Monday, 5 March 2012

How To.... Adapt...

Today I'm going to take a moment to discuss the whys and wherefores of adaptation.

No, I'm not going to talk about how you can adapt yourself into becoming some sort of aquatic mer-creature. That's mad science, this is about Hollywood, which contains almost no science at all.

I'm talking about the process of adapting otherwise existing material into a screenplay, and a movie.

So let's begin where the process begins, at the beginning.


The source material can be anything, a novel, a short story, an article, a comic book, someone's life story, or even a song or board game if the producer/studio is particularly desperate. This source material is either owned by someone, or it's public domain.

If the piece is public domain, meaning the owner of the material in question has been dead and gone the right number of government sanctioned decades without a legally rightful heir properly renewing the copyright, then the material is free for you to do with what you will.

However, if someone or something owns the material, then the person who wants to make it into a movie is going to have to pay the people who have a claim on those rights.

Take for example a novel. Imagine you are movie producer with Furious Studios. Your assistant has just told you about a book their cousin read that has a really catchy hook that could make a great movie.  You find out the name of the novel's publisher, who then puts you in contact with their department that handles ancillary rights, as well as the management/representation of the author in question.

Then the negotiations begin.

Now the length of time taken up by these negotiations, and the price they ultimately reach are dependent on these factors:

1. How popular is the source material in question?

2. Who else wants the rights to the work in question and how much are they willing to pay?

3. How much are the rights-holders asking for?

4. How much are you willing to pay?

Now let's imagine that you've won the negotiations and got the rights for a reasonable upfront fee, and a piece of the net (ha-suckers!).  Now unless you move to...


Unless you're going to write the screenplay yourself, you're going to need an ink-stained wretch to write the damn thing for you.

To find the right writer for your project you need to look for these qualities:

1. The writer has to have read the material in question and hopefully liked it.

2. The writer should be reliable and hopefully quick if you're adapting a really popular book.  Remember if the book's a best-seller, you want to get the movie out while the hype from the book is still relatively fresh in the minds of the ticket buying public. The Harry Potter movies wouldn't have done as well as they did if Warner Bros. took 15 years to adapt the first one.

Once that writer is found, we move onto the next stage.


Now shift your imagination gears from picturing yourself as a producer, complete with tailored suit and luxury car, to imagining yourself as the writer.  So just picture yourself in a pair of ratty sweat-pants and a T-shirt for a band no one but you will admit to ever liking.

You're sitting in front of your computer, there's a blank page on your Final Draft program, and you now must ask yourself...

1. What can I take directly from the book?  This could be anything as concrete as entire scenes and plot lines, to as ephemeral as themes.

2. What must I take indirectly from the book, since film is such a radically different medium?

2. What material from the book must I dump like so much flotsam and jetsam?

3.  How can I balance it all to make it an appealing film that won't offend or insult the fans of the source material? (This is really important if the source material is very popular with many vocal fans.)

Sometimes you have to be relatively faithful to the source material to be successful, like the Lord Of The Rings, and sometimes you need to be radically different from the source material like Blade Runner, in order to make a working film.

Each piece is different, and that means that each attempt at adaptation is different.  Some think that it's easier than doing an original screenplay because the story is essentially written.  I disagree, it's actually harder to adapt something else for the screen, because you have to get your voice to mesh with the original author's voice, and somehow find the middle ground that will make a good film.

Then begins...


But that's the easy part, compared to all the rest.