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How To Write a Pantomime Adaptation

by | Mar 9, 2021

Ever seen a usual panto title and wondered how they’ve made that story into a pantomime adaptation? I’ve seen many pantomime adaptations of less well known titles, some more successful than others. I’ve distilled what I’ve learned from adapting unusual titles like Rapunzel, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan to help you take a story of your choice and adapt it into a pantomime.

What does a story need to be adaptable into a pantomime?

Key ingredients for a pantomime adaptation

The main aspects of a pantomime plot are very similar to any good story. In my opinion these are:

  • A hero (protagonist) – someone to get behind and root for, usually a force for good
  • A villain (antagonist) – someone who is working against the hero to stop them
  • Moral backbone – something that the protagonist, and the audience, learn along the way
  • Strong story arc – a beginning, middle and end, with high stakes
  • Character development – the main protagonist must have changed in some way by the end

Themes

A lot of pantomimes have universal themes which run through the tales of bravery and adventure. So if you have a story which matches those themes, you are on the right track for a pantomime adaptation. Some of those themes are:

  • Self discovery
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Class issues
  • Love
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Integrity
  • Bravery

Do stories need to be well known to make a good pantomime adaptation?

Although stories don’t need to be famous to make a good pantomime, it does help if they have a level of commercial appeal and awareness. There’s no point adapting a script which your audience won’t want to come and see! Equally, think about whether you can give your script another type of appeal for your audience. Is there a local hero to include? Or a strong location to base the script in? These can be ways to help make your script more relevant to your audience. QDOS – the world’s biggest pantomime producer – are working on exactly that basis, and have recently had success with Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Newcastle. They’re following that with Humpty Dumpty this Christmas!

Is there value in more unusual pantomime titles?

In short: I think so. Once you’ve built a reputation for producing great pantomimes using traditional titles, you can then branch out and treat your audience to more unconventional pantomime adaptations. I’ve written more about this in my blog about pantomime titles.

How do I actually make the story work as a pantomime adaptation?

When we watch a pantomime, it is immediately recognisable as such. We know that there will be familiar characters and elements which we look forward to every year. So taking an unusual source material of a book or story to adapt needs to include those things. My steps are:

Adapt the plot

One of the key elements of a pantomime is it’s structured plot narrative. So to adapt a non-pantomime story into a panto, you need to get it to fit into the pantomime structure.

  • Write out the key plot points and try and fit them to a pantomime plot structure.
  • Consider scenery and whether you need to move the location of some plot points to make that work.
  • Consider outdated ideas that might be present if you’re adapting historical material. Can you make them into part off the comedy? Is it important to cut them out completely? Are they still relevant to modern audiences. Being aware of how we present issues like race, gender and sexuality is really important.

Adapt the characters

Chances are, you’ll already have an idea of which characters from the source material will work well in a pantomime. Trust your instincts on this – you can usually bend the characters based on their traits in the original source material.

  • Take the key characters and try to see which of the pantomime character archetypes they might fit into best.
  • With some of the larger character counts you might want to try and distill the characters down
  • If you’re adapting for a large cast – keep them in, but keep the main cast in focus as this helps the audience with following the plot and story rather than playing a big game of guess who!
  • There will be characters you want to cut – think about why they were included in the original and if their function is still important, make sure it’s being undertaken by another character that you’ve kept.
  • Consider the genders of the characters you have, and the gender of the cast member playing them. Which character would make the best Dame, principal boy etc. Are there some characters you’d like to change the gender of to get a better gender balance in the cast?

Once you’ve got the plot and characters

Next you need to add in the key elements of pantomime including traditions and comedy routines. Make sure that these elements don’t feel shoe-horned in, weave them in naturally and adapt them to best fit the title.

A little something extra

If there are elements of the plot, or characters and traditions that don’t fit, then consider if there’s a way to reinvent them for this title, or decide to leave them out altogether.

If you can think of ways to twist the story, to make it funnier, why not do it? Character names are a great example of this. I was in a Treasure Island pantomime which changed the names of a lot of characters to make them funnier. For example, rather than Blind Pew, the pirate was named Blind Puke. I recently heard about a King Arthur pantomime where the Knights were on a quest to retrieve the round table from the magical land of ‘Ikea’. These extra tweaks and quirks will help your story to be original and (hopefully) make people laugh!

But then what?

Then all that’s left is to write the script. Easier said than done of course! But if you’d undertaken all of the planning and preparation I’ve laid out above, you’ll be onto a winner!

A word of warning

There is a fine line between pantomime, farce and family show. I’ve often been to see ‘pantomimes’ that are really just family musicals with a couple of jokes in them. For me, if you’re adapting something into a pantomime, it must have more panto DNA running through it than anything else. Most of it, it must be funny. Time and time again I go to see pantos that just don’t feature comedy. Some of my best memories as a child are of the slapstick routines of pantos. The magic that is created on stage never gets forgotten!

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