Screenplay Concept

ADAPTATION

The great majority of Hollywood movies has been adapted from other sources, e.g., novels, biographies, plays, short stories, epic poems, news articles, real life, etc. An adaptation simply has greater chance of being made into a movie--of appealing to producers and investors.

Why do producers like adaptations?

Primarily because they have a more predictable chance of succeeding at the box office. They have a greater appeal to an audience already familiar with the story and author, and who anticipate the cinematic release.

Perhaps even more importantly to a producer bewitched by the endless 'developmental hell' of getting a script properly written and into production, the concept, story, and characters of an adapted screenplay have all been tested in the marketplace. The story 'works' beginning to end-- and it has achieved a certain fame and popularity because of it.

An adapted script often comes from a story penned by a well-known writer, perhaps a giant from yesteryear. It may even be one of the producer's favorites. That he's simply familiar with the story or the author is a major plus.

These benefits generally put the adaptation way ahead of an original 'spec script' on the producer's stack. And these same benefits help you as a writer both to write an successful screenplay, and, obviously, to get it sold.

Why don't more writers adapt?

In spite of the enormous hold adaptations have on the Hollywood movie machine, new writers continue to submit original stories--the very hardest both to write and to sell--almost exclusively. Why? Ego, partly, the desire to tell their own story their way, even though no one in Babylon yet knows their name or abilities. Most importantly, though, are the rights to the story and the imagined difficulties of getting them.

For major contemporary bestsellers the going can certainly be tough for the new writer without substantial legal and financial resource. But with the major classics, and the undiscovered gem, there's still considerable room in the adaptation game for the newbie. First of all, the overwhelming share of world literature put out since the beginning of time has now passed into the public domain, meaning nobody holds the rights to it anymore. You may adapt such material to your hearts content without fear of legal reprisal.

PUBLIC DOMAIN: The status of an invention, creative work, or any other creation that is not protected by some form of intellectual property. Items that have been determined to be in the public domain are available for copying and use by anyone. Public access to literature, art, music, and film is essential to preserving and building on our cultural heritage. Many of the most important works of American culture have drawn upon the creative potential of the public domain. The public domain allows people who cannot afford to purchase copyrights the freedom to use basic ideas to create further innovation. Copyrights are generally expire in most countries when all of the following conditions are satisfied:
  • The work was created and first published before January 1, 1923, or at least 95 years before January 1 of the current year, whichever is later.
  • The last surviving author died at least 70 years before January 1 of the current year.
  • No Berne Convention signatory has passed a perpetual copyright on the work.
  • Neither the United States nor the European Union has passed a copyright term extension since these conditions were last updated.

Moreover, new stories are appearing everyday in the news that merit screen attention. Yes, the big ones will likely be snapped up, but you have access to a bigger set than Hollywood in that you may be reading different newspapers. You may simply have come across something that nobody else has.

Must I get the rights to news stories?

Rights must be gotten for real stories, too, in many cases, so this is the matter for the lawyers to consider. But, depending on the fame and fortune of those involved, a non-cash, payout-with- movie-earnings deal might be worked.

Can I arrange rights if not in the public domain?

Even as a lowly screenwriter just starting out you can arrange the rights for newly published literature, or literature from yesteryear that has yet to pass into the public domain. The bigger names and popular successes may be out of your reach, due to the size of the payments demanded by authors and agents, but there's much out there of good quality to fashion of movie from that you might indeed be able to bargain for. What good is it sitting on the shelf for the writer? With the help of an attorney, you may be able to work a mutually-satisfying deal that gives both of you a chance to earn some money without compromising his rights. If you contact an author or publisher and find out a producer has already secured the movie rights, contact the producer and let them know you are interested in adapting the work. Maybe you'll get the job.

See also . .



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EXERCISES:
  1. View the classic Gone with the Wind (1939), then read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind novel (1936). How did they slim it down? What characters did they do without? What parts of the story did they cut? Why?
  2. View the classic The Godfather (1972), then read Mario Puzo's The Godfather version. How did they take what many considered to be a B-rated pulp novel and turn it into one of the great enduring classics of American cinema?
  3. View the gangster film Donnie Brasco (1997) with Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. Then consider the true story it was based upon, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joe Pistone. What was done with the characters and how was the climax arranged to make the story more cinematic?
  4. Identify a subject, historical incident, or life that most fascinates you. How might you make a movie out of it? How would you make it cinematic? What characters would you use, how would you stage the action, how would you structure the story?
  5. Identify a potential movie concept out of the daily newspaper, and gather the related clippings. How would you adapt the story to make it cinematic?