A Quick Guide to Writing Adaptations

by Fin Wheeler

Adaptations make up more than half the films and television shows produced, and that percentage is only increasing. Studios snap up the screen rights to comics, non-fiction, and fiction books even before they’ve hit the shelves. Early-career screenwriters can feel shut out of this lucrative adaptation market.

Adaptations are the bread and butter of screenwriting. If and when you are finally given the opportunity to pitch for an adaptation job, you’ll be up against seasoned professionals who’ve been at it for years.

So what is this mysterious pitching process? How does an adaptation really differ from writing an original screenplay? And, what can the aspiring screenwriter do to get their skill set up to speed?

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The History of Screen Adaptations

For the first few decades of the motion picture business, every film was an adaptation of a play, a news story, or (occasionally) a novel. A decade on, copyright law finally caught up with the newly invented medium of film. Content was no longer freely steal-able. The studios had to either pay for the screen rights of a story, or they had to pay for original content to be created.

Adaptations, especially screen adaptation of stage plays, were seen by the studios as a less-risky option than original screenplays. After all, audiences had already paid to see these popular stories played out on stage.

Adaptations have, and always will be, a fundamental part of the film industry. The types of source materials have changed over the years, but the idea remains the same: a well-loved story concept is retold for the screen.

Who decides what source materials to buy and develop?

Studios and production companies rise and fall by their ability to predict trends. One vampire movie or series hits, and the other studios/networks want to green light a rival vampire project, so several vampire projects get dusted off and put in active development. (Of those several, it’s typical that only one will then get a full commission.) This system of development and commission can only happen quickly if studios already own the underlying materials, which is why all studios have entire departments dedicated to discovering and signing new titles, and they have  vast, ever-expanding libraries of source material.

The studio decides which titles it’s going to develop based on a range of factors. A project can go into active development because it fills a hole in their production slate, or because the theme/subject matter is trending. Sometimes it’s just given the nod because it’s the pet project of an actor, director, or producer that the studio is trying to sign for one of their mega budget projects.

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Pitching

Once the studio has decided it wants to actively develop a title, several writers will be invited to pitch for the gig. Each writer has a meeting and spends anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour articulating their take on the source material. (Think about all the different Batman movies there have been. Each is a different slant on the original Batman concept.)

In the past, the studio execs would listen to all the pitches and then chose just one writer who would get the gig. These days it’s becoming more common for studios to “dual track,” which means that once the studio has listened to the pitches, they decide which  two versions they liked the most, and they pay both writers to go away and individually come up with a first draft.

This is bad for screenwriters because the pressure to be the first to turn in your script is extreme and counterproductive. It also means that even if you do get the gig, you still have absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get any sort of writing credit for your efforts. (Screenwriters make serious money from residuals, if you don’t get a writing credit, you don’t get a royalty check each and every time the movie plays on TV.)

Unethical independent producers are very fond of advertising a writing gig and “awarding” the screen adaptation job to several budding screenwriters (who are each under the impression that they are the sole writer on the job).

A way to make sure this isn’t happening to you (without your knowledge) is to be sure there’s an exclusivity clause in your contract. That way you are legally the only writer who can be commissioned to write the screen adaptation during the specified time frame. The producer can only replace you if you fail to meet the agreed terms of the contract.

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What makes a good adaptation? Questions to consider:

  1. What is the theme? Who is the most beloved character? How do they personify the theme?
  2. What are the readers’ favorite scenes, events, and passages?
  3. Why is the adaptation being made/ greenlit? (If it’s only in active development because an A-list actor wants to play the antagonist, clearly that’s going to impact the way you have to tell the story.)
  4. What can this screen adaptation uniquely offer that the readers have never been given before from this story?
  5. How does your adaptation remain true to the spirit of the original?
  6. What are the essential, but implied, elements of the story and its era? (The opening scenes of The People v. OJ Simpson depict race riots across America years before the events in the main story. Though the main characters have no direct role in those scenes, you can see why the screenwriter who pitched that opening sequence got the gig. That element is integral to the audience’s understanding of the world of the story.)
  7. Why is this the perfect time to retell this particular story?
  8. What in your personal history makes you the best person to retell this story? Why must it be told this way?

That’s all well and good, but screenwriters are often only given a few days notice to prepare each pitch. That’s not enough time to read/reread the original source material, or do much research.

How can a screenwriter best prepare to pitch?

Read widely. There are currently screen adaptations in production or active development from every source imaginable: video games, comics, novels, stage plays, historical sagas, self-help manuals. Even superstars of YouTube and Instagram are getting deals to develop their brand/personality into feature films.

As a writer wanting to pitch for these adaptation jobs, you have to be familiar with not only the source material in question, but you have to know where it sits within the pop cultural context. Why does this particular piece of source material tickle the fancy of so many?

No one writer could possibly be well-read across every genre and class of pop culture, but you do have to know what your unique selling points are as a screenwriter, and you have to actively keep up with the kinds of source material you’ll be asked to pitch for. (Would the studios want Tom Stoppard for this gig, would they be looking for a Charlie Kaufman-type, or someone more Joss Whedon-ish?)

If music and comic books are you thing, then you really have to have a thorough understanding and knowledge of those areas. You can’t just watch the occasional documentary on only the musicians that interest you. You need to read any and all biographies of that genre. Which book was better? Which was boring? Which was unexpectedly interesting? These are the comments, opinions, and insights the studio execs want to hear about in pitch meetings.

It also helps to have a reasonable knowledge of classic literature. Development execs are well-educated people. When trying to define the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist, they might clarify that they’re not looking for King Lear undertones, they were thinking more Hamlet. As a writer, you’re expected to comprehend their meaning and amend your pitch accordingly. How can you do that if you’ve never read Shakespeare?

Being a writer has always been about reading widely. A writer takes in the artistic endeavors of those who’ve come before, melds that knowledge with their own life experiences and then sets about creating new unique-yet-universal stories. Successfully writing and pitching screen adaptations is no different.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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