December 26, 2018

How to Write an Adapted Screenplay

And the Academy Award For Best Adapted Screenplay goes to…

Have you ever read an article or book and thought “this would make a great movie or TV show?” Well, that’s where learning how to write an adapted screenplay comes in handy. The art of adapting a screenplay is a special skill. In a Hollywood climate ruled by intellectual property, it’s a good skill to have in your repertoire.

Today, we’re going to go over how to write an adapted screenplay. We’re going to look at some adapted screenplay examples, learn about securing the rights for your adapted screenplay, and discuss how to pick the crucial plot points and story beats from your adapted screenplay’s source material.

Alright, let’s get started.

What Qualifies You For The Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar? 

First up, dream big! 

If you're trying to get a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, you need to be writing an adapted screenplay. 

The Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is awarded each year to the writer of a screenplay adapted from another source (usually a novel, play, short story, or TV series but sometimes another film). This means that scripts like A Star is Born and even Whiplash are adapted screenplays because they're based on other material (a feature remake and a short film, respectively). Other adapted screenplays come from novels, memoirs, and even news articles. 

But if the writers do their investigation independently to a popular event, like in the case of Spotlight, that qualifies as an original screenplay. Sure, Hollywood loves biopics, but unless that biopic is based on another piece of information, like a book, it doesn't necessarily make it an adapted screenplay, even if you adapt it from someone's true story. 

Even more confusing: the Adapted category includes ALL sequels. That means Before Midnight, even though it's an original idea, is an adapted screenplay since it's a sequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

Finding The Right Material For Your Adapted Screenplay

As I mentioned in the opening, Hollywood is hungry for intellectual property, or IP, that comes with an audience. The theory behind that idea is that people are more likely to tune in or spend money on items that they know they have a connection to, as opposed to original ideas that do not weigh their emotions.

Where can you find great ideas for your adapted screenplay? I like to look in the public domain, at trending articles, books, and even classical images or paintings.

The key is finding something that not only connects with you but also can reach a wide audience.

One thing hot in Hollywood right now is biopics. Put your thinking cap on. Are there any celebrities or historical figures you’re interested in writing about? People like George Washington, Harriet Tubman, and even Kim Kardashian are in the public eye, and thus prime examples of stories you can research and write on your own.

But before you write anything, make sure you secure the rights. Otherwise, your adapted screenplay is worthless.

Secure The Rights For Your Adapted Screenplay

If you’re adapting something that’s not in the public domain, then you have to own the rights to sell something about it. No one in Hollywood wants to read your screenplay about Harry Potter unless you have a deal with J.K. Rowling.

Getting the rights to a new book or article may seem insurmountable, but you never know.

First things first, if you read something you like, you need to contact the publisher or author. Most book companies have websites where you can check to see if someone owns the rights to a particular novel or memoir. If you can’t find on their website, call into their main number and ask to see who you talk to do a “rights check.” Most publishing houses understand what that is because they’re constantly bombarded with calls from assistants in Hollywood doing checks for their bosses.

If you can’t get in touch with the publisher, try to contact the author. If you’re trying to option a newspaper or magazine article for your adapted screenplay, the author might be able to give you more information on who to contact. I recommend reaching out through their company or even trying to find them on LinkedIn.

Some book authors, like Stephen King, have been known to option their ideas out to aspiring filmmakers for a small fee. No matter what, you’re going to have to pay for the rights. That can range anywhere from $1 to millions. It depends how fierce the competition is for said material.

Let’s be real: if you’re not working at a massive company or have a bunch of clout on your own, then it’s going to be hard for you to get the next hot property.

But there may be old books or authors who have faded into obscurity or even famous authors with less famous work who would be willing to part with the rights to their stories for a reasonable fee.

Again, with figures in the public eye, you don’t need to secure any rights. But they reserve the right to sue you later. Hey, that might keep your writing interesting.

So you have the rights. Now what? You have to pick out the crucial plot points of your piece that make it ripe for adaptation.     

Picking Out The Crucial Plot Points For Your Adapted Screenplay

Congratulations on having something to adapt. Chances are the material is longer than the traditional 80-120 pages of a screenplay, or 30-60 pages of a pilot. Also, you're going to have to battle against a whole bunch of people out there who will say "the book was better" no matter how great your work is on the page. 

It's time to shut those guys up with some excellent writing. 

What parts of this excellent piece you chose to adapt will stay in your writing?

And what parts have to go?

There are two things I like to ask myself before jumping into an adapted screenplay:

  1. What’s at the heart of the story?
  2. Where does this iteration need to end?

Writing Your Adapted Screenplay

Once you understand the best parts of the story, it's time to beat out what stays and what goes. For this, I like to write a treatment. That helps me see the story all laid out, and gives me a map for where I need to go. Plus, it helps me suss out the bits I'm keeping and the ones that hit the editing floor. 

Here's the truth, writing an adapted screenplay is precisely like writing an original screenplay. You're always just typing new scenes and moving forward.

The majority of writing an adapted screenplay comes from the work you do before you write. 

Let's take a look at some adapted screenplay examples to learn how the pros write the best ones. 

Adapted Screenplay Examples

I wanted to pick a variety of adapted screenplays to show you that great adapted screenplay ideas can come from anywhere.

Up first, let's look at a traditional, adapted screenplay like Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump was a popular book about a man who traversed some of history's most memorable moments while chasing his long lost love, Jenny. When it came time to adapt the book, screenwriter Eric Roth had a few challenges ahead of him. 

He had to decide which parts made the best movie and how that movie would connect with audiences who both loved the book and those who had no idea it existed. 

That meant making changes to Forrest from the ground up. In the book, he's a hulking man with superhuman strength. To make him more relatable, the script made him an everyman who just gets consistently lucky.

They also beefed up the role of his mom and centered his life much more on his pure love of Jenny (rather than the more sexual book).  

These changes kept the spirit of the book but created a classic movie.

A book can help a screenwriter map out the beats of a story, but what if you're adapting something that wasn't written for entertainment purposes, but for a news report? 

Let's look at a movie I consider to be hugely underrated, Pain & Gain

That's right, Pain & Gain is based off a true story and adapted from a news report. This means that screenwriters  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had to find the story beats within the news article and then build a script around there. Again, as I said earlier, that's where a treatment can help you. 

There's also the hurdles here when certain events don't line up perfectly. So you, as a writer, have to decide when to embellish and when to keep the facts straight. Go back to those two questions: Which facts highlight the heart and where should you end the movie version of the story?

Oh, and also where the story should begin.

Okay, so we've covered books and articles, but what about short stories? 

For my money, one of the greatest adaptations of all time is that of Andre Dubus' "Killings" which was adapted by Rob Festinger and Todd Field into the screenplay for In The Bedroom

The short story is only around ten pages, so Field and Festinger had to do a lot of work expanding on the ideas and heart in the story. While they stuck with the original ending, they had to expand the beginning. They worked hard to build the audience's love of Matt Fowler's son, so when he's murdered, we can see both parents' side of whether or not they should retaliate. 

That's a miraculous decision for it really pushes the narrative forward and makes the movie feel more visceral and real. It manages to beef up the points of view outside of the father in the short and to everyone populating the world of the movie. 

It's truly one of the best adapted works of all time. 

Summing Up How To Write An Adapted Screenplay

Hopefully, now you know how to write an adapted screenplay. It’s certainly a different task than writing an original screenplay. Read some of the best screenplays of 2018 to stay informed. 

If you have the rights and need the motivation, consider joining our Free Screenwriting Seminar. We look forward to having you.

If you’re having trouble getting your pilot started, check out our post on Cold Opens to nail what you need to get on the page.

What are some of your favorite adapted screenplays and TV shows? Which do you think adapt it right? And which adapt it wrong?

Keep writing!

I can’t wait to read what you do next.     

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1 Comment

the article you mentioned helped me greatly. thank you for the information.
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December 27, 2018 at 10:18AM, Edited December 27, 10:18AM

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