Style is what an artist uses to fascinate the beholder in order to convey to him his feel­ings and emotions and thoughts. These are what have to be dram­at­ised, not the style. The dram­at­ising has to find a style of its own, as it will do if it really grasps the content … It may or may not be as good as the novel; some­times it may in certain ways be even better.”

Stanley Kubrick

There was a time when screen­writers who adapted other people’s work were given less recog­ni­tion and even paid less than those who wrote original screen­plays; the thinking being: if you were already provided with a story and char­ac­ters, how much more was there to do?  Nowadays it is more gener­ally acknow­ledged that adapt­a­tion is an art form in itself, demanding skill, and some­times more effort, than working from an original idea.

Many beginner scriptwriters are attracted by the idea of adapting a novel or a biography for the screen because they are genu­inely excited by the poten­tial of the source material. They either choose to ignore or they are bliss­fully unaware of the prob­lems and obstacles involved in the task.

There is a reason why successful adapt­a­tions tend to be done by seasoned writers with estab­lished track records.

To begin with there is the thorny issue of owner­ship (see below), some­thing that must be completely resolved at the outset. If you do not own the rights to some­body else’s work, or at least have their exclusive permis­sion to adapt it, you will be wasting your time and energy in a fruit­less exercise.

Then there is the ques­tion of suit­ab­ility: just because the material works bril­liantly in one medium doesn’t mean it will neces­sarily trans­late to another, partic­u­larly one that depends on its appeal to a mass audi­ence.

A best selling novel’s success, for example, is often based on a relat­ively small read­er­ship compared to figures that would be regarded as successful at the box-office.

And finally there is the tightrope walk between remaining faithful to the original and rein­ter­preting it in a completely fresh way. How many times have you heard said, or even said your­self, that a film “wasn’t as good as the book”. Being judged on your own merits as a writer is hard enough but as an adapter you have an extra yard­stick to be meas­ured by and found wanting.

Enthu­siasm is never going to be enough to meet these demands; it can even be a handicap in certain circum­stances. Para­dox­ic­ally, the process of adapting is often one of ‘moving away’ from the source material, of finding an objective perspective. It requires a cool head and the ability to dissect and reas­semble the product of another artist’s creativity with different prior­ities in mind.

If you do have a pet adapt­a­tion project, possibly the best advice for begin­ners is to keep it in reserve until you feel that you have gained the exper­i­ence and repu­ta­tion that will give you a real­istic chance of success.

Lay it down, like a fine wine, and let it mature; the passage of time can only increase your objectivity and the skills you acquire in the mean­while will better equip you for the not-so-easy task ahead.



The art of theft – adapt­a­tion or inspiration?

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal”.

Pablo Picasso

If, despite what has been said, you still feel the irres­ist­ible and passionate urge to adapt some­thing, here is a ques­tion that you should ask your­self before you start out.

It is the same one that you should be asking your­self about any story you choose to work on: what is it exactly that appeals to me about this idea, what is the hook that person­ally draws me in?

Answer as honestly and specific­ally as you can. Perhaps it is the theme, or certain char­ac­ters, or a central rela­tion­ship – or even the setting? Try to identify the precise ingredi­ents that resonate with you, that you feel give the work its uniqueness.

This can be a valu­able insight for more than one reason. At the begin­ning of a love affair, the object of affec­tion often seems singular and unique to the lover. But, as the rela­tion matures, that illu­sion is dispelled; it broadens into an appre­ci­ation of more enduring qual­ities or the lover simply moves on, seeking those same qual­ities in others.

A fine work of liter­ature, to pick one example, can generate a similar emotional response. But the hard truth that the would-be adapter must face is that it cannot be improved upon, it is already singular and complete. The text of the book is the defin­itive version in the form and format that the author intended.

Never­the­less, contained within that form, are the elements from which the work draws its power; themes and motifs that touch upon the universal. Shakespeare was an avid plun­derer of such books and adept at making the tales within them his own. He did this by refash­ioning the stories around the themes that he wanted to explore.

If Wuthering Heights is the greatest book you ever read and you yearn to bring (yet another) adapt­a­tion to the screen, stop and consider for a moment why you feel that way about it:

Is it the ill-fated love story at its heart you respond to?

The lowering moors setting?

Perhaps the driven, destructive nature of the novel’s anti-hero?

All of these elements have the poten­tial, if you allow them, to take you along another path; on a different journey of your own. And some­times that is by far the better course than to follow in the foot­steps of another.



If you are adapting your own book, play or short story for the screen then you natur­ally don’t face issues of copy­right; instead you have the some­times more diffi­cult task of wrenching your­self away from the original format you conceived it in. But you if are contem­plating adapting some­body else’s work, then here are a few bits of prac­tical advice.

Be real­istic

If a book or play has been successful, or is a current ‘hot prop­erty,’ then the chances are good that some­body has already optioned it or bought the rights. (An option gives the exclusive right for a period of time to adapt the work, perhaps subject to further contract, whilst ‘owning the rights’ means a literal buy-out).

Those with the resources: movie studios, produ­cers, and produc­tion companies, will often buy up prom­ising material spec­u­lat­ively even if they have no imme­diate inten­tion of adapting it. The rights to a book in the best-seller list or the biography of a famous person can command large amounts of money. Even if they are avail­able, you would prob­ably have to pay a similar sum.

Approach with caution

Most writers have an agent or a repres­ent­ative who looks after their busi­ness interests. This is the person with whom you must inev­it­ably deal in the first instance and their atti­tude will be crucial to your success. Even if the work that you want to adapt is relat­ively obscure or unknown, the agent will want to make the best deal for his client. Your interest in the work indic­ates an oppor­tunity for that so you must be circum­spect in how you make your approach and present yourself.

Simil­arly, unless you do hold the option to a work, be wary of sharing your plans for it with others; partic­u­larly those who might be better posi­tioned than you (produ­cers or produc­tion companies) to seize the initi­ative. Just because you brought the idea to them, they are under no oblig­a­tion to employ you as the adapter – although they might offer you a finder’s fee if they are feeling generous.

Don’t over-sell

Don’t pretend to be some­thing that you’re not. If you’re a jobbing writer who thinks he may make a success out of adapting some­thing, then that’s how you should present your­self. Enthu­siasm is good, you need to be optim­istic about the success of your project, but be careful not to over-sell it or your ability to bring it to fruition.

If at all possible, try to build a rela­tion­ship with the author. Many writers feel an affinity for others in the same trade and will respond to a personal approach. Being honest with them about your prospects and commu­nic­ating your liking for their work will prob­ably get you further than trying to impress them.

Don’t ask for too much either. A reas­on­able request would be a limited option granting you enough time to write your script and try to sell it; with the under­standing that, if you succeeded, there would be further nego­ti­ation. If you don’t have much money, be real­istic about what you can afford to pay up front but do offer to pay some­thing. There have been cases where authors have accepted a nominal amount because they believe in a project but don’t expect that neces­sarily to happen.

David Clough ©2011

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