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
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
- The last surviving author died at least 70 years before January 1 of the current
- No Berne Convention signatory has passed a perpetual copyright on the work.
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
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.