The earliest narrative films were rarely more than three to five minutes long, gradually extending to approximately twenty minutes by 1910, and then increasing steadily to a standard feature length of ninety to one hundred twenty minutes by the end of the silent era. Partly to avoid copyright payments and partly to exploit audience familiarity with already existing subject matter at a time when a coherent story could rarely be told on film without the use of copious intertitles or the services of a lecturer within the auditorium to explain the plot, the first adaptations were almost invariably taken from classic authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot (1819–1880), and Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) in Britain, and, on the Continent, Émile Zola (1840–1902), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), and others. The sheer length of most of these works, however, prohibited any attempt at completeness, and standard practice was to choose well-known extracts or scenes that were relatively self-sufficient, such as the "Dotheboys School" scenes from Nicholas Nickleby or the shipwreck scene from The Tempest. As films gradually increased in length, valiant attempts were made to squeeze the whole plot of a novel or film into a running time of around twenty minutes. Popular titles adapted in this early period included Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), Frankenstein (1910, and much filmed since, though never, despite such titles as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein , with much authenticity), Robinson Crusoe (1913), Faust (1915), and Don Quixote (1915).
Technically, most of these early films were static—filmed from a fixed camera position, usually in long shot, and presenting action in tableau-like form. By the 1910s, however, cinematic technique had become much more sophisticated, with extensive camera movement, fuller use of screen space and camera angle and distance, a more naturalistic acting style, and creative editing that enhanced understanding of plot and character rather than simply moving the action from one setting to another. It became possible to tell stories on the screen with more completeness and complexity, though the desire to give the young medium cultural respectability led to continued reliance on Shakespeare and Dickens in particular. Soon, however, more recent "best-selling" works began to appear on the screen, such as Mrs. Henry Wood's (1814–1887) melodrama East Lynne, filmed as the first British six-reeler (sixty to seventy minutes) in 1913, and, more controversially, D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) adaptation of Thomas Dixon's (1864–1946) The Clansman, filmed as The Birth of a Nation, one of the longest American features to date, in 1915. By the 1920s, such works predominated, with adaptations of now largely forgotten writers such as "Ouida" (1839–1908), Marie Corelli (1855–1924), Sir Hall Caine (1853–1931), E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866–1946), and the "sensational" novels of such writers as Michael Arlen (1895–1956), whose The Green Hat was filmed as A Woman of Affairs in 1928, starring Greta Garbo (1905–1990); while the endlessly prolific Edgar Wallace (1875–1932) may well hold the record for being the most frequently filmed English-speaking author ever.
In Europe the epics of the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916), such as Quo Vadis? (filmed in 1912), helped to provide material for the influential Italian historical dramas, and the novels of Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) were crucial sources for the great films of Victor Sjöström (1879–1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883–1928) in Sweden, particularly the former's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921) and the latter's Gösta Berlings saga (1924). In France Jean Renoir's (1894–1979) Nana (1926), Jacques Feyder's (1885–1948) Thérèse Raquin (1928) and Marcel L'Herbier's (1888–1979) L'argent (Money, 1929) were all based on works by the still controversial Zola. L'Herbier also filmed Luigi Pirandello's (1867–1936) Feu Mattias Pascal (The Late Mathias Pascal, 1925) and Feyder adapted both the best-seller L'atlantide (Lost Atlantis, 1920) by Pierre Benoît (1886–1962) and Crainquebille (Bill, 1922) by the then prestigious Anatole France (1844–1924). What is probably the greatest French film of the 1920s, however, was a different sort of adaptation: every word of Carl Theodor Dreyer's (1889–1968) La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928) was scrupulously based on the original transcripts of Joan's trial, and the austerity of the filmmaking style exactly matched the sparseness of the dialogue.