By: Laura Huie
Writing an adaptation as a feature film can be a fantastic way to get your foot in the door of the industry and hone your craft as an aspiring screenwriter. Taking away the requirement to conjure the characters and the plot, allows a writer to focus on developing their screenwriting skills in other areas. And if you choose to adapt a well-known story, this can give you the edge by spotlighting your original take on the story.
Moreover, audiences quite often like adaptions, and have already been introduced to the world of adaptation in features. Think of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter—two of the most beloved book-to-film feature franchises to ever appear on the big screen. And many audiences have enjoyed classic adaptations, like Disney’s retelling of fairytales and classic folktales.
But how does an adaptation get to that point? And what are the key components of not only writing this type of screenplay, but also the rights and legal aspects that go into it? Let’s break down the world of feature adaptations for aspiring screenwriters.
Defining Adaptation in Film
Simply put, a feature adaptation is a motion picture that recreates a story from one medium to another. This frequently refers to a novel or short story however, film adaptations can come from other sources of inspiration, such as short films, theatre, comic books, or even video games.
Iconic films such as Napoleon Dynamite and Whiplash started out as short films that caught the eye of producers. Whilst in the theatre, plays such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story were made into films largely due to their success on stage.
However, how you adapt the original story is the real challenge for the screenwriter.
An adaptation will not fit within the same parameters of the original work as the format is different. In fact, to meet the requirements of a new format, there may be certain scenes or characters that need to be altered.
The level of faithfulness to the source material varies, but the best adaptations are those that make an original entertainment experience from the source, without compromising or altering the original’s concept and message.
It is important to put your own spin on the material so that others can see your creativity, but also to show some faithfulness to the original to demonstrate your understanding of the original work.
How Do You Write an Adaptation?
Setting out to write an adaption is a challenge and the first step can be made easier if the writer chooses a story they like and know well. In making that story over into a new form, the writer might think about writing an adaptation as if they were translating one language into another. So, researching the original is recommended. For instance, if you’re looking to do a book-to-film adaptation, it can be beneficial to know the general conventions of novel-writing to develop your understanding of how the story functions in that form. This insight will help you identify the “beats” and “turning points” of the original story and allow you to express those (or not) in your medium before diving into the detailed writing of scenes.
Also, you need to identify the most critical cinematic elements of the source material—again let’s use a book as the main example. The book that you want to adapt may be more than 200 pages, and so copying the plot paragraph for paragraph, or even chapter or chapter, will not lead to an effective 90-120 minute feature film. So, look closely at the settings and character arcs in the original story for reference and inspiration. And use these to guide your thinking as you outline your feature. For more insights into what we consider to be the key aspects of a successful feature script tap here.
Remember, not every element of a pre-existing story can be or should be adapted for film, and at the end of the day, the script must exist on its own merits as a complete story in its own right.
Remember to Get the Rights!
Hollywood is hungry for Intellectual Property (IP) because it is a source material that can be easily quantified, valued, and traded. Adaptations of other successful story sources are common in the film industry because producers know that there is already an audience for the story and that the likelihood of seeing a return on the investment it takes to develop the story is heightened. They don’t need to place bets on an original screenplay; instead, they can buy the rights to adapt the original material and make a film that already has roots.
If you’re solely looking to develop your writing skills and hone your craft, then writing an adaptation without owning the IP can be a useful practice exercise. However, if you’re serious about shopping your screenplay to producers, you must secure the IP rights in order to make your screenplay something that can be purchased legitimately.
The sums quoted when successful projects are discussed can often make the idea of obtaining IP rights seem like an insurmountable task. But you never know what a simple email to a publisher or author may lead to. It never hurts to reach out and see what happens. Some authors, such as Stephen King, are known for allowing screenwriters adaptation rights for a very small fee. Whether the price for rights is $1 or $1 million, if you are seeking to write an adaption for sale, you will need to acquire the rights to do this, and the price will ultimately depend on how strong the competition is for the original material.
Writing Your Feature Adaptation
Writing an adaptation can be an incredibly rewarding process. If you start by using adaption as a writing exercise, you never know what opportunities might come in the future.
But another route is to create a thematic adaptation instead of a literal one. Thematic adaptations retain major themes of a specific story but alter the cinematic elements, such as plot and character. Similar to how screenwriters use genre, you can think of this type of adaptation as more like inspiration for writing a feature rather than a literal adaptation that you’ll need to get the rights for. And again, having this kind of solid basis for your story can be very useful for an aspiring writer who is learning the craft of screenwriting.
So, whilst writing an adaption does come with some potential financial and collaborative challenges, if you’re truly passionate about what you’re adapting, then writing an adaption for the screen is certainly worth considering.
Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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