Mar 27, 2021 at 15:17
  • 3
    I agree with @DM_with_secrets. Script writing is very different from writing fiction. Remember also that you don't need to explain everything in dialogue: Information can be conveyed by clothing, picture color, flashbacks, mise-en-scène, actors' facial expressions, etc.
    – veryverde
    Mar 27, 2021 at 20:30
  • @MichalBurgunder yes completely understand. I guess I was hoping for suggestions on some of the ways this has been done effectively in the past, since there are quite a few book to movie adaptations, some better than others.
    – FrontEnd
    Mar 28, 2021 at 10:28

4 Answers 4


It's very rare that a movie does what you're describing, as I cannot think of a single movie that does it. Each film uses the strengths of film to express internal dialogue, rather than explicitly saying what is said in the book. In all cases I can think of, the fourth wall is broken to an extent. High Fidelity (2000) did a fantastic job at this, though broke the fourth wall entirely. Mean Girls (2004) (though not based on a book), Wolf of Wall Street (2013), even Funny Games (1997, also not based on a book) uses this technique to an extent.

If you decide not to break the fourth wall, contrast these examples with something like Twilight (2008) where in the book had plenty of internal dialogue, which was absent in the movie (if I recall correctly).

Internal dialogue, when the character is alone, however, is far more acceptable, and present in film. Silence of the Lambs (1991) makes use of this in one scene, I believe. Gravity (2013) is another example.

  • 3
    Would Sin City be an example of this (although based on a graphic novel)? All the main characters have internal thoughts via VO to describe other characters, past events etc. youtu.be/JV1436VsnZY?t=13
    – FrontEnd
    Mar 28, 2021 at 13:19
  • Yes! I forgot about that movie. Though it probably works very well for the full 120 something minutes because there are three stories in the film. So the internal dialogue doesn't get repetitive, because for each story we are getting to know a new character.
    – veryverde
    Mar 28, 2021 at 14:51
  • Sin City seemed to be copying Sam Spade movie voice-overs "the dame had legs forever, a voice that made you want to roll over and bark, and ...". It was a film noir style thing. I always figured that was partly why BladeRunner did it, even though people thought the non-voice-over version was better. Mar 28, 2021 at 21:34

The media of cinema and literature are different enough that it's almost impossible to convert one into the other - hence the term "adaptation". Many of the strengths of one medium are weaknesses in the other. There's a good reason for the adage "Show, don't tell" when it comes to screenwriting; in addition, the script is one of many ingredients in the finished product of "a movie".

Adapting literature into cinema well might as well be an esoteric art, and in my opinion, requires someone well versed in the norms and methods of both media.

In short, my answer would be that you're trying to hike down the wrong trail. You might be better served by taking a step back from the sequences or scenes that you're working and on consider the best way to use the multi-sensory medium of cinema to convey the vital and salient aspects of that scene, whether it be emotion, or plot action, or character development, or some other facet. By necessity, this involves losing many details while preserving that vital aspect.

  • 1
    Definitely. Would you be able to add some examples of book to movie adaptations that worked well, and the ways in which they adapted indirect thought?
    – FrontEnd
    Mar 28, 2021 at 10:31

I think the standard trick is to invent a character and a reason for her to tell this stuff to. Say you add a guy selling tacos:

Taco guy: Two fish tacos, extra cilantro?

[Jill nods yes, glad to see him]

Taco guy: You're going to miss these after you move

Jill [dumping on condiments]: Yeah, but I won't miss the stench of the ocean

Taco guy: I've been saying you'll get used to it for what, two years? Say, I always meant to ask why you moved here

Jill [wolfing down taco]: My sister's idea. The sea "reminds her of her ex-husband".

Fish guy: Dead?

Jill: No. Shacked-up with his hygenesist

Taco guy: Ouch. You're a good sister.

It can seem a bit clumsy -- she just happens to sum up the last two years all at once, but Shakespeare did that all the time and even clumsier. Often a character simply asked "so remind me why we're here?". People have been copying that for centuries.


Taking advantage of film as a medium shouldn’t be at the cost of staying true to the source material but that says nothing about handling voice-over.

Don’t you think it would be a very rare film that narrated any of the given example, action or thought of either kind?

After Jill is shown arriving early and visiting the flats, why would she not then step in a puddle, or wrinkle her nose at a barrel of fish, and mutter: “I hate the docks. Why did Ruth have to move to the docks just because she got divorced? What, my sister thinks she needs the smell of the water to remind her of her ex-…? Huh!”

When thoughts can’t be expressed by thinking aloud, consider expressing different tenses with different voices.

If in the text, it does make sense for the character to be having thoughts about things known isn’t the problem with the thoughts, not the technique?

In the example, are the bold and italic distinctions from the original text? Either way, the passage Posted already makes the narrator/character seem crazy or suffering. Again, are the non-standard paragraph breaks for dialogue original?

Can you find half a dozen book-film pairs with narration for detailed research? I suggest pretty-much the only film that truly benefits from a voice-over narration is The Shawshank Redemption and even that would have been far less helpful were it not for Morgan Freeman reading it.

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