You most likely know that there are different types of screenplays in the movie industry.
In the past few years, one specific screenplay has become more and more popular: the adapted screenplay.
But what exactly is an adaptation when compared to an original screenplay and how do you write each?
The original screenplay is a script based on your original idea to which you own the copyrights while the adapted screenplay is a script based on someone else’s original idea that you need to get rights to adapt into a script.
Find out more about the differences and how to write an adapted script below.
The Original Screenplay
An original script is a screenplay based on a story that is original. What that means is that the script is not based on an existing story and you, the writer, came up with the idea and therefore, also own full copyrights of the script.
What is Copyright?
When you write an original screenplay you automatically get copyright on it from the moment it is written. You do not need to claim or buy a copyright. It’s your original idea that you put on paper and therefore, you own the copyright to it and anyone who wants to write the same script or sell this script, needs to have your permission to do so.
While you don’t need to buy a copyright, it’s a smart thing to buy the proof of the copyright.
You can get your original script copyrighted with the Writers Guild of America or with the US Copyright Office.
What Genre Sells The Most in Original Screenplays?
Today, Horror screenplays with a small budget are the “easiest” genre to sell. I say “easiest” because nothing is ever an easy sell, but it is most likely the genre you will get made the quickest as long as it’s contained and small budget (below 5M).
Horror movies have a big fan base and usually the audience is a lot more forgiving when these movies are shot low budget, as long as they’re really scary.
Examples of Famous Original Screenplay?
Every year, the Oscars nominate the “Best Original Screenplay.”
Some of the famous original scripts that won are “Get Out” (2018), “Green Book” (2019), ”Parasite” (2020) and ”Promising Young Woman” (2021).
However, it’s important to note that only 25 original scripts sold in 2020, that’s a low number when you think that thousands of screenplays are on the market every year.
So… that brings us to our other category… one that everyone seems to want right now in Hollywood, scripts based on IP, also called “The Adapted Screenplay”.
The Adapted Screenplay
A screenplay adaptation is as its name indicates a scripted version of an existing story.
This existing story can be in the form of life rights, books, novels, news articles and anything where the copyright belongs to someone else.
The adapted story doesn’t mean the script is exactly as the original work, but it means that a writer has taken that work and either rewritten it closely or integrated it within their own story.
The main difference between an original script and an adapted script is that the adapted script is adapted from someone else’s original work. Therefore, the copyright already belongs to someone else (the author of the original work that you wish to adapt). You will therefore negotiate the rights with the author to be legally allowed to write a script based on their original story.
Examples of Famous Adapted Script
Every year, the Oscars give away an award for the “Best Adapted Screenplay”. Here are some of the past movies who won or were nominated at the Oscars:
“The Social Network” (2010) by Aaron Sorkin based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich.
“127 Hours” (2010) by Simon Beaufoy & Danny Boyle based on the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston,
“Argo” (2012) by Chris Terrio adapted from the book “The Master of Disguise” by Tony Mendez and the article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013) by John Ridley based on “The Memoir” by Solomon Northup.
“Whiplash” (2014) by Damien Chazelle based on the short film by Damien Chazelle that won at festivals in the years prior and was used as a proof of concept for the feature script.
“Moonlight” (2016) by Barry Jenkins based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by McCraney.
“The Father” (2020) by Christopher Hampton & Florian Zeller based on the french play “Le Père” by Florian Zeller.
As you can see, there are many different original sources for an adapted script. While often adapted scripts are based on books, they can also be based on articles, plays, short films or even original materials in another language.
How Do You Write an Adaptation
Before you write “Fade In” or anything else, you need to have the rights to adapt the story into a screenplay.
Most of the time, you will need to get in touch with the original author (who owns the copyright) and let them know about your plan to write an adaptation based on their work. They might want to hear you pitch your take and often they’ll want a financial compensation which can be minimal with some lesser known authors.
The contract you will submit to them will have a specific ending date since no one wants to get locked in a contract forever. That timeframe should be enough time for you to write a script, rewrite it and get a fair shot at taking the script to the market.
Most authors are thrilled at the idea of having their work adapted into a movie, so don’t feel uncomfortable or shy when reaching out to an author (of your favorite book for example).
Once you have secured the rights and know that you are legally allowed to write the script and shop it around, you will need to decide what part of the original work is kept in the adapted script.
Most of the time, the original author is not involved, but there are times where they might request to be, and if many people want their story, then you might want to accept since that might be a non-negotiable.
In television however, it’s frequent to see the original author involved as a producer/consultant on the project. Piper Kerman who wrote “Orange Is the New Black” was involved as a producer and consultant on the widely successful Netflix show. The same goes for Caroline Kepnes who wrote “You” which became a Netflix hit as well.
In movies however, most of the time the original author doesn’t stay involved and does not have a say in the final product.
So let’s say you have signed a document with the original author of a novel authorizing you to write an adapted script version of the story.
You are now facing a 300+ page novel that needs to become a screenplay. Obviously, you will need to cut scenes out and maybe even eliminate some characters to fit that narrative into a 90-120 pages
While you have a story already there with the book you want to make sure to outline your script before you start. It’s really important to know which parts of the book you will keep and which parts will not be a part of the adapted script.
Find the best possible parts in the story, the strongest elements, those are the ones that will end in the movie version.
Your adapted movie will have the core elements of what the story is: the protagonist, their goal, the antagonist, the stakes, but won’t necessarily have all the secondary characters, details and backstory. That’s often why the readers who love a book don’t necessarily love the movie version of it, because not everything can fit in a movie version.
Crucial decisions need to be made and those are made at the outline stage.
Your role isn’t to stick word to word with the story you optioned, but to write the best possible movie version, even if that means making some changes for the sake of the movie medium.
Now obviously, you want to tell the story you optioned, otherwise, what’s the point of getting the rights in the first place? If you want to tell a version of that story it’s because you fell in love with the story in the first place. So, find what makes you love that story and adapt it for the movie medium.
Is It Smart To Write An Adapted Script?
Once upon a time, producers would laugh at adapted screenplays, but these times are gone.
Adaptations have proven themselves to be widely successful and a safe(r) bet for producers than original scripts.
With adapted screenplays, producers save money in development costs since the story is not an original one and already has a proven success record, which is the other interesting aspect for a producer.
Existing IP already has a fan base and therefore, it will be less difficult to attract people to watch the movie because the people who love the original work will want to see the adapted movie.
While there will always be an audience for original screenplays, now more than ever writing an adapted script is a smart career move.
Get your name out there by writing the adaptation to a book, article or any other copyrighted work you love that you get the rights to adapt into a movie script. Hollywood will listen to you now more than ever if you have a script based on existing IP.
So, don’t see adapted scripts as something that will kill your creativity. On the contrary, let it be an opportunity to get your name on the map and write your take on a story you love.
But before anything, always make sure you get the rights to adapt the work into a screenplay!
So may it be Original or Adapted, we can’t wait to see your next movie at the Oscars!