The Adept Adapter: A Primer on Adaptation (i.e. Hacking Someone’s Great Idea and Making it Your Own)

Maybe it’s a childhood favorite you’ve always dreamed of seeing on a big screen, or a recommendation from your mother who read it all in one sitting.

Or maybe you just don’t have any brilliant ideas at the moment. Whatever the case, you find yourself interested in adapting a pre-existing work into a screenplay… and the thought is a little daunting. Are you, an independent, unrepresented writer, capable of tackling adaptation?

Why Adapt?

Obviously, if you were to adapt something without permission from the rights holder, you wouldn’t be able to sell or produce your script. So don’t do that. But there are tremendous upsides to adapting if you do secure permission, in the form of an option. Chief among these is how enamored Hollywood has become with material that arrives with a built-in audience. Execs call this type of material IPs (intellectual properties): Think Batman, World of Warcraft, Monopoly or Katniss Everdeen—the modern industry’s bread and butter.

How does screenwriter Jason Fuchs, who adapted the upcoming Wonder Woman as well as 2015’s Pan, think about IPs? “[The story] feels original—feels like ‘me’—but has a chance to be seen by someone other than my family. What is the story you want to tell, but Hollywood won’t let you? Go out and find an IP that will allow you to do that story—in a way the industry can embrace.”

Another benefit of adaptation? “Books often offer fully rendered story worlds and characters, while a spec script is often effectively a first draft,” says Charlotte Walls, founder of London-based production company Catalyst Global Media which focuses exclusively on adaptations. The critical acclaim of adapted titles like 12 Years a Slave, 127 Hours, Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Winter’s Bone attest to the benefits of leaning on a pre-developed idea.

Now, don’t waste your time setting your sights on recent wide releases with massive audiences. You’re not going to get the rights to James Patterson’s next thriller, nor do you have a shot at anything set at Hogwarts, but lesser-known titles fall through the cracks. With a constant stream of new work being published, time is one of your greatest allies. Hollywood has a short attention span. If a title didn’t get snatched up right away, chances are it’s available… and likely affordable.

James Schamus adapted Indignation off a Philip Roth's 2008 novel. Photograph by Alison Cohen Rosa

James Schamus adapted Indignation off a Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. Photograph by Alison Cohen Rosa

The Fountain of Youth Literature

The trendy material right now is the Young Adult (YA) genre. Importantly, this is a relatively recent development, which means that decades of great stories have yet to be tapped. The industry has always valued comic books, but it was the success of franchises like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight and The Hunger Games that really exploded demand. Taking a trip through the archives of YA books over the last half-century might provide you with a few intriguing possibilities. For example, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, an elementary school staple since the Carter administration, starts principal photography soon under Ava DuVernay’s direction.

“You have to find inspiration wherever you can,” says Wyck Godfrey, the prolific producer of YA titles like the Twilight and The Maze Runner franchises, and The Fault in Our Stars. “If you find a book you read and love, and the rights are available, go for it.”

Up for Adoption: Novels and Short Stories

Beyond the scope of YA, countless titles have found their way to the bargain bin and largely been forgotten, or previously passed on.

“But,” you’re thinking, “if these titles were passed on once, why should they be considered now?” Well, regimes change—as do tastes and trends. Don’t dismiss something you feel passionate about because it was once overlooked. Famously, The Hunger Games was passed on by most major studios before finally finding a deal at Lionsgate.

Self-publishing has become mainstream and is a rich potential source. Though the sheer volume of work makes the search a challenge, keying in on the best-reviewed, buzzed-about titles is worth your time. Hollywood really isn’t set up to consider any of that material, relying on the mainstream publishing houses to supply books.

Or you could become one of Stephen King’s infamous Dollar Babies. The prolific author offers one-dollar options to some of his short stories. A list of available titles and the process to apply for an option is posted on stephenking.com.

And don’t forget public domain material, free and available for anyone to make use of. Visit goodreads.com/list/tag/public-domain for multiple lists of titles separated by genre. Shakespeare, Poe, Twain, Verne, Stoker, Austen, Dumas, Dickens—the list goes on and on; free to read, reimagine, adapt. NBC announced a pilot script deal this summer for Twist, a sexy, contemporary update of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist with writers Chad Damiani and J.P. Lavin (Fruit Ninja, Cisco Kid, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack).

Emma Greenwell and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of a couple of Jane Austen’s early short novels Credit: Photograph by Bernard Walsh / Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Emma Greenwell and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of a couple of Jane Austen’s early short novels. Photograph by Bernard Walsh / Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

“What logline can survive a game of telephone?” asks Lavin. “IPs are naturally able to penetrate that. Ideas like Twist never get lost in translation between agents and executives, making a sale much more likely.”

“We look for ideas that studios can embrace and hope our writing can elevate the material,” says Damiani. “You won’t sell anything if they don’t feel your passion filling the room. Show the industry why you’re the only writer who can take something on.”

Prose and Cons

Adaptations don’t have to be based on narrative prose. Consider poems, video games, comic books, magazine articles or any other source material that might provide inspiration and an audience. Julie & Julia was based on a blog. The Fast and the Furious was adapted from a Vibe article entitled “Racer X.” You could even consider a song, if you feel the lyrics set the stage for a story worth translating to a visual medium.

Asking for Permission

Getting in touch with the rights holder was far more complicated as recently as 10 years ago, before tools like social media. Contact information for publishers has always been printed in books, but now they frequently include author websites and social media accounts as well. Contact the magazine or publishing company and ask to speak to someone regarding licensing and film rights. They may require you to submit your request via email, but in return they will provide direct contact information, usually in the form of an agent or lawyer. Self-published authors tend to make it very simple to reach them because they want this type of interest.

The bottom line is that it is easier than most people realize to, at the very least, have the conversation. Rights holders may want you to jump through some hoops to demonstrate your passion for the project, but if that passion exists, is that really so much to ask?

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona and adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness from his own 2011 novel Credit: Photograph by Jose Haro / Courtesy of Focus Features

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona and adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness from his own 2011 novel. Photograph by Jose Haro / Courtesy of Focus Features

Option: Open

A common worry is that, as a novice independent moviemaker, you won’t be able to even contact a rights holder, let alone secure an option—and that any worthy option will cost an arm and a leg. Those are myths. In many cases, you can secure free or near-zero options simply by being the only suitor. Remember, lots of material has been sitting untouched for years; authors and other rights holders may well be grateful for the interest.

Additionally, remember that you aren’t buying a new Apple computer. Negotiate. Be honest about what you can afford, even if it’s $20.

Selling Your Adaptation

Assuming you reach the finish line with a completed screenplay and the necessary rights to attempt to sell it, what then? The process of contacting potential buyers or representation is still a challenge, but remember that you have more than just a script. You have an IP, and a built-in audience, which greatly enhances the value of what you’re shopping. Take advantage of that. If the source material is repped, then perhaps that agent or manager can open some doors. Is there a following for the author? Try to appear less like a single writer with a lone idea, and more like the face of a much larger entity—you’ll have a better chance of breaking through the clutter and realizing the full potential of your adaptation.

There is an endless river of aspiring writers, all of whom have a spec on their hard drive. Be the writer who stands out by knocking on the door with substantially more than the rest of ’em.

Bonus: Where Can I Find Other People’s Screenplays to Direct?

You are a moviemaker, but not a screenwriter. First off, congratulations on knowing that. The writers of the world thank you for your humility—and for the work. So you want to shoot something, but you need a script.

Websites like The Black List, InkTip, SimplyScripts and Scriptd link writers with producers and directors. InkTip, for example, claims to have four or more options a week generated from their site. Search through the posted material to find what you need, for free or for a low fee.

More work on your part, but yielding, possibly, better material: examining screenplay competitions, like the Academy-sponsored Nicholl Fellowship, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft’s Big Break contest and the Fade In Awards, amongst many more. Note the winners, as well as top finishers. Many competitions are specific to certain genres, if that is the direction you are hoping to go.

A final suggestion: Exploit your local market. Look for writing groups in your area. Go to sponsored events, workshops and film festivals where you’ll meet writers in person. “In person?” you shudder. Yes. Don’t be afraid of getting too close to writers in a social setting. They don’t bite—unless you criticize their dialogue. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017. Top image photographed by Quim Vives, courtesy of Focus Features.

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