You’ve found a novel, short story, or stage play that would be perfect for a movie. And now you want to adapt it. How do you go about it? Is the process the same for both famous works and unknown works? And what are the legal issues?
Six adaptation steps
1. Read the novel (or other work) for an understanding of the essential (core) story, the key relationships, the central character or protagonist, the goal (the external or action journey) and/or the inner need (the internal or emotional journey), the primary conflict(s), and the underlying meaning. You do this because you may not be able to include everything that’s in the novel in your adaptation.
2. Identify the five to ten most visual, active, and meaningful scenes. These you’ll be sure to include in your screenplay. Remember, most movies are primarily visual and emotion-driven.
3. Focus on about five to seven main characters. That means you may need to drop a subplot or two or three, depending on the length of the novel.
4. Create an outline and write your original screenplay.
5. In writing the script, remember that the strength of many novels, the internal dialogue, cannot be included in the screenplay as voice overs of your characters’ thoughts. Generally, this problem is at least partially resolved by creating a confidant, best friend, neighbor, or sidekick of some kind that your character can talk to. For example, a character tells her confidant how she is feeling and what she is thinking; thus, her internal dialogue is revealed. This is one reason (and perhaps the main reason) for Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away.
6. You will not include all the novel’s incidental details in your scenes, but will want to focus on specific details that are important to the story and the development of the characters. You don’t need to describe Darla holding her teacup…unless there is poison in the tea. That tip goes for incidental dialogue in a stage play; there will be less dialogue and more visuals in your script than in the stage play.
As an example of an adaption, the central character in the novel Jurassic Park is the billionaire; in the movie, it’s the paleontologist who is given a flaw (doesn’t like children) and a love interest (Dr. Sattler). That’s so he can grow and so that the story will be more emotionally accessible. The novel ends with the realization that the velociraptors want to migrate; in the movie, it’s the threatening raptors and the T-Rex. That movie ending is more visual and visceral.
Famous works vs lesser-known works
If the novel, play, or short story is not well known, you have a lot of latitude in how you present it. Perhaps you’ve written a self-published novel and now want to script it, or you love a book that almost no one has heard of. In any of the above situations, you can change the story, add or omit characters without any marketing consequences. That is because the marketing of the script will not rely on the past success of the novel, play, or short story.
On the other hand, if the original work is popular and successful, you will want to be more faithful to the original work, since the work’s popularity will be one reason a producer may wish to buy your adaptation. Books that are highly successful may already have sold their movie rights. You’re better off finding that undiscovered golden nugget.
Making the decision
Don’t adapt it until you own it. In other words, do not write an adaptation until you own the rights or control the rights to the original material.
Who owns the rights? For most books, it’s the subsidiary rights department of the publisher, but it may be the author. If the book is self-published, it is the author. Regardless of the nature of the work, you must do the necessary research to discover who holds the movie rights. You will need to convince that person that you can write a salable screenplay.
Do not purchase the rights outright. Instead, offer to buy an option. This is precisely what a producer will offer you if he or she loves your script. You offer a small “option payment” (the amount can vary widely depending on the material) for the exclusive movie rights for a period of time (say, a year, but hopefully longer than that). Once the option period expires, your rights expire, unless there is a clause that allows you to purchase another option for another period of time. You may need to avail yourself of the services of an entertainment attorney.
Once you control the rights, you must write the script and sell it (or option it) within the option period as stipulated by your contract with the rights owner of the original material.
Whenever I am asked by clients or students for my advice, it is usually this: write an original screenplay, save some money, and avoid any legal issues.
Even if you don’t sell your original screenplay, it can serve as a sample of your work pursuant to landing a development deal. If you write an adaption, it is not totally a sample of your work because you did not create the characters or the storyline. On the other hand, your sample may show your superb writing skills, but you can showcase those in an original script as well.
An adaptation may be a good decision if the eventual script will be clearly appealing and marketable (more so than your idea for an original script), and if the rights can be controlled for a small amount of money and bother. Regardless of your decision, keep writing!