Several years into my screenwriting career, I was approached by a librarian friend who thought that a certain Edgar-award winning Young Adult suspense thriller would make an awesome movie. As a favor to her, I read the book. Sadly (in retrospect), I agreed with her assessment — it was an awesome story that was meant for the big screen — so I took up the challenge to adapt this book to a screenplay.
I say “sadly” because I learned a few things along the way that made it painfully difficult to achieve my end result, even after turning out a decent script that was optioned by a Hollywood director who tried, unsuccessfully, to get the project off the ground. Without getting too much into the specifics of my own experience, I want to share some of what I learned.
A well-written novel sweeps you away with well-developed characters, clever, engaging plot, and dreamy landscapes of worlds, either real or imagined, that lie just beyond your reach. Who doesn’t love to read such a story? And what screenwriter doesn’t wish they wrote that story first? The good news is that an established story, whether it’s a work of fiction or a true account, is within your grasp through the magic of adaptation. All you need is the permission of the owner, generally the author, to translate their work into a screenplay. So simple a transaction, and yet so daunting a task.
You’re not limited to novels when the inspiration grabs you. Any book, play, poem, essay or news article is adaptable. The shorter the work, the greater are the odds that you can just start writing it without seeking permission at all. The key is in determining what constitutes intellectual property. An entertainment attorney can best give you the answer to that question. A less expensive alternative is for you to ask the author of the original piece. Author dead? Try their estate or the company that published the work. Keep in mind that ideas are not copyrightable. So if you come across a poem about three-headed monsters on Mars, you can probably write a script about three-headed monsters on Mars. Just avoid any specific descriptions that might appear to have been lifted straight out of that poem.
There’s a cost inherent in buying the right to adapt a work for the screen. That cost is negotiable and weighs heavily in favor of popular authors and their works. There’s a whole industry built around nothing but optioning stories written by famous people. Want to adapt a Stephen King novel? Good luck with that. There’s a good chance that the screenplay rights were negotiated up front, before the first word hit the page. There’s an equally good chance that the price tag for those rights was substantial. On the other hand, if you wanted to adapt my brother Hector’s book, Mafia Management, I’m pretty sure you can get it for a song.
There are many adaptable stories out there. Obscure authors (like Hector) would love to see their works on the big screen. Even the promise of a screenplay in the works can drum up interest in the original work. However, nothing forces you to follow the original story word-for-word — nothing, that is, except a very restrictive contract. So don’t agree to anything without a lawyer of your own. The last thing you want is for your creativity to be hamstrung by an overbearing literary agent.
Let’s talk a little bit about options and rights. These are two different things. An option is simply a promise by the owner to allow you to buy the rights at some later date. It costs less to option a work, but it’s just a placeholder. When you’re ready to buy the rights, outright, it’s called exercising your option. That transaction will cost you substantially more than the option did. But with an option in hand, you can actually start writing the screenplay, knowing that you, and only you, may buy the screenplay rights, right up until the day the option expires. However, if you don’t exercise your option by the end of the period, you might as well tear up whatever pages you’ve already written.
Goodness gracious! We haven’t even talked about the process of writing the adaptation, have we? Well, that’s why this is only (Part 1). If you’ve made it this far and you’ve secured an option to adapt a story to the screen, then you’re ready to go on to (Part 2)…which I haven’t written yet. But if you’re still in the “wishful thinking” stage, or you’re in the middle of negotiations with a literary agent, then you’ve got too much on your plate right now to worry about the “how to write it” part. In fact, you damn well better not start writing it without the obligatory permission — in writing — or you could find yourself in a world of legal trouble.
To be continued…
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.