Friday, December 19, 2008

On Adaptations

Let me get on my Project Gutenberg soapbox.

One of the most under-appreciated opportunities for aspiring screenwriters is Project Gutenberg. As many of you know very well, most of the assignment jobs screenwriters pick-up are adaptations of known works. I truly believe that before you ever step onto the world stage with your writings, you should already have lots of good experience under your belt adapting books into screenplays.

I’d say you should adapt at least 5-10 books just to be safe.

No, I’m not kidding.

Your fabulous, original, award-winning screenplay may open a couple of doors and get you a couple of meetings, but the question will inevitably surface, “Have you ever adapted a book before?” And what’s the correct answer to that question? “Are you kidding? I love adaptations. I’ve already adapted this, this, this, this, and this.”

But, wait, how do you get around that little copyright thing?

Thus, new writers should take advantage of
Project Gutenberg, which has over 25,000 free online books that are all in the public domain. Consider the fact that a couple of scripts on the new 2008 Black List are adaptations of classic works in the public domain. There was, as I recall, A Tale of Two Cities, from Dickens, of course, and Galahad, a retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through the eyes of, well, Galahad. That’s not unusual. Playwright Tom Stoppard made a name for himself with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which was a play about two very minor characters from Hamlet in a world that sort of echoes Waiting for Godot.

In any case, something you may want to do for yourself in 2009 is adapt a book into a screenplay. Do this not for the sake of getting a sale but for the more important experience of internalizing a story and transforming it into a film. And do that at least 5-10 times. And yes, many of those are books have been adapted endlessly over the years. So try to look at the source material from a completely fresh perspective. Do a modern reinterpretation. Do the story from the perspective of a secondary character - or the antagonist, like Gregory Maguire did with Wicked. Restructure the book. Make it non-linear. Do it in reverse. Explore aspects about characters that didn’t get explored back then, like sexuality. What if the lead was a female instead of a male? Or vice versa? Consider adapting lesser known works by famous authors. Take one of those generic science, political, or social works of non-fiction and be totally inventive with it as Kaufman did in Adaptation. Adapt a book no one has ever dreamed of adapting. Add an unexpected twist. What would the story be like if something didn’t happen or happened differently? Write a sequel.

There was a recent roundtable discussion in the Hollywood Reporter with Oscar-hopeful screenwriters on adaptations. British playwright David Hare said that when it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen one must be “promiscuous to be faithful. You can't simply step your way through a book with perfect fidelity. If you do, the whole thing is completely dead.” Pay attention to these guys!

And finally, consider Project Gutenberg’s
Top 100 Authors:

Dickens, Charles
Twain, Mark
Shakespeare, William
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir
Austen, Jane
Thomson, J. Arthur
Jacob, P. L.
Verne, Jules
Maspero, G. (Gaston)
Baum, L. Frank (Lyman Frank)
Litchfield, Frederick
Wilde, Oscar
Carroll, Lewis
Wells, H. G. (Herbert George)
Beard, Charles A. (Charles Austin)
Beard, Mary Ritter
Poe, Edgar Allan
Burroughs, Edgar Rice
Sayce, A. H. (Archibald Henry)
Stevenson, Robert Louis
McClure, M. L.
Dumas père, Alexandre
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Spicer, William Ambrose
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm
Nichols, J. L. (James Lawrence)
Burbank, Emily
Jefferis, B. G.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith)
Doré, Gustave
Hugo, Victor
Milton, John
Landor, Arnold Henry Savage
Dawson, William Francis
Joyce, James
Conrad, Joseph
Grimm, Jacob
Grimm, Wilhelm
Pope, Alexander
Tolstoy, Leo, graf
Kipling, Rudyard
Pierce, Ray Vaughn
Stoker, Bram
Brontë, Charlotte
Kafka, Franz
Buckley, Theodore Alois
Montgomery, D. H. (David Henry)
Montgomery, L. M. (Lucy Maud)
Dante Alighieri
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
Wodehouse, P. G. (Pelham Grenville)
Lang, Andrew
Balzac, Honoré de
Guizot, François Pierre Guillaume
Eliot, George
Defoe, Daniel
Williamson, Robert Wood
Potter, Beatrix
James, Henry
Jowett, Benjamin
Alcott, Louisa May
Sunzi, 6th cent. B.C.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de
Campbell, Douglas Houghton
Clark, Bertha M.
Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider)
London, Jack
Speed, Harold
Ibsen, Henrik
Stanton, Henry
Garnett, Constance
Andersen, H. C. (Hans Christian)
Scott, Walter, Sir
Shaw, Edward R. (Edward Richard)
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich
Giles, Lionel
Wyllie, David
Rawlinson, George
Hardy, Thomas
Stockton, Frank Richard
Darwin, Charles
Berens, E.M.
Swift, Jonathan
Machiavelli, Niccolò
Barrie, J. M. (James Matthew)
Rolt-Wheeler, Francis
Henry, O.
Thomson, Alexis
Miles, Alexander
Maupassant, Guy de
Melville, Herman
Shaw, George Bernard
Dudeney, Henry Ernest
Bierce, Ambrose
Davis, Richard Harding
Seaman, Owen, Sir


Elver said...

"I truly believe that before you ever step onto the world stage with your writings, you should already have lots of good experience under your belt adapting books into screenplays. I’d say you should adapt at least 5-10 books just to be safe."

Do you seriously think that before someone sells his/her first high-budget script, he/she should have written 5-10 feature length scripts based on books?

Based on the breaking in stories I've heard so far from accomplished screenwriters... that just seems like a really, really unrealistic demand.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a wonderful idea. Although, I have to echo Elver's concerns. I think adapting 5-10 books on spec is a tad over egging it. I'd sooner all the spec writers out there were writing original material. I don't like the idea of new writers perpetuating the notion that only adaptations get made.

However, it would be a fantastic weapon in any writer's arsenal. Another base to cover in a portfolio. Specs in TV, features and . . . adaptations.

Christian H. said...

Cool. I've been thinking about doing that. Especially with the prevalence of it nowadays.

Of course I can't guarantee that I will finish one but I think the outline would be just as important and useful.

Anonymous said...

Whoa. I had heard of Project Gut before but never knew what it was.

I can't wait to sink my teeth into it!!!!

I've been trying to write in many different genres but have yet to adapt something. How exciting!! :)

Unknown said...

That's a good idea. I was thinking of adapting the last harry potter book just for my own edification, to see if I could come up with a script that compared to what will eventually be seen on screen. But this sounds like a better idea. No sticky rights issues to deal with in the unlikely event that I write something worth reading.

But I'd be happy to get one done at the rate I'm going!!

Anonymous said...

If the objective is to improve one's writing rather than achieve a sale as such, then is there no mileage to be had from adapting a modern-ish work that is still in copyright.

I was planning on doing an adaptation this coming year, and had my sights on a couple of books I really loved, one of which was hugely successful and, if I remember correctly, resulted in a bidding war for the rights -- though ten years later still no film -- the other was for a more obscure book, maybe the rights weren't acquired, maybe they have been.

In either case, if I did a good job I know I'd have a cracking good story in my portfolio for anyone that wanted to read my work. What say you, MM?

Maybe I should go with the historic English novel that I was thinking of relocating to the US to make it more marketable and which is out of copyright.

Emily Blake said...

Thanks for sharing this. Actually there's a book on there I'd very much like to adapt, although my dream project is still in turn around. I want that job so bad and it just keeps getting passed around from writer to writer with no results. This actually looks like a good way to get the job.

Per said...

What about adapting someone's TRANSLATION? For instance, when adapting someone's translation of Beowulf or the Odyssey, does the translator hold a copyright? Or is the translation considered an extension of the original work?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Interesting post and comes at a good time for me. I have been lurking here for a few weeks, reading just about all your previous posts and learning much.

I have been trying to get my first feature started but just cannot get an idea for an adaption out of my head. It is a book I have loved since I was a teen and always thought it would be a brilliant film. I have decided to just go ahead and write the adaptation, get it out of my system so to speak.

The thing is this book has already been adapted and was a fairly successful movie in the 80's. But the movie was very different from the book and turned it into a different beast altogether. My Adaptation would be nothing like the previous film, so would certainly not be anything like a remake. But I guess the issue is somebody still owns the film rights and no doubt it would be a complete waste of time me even doing it. But I just feel like I need to do it.

What does anyone think? Is it worthwhile even just to get my first feature out the way? Is there any chance I could get the company who own the rights to read my take on the story?

Anonymous said...

This is a great soapbox. As a writer I loved Adaptation, and I've had this same issue of wanting to adapt more contemporary works. But there's so much material out there in public domain, there has to be something everyone can find that they can do something they like with.

Laura Deerfield said...

Per - the translation does hold a separate copyright. However, if you're looking at the Odyssey - there are translations that are old enough to be available.

Anonymous said...


I didn't know about Project Gutenburg - or is it Gutenberg? - before this article, but it's exciting to see such a huge list of options. I think the next script I write from scratch will be based on something, in order to wade into the waters of adaptations.
As to the notion of five to ten adaptations. It does sound like a lot, but I am a student at the University of Michigan's screenwriting program (it's fantastic!), and the pillar the school's program is based on is rewriting. In fact, I'm pretty sure U of M is the only undergrad that does rewriting. But enough plugging for the Wolverines. I think 5 - 10 makes sense, because you only get better as you do more, and while this is a large number, I'm reminded of my prof's expression: "Why hurry to fail?" If you go out to Hollywood with your stuff either before it's good or before you have a decent amount of work to demonstrate your range, you're limiting yourself. If you've making the investment of time to be a screenwriter, I say go all the way with it. Write as many as you can. I rathered go into a meeting with a producer or an agent, and be asked what else I have and be able to say "I've got 10 good scripts" instead of "well, I like the one I'm showing you... and I've got this other one... but it's not finished yet..."
Lastly, and on a different note, I just saw Slumdog Millionaire for the second time in two days, and it is absolutely fantastic. It answers MM's cry of a screenwriting state of emergency with brilliant tension.

Mystery Man said...

Hey guys,

I truly apologize for my delay in responding to the comments. I’ve been traveling so much this holiday, that I wrote a bunch of articles in advance and scheduled them to be published while I was gone.

Elver – What kind of a slacker are you? Do you know how many radio scripts John Michael Hayes wrote before he turned to screenwriting? 1500. And you’re complaining about 5-10? Are you kidding me?

Kevin – That’s fine. Don’t do it. Don’t try to gain the important experience of adapting stories. That’s one less competitor I have to worry about.

Christian – You can’t even finish ONE? Then why do you even want to BE a screenwriter?

Marnie – You’ll love it! The experience is great in the sense that you’re working on a story objectively.

Bob – Yeah, man! I’m right there with you!

Terraling – I say “don’t do it.” Do not write an adaptation if you do not have the rights.

Emily – Quite a few of those books are on my own personal “to do” list.

Per – Don’t mention which translation you used. The translators don’t have any rights over the stories. You just can’t republish that particular translation without permission. So just write on the title page, for example, “Based on ‘The Sea-Gull by Anton Chekhov’”

Gary - Do not write an adaptation if you do not have the rights. It’s unlikely the company will want to read your script.

David – I completely agree. Plus, if you loved a book that’s still under copyright, I’ll bet you can find a similar theme in a book that’s already in the public domain.

Laura – yup.

Mike B – Exactly, man. This is about gaining EXPERIENCE, which is essential. I love that line “why hurry to fail?” I completely agree.

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