ADAPTIONS - Pinnacles and Pitfalls, or Why it’s a bad idea to combine Jane Austen and zombies (Part 1) | Script Revolution

ADAPTIONS - Pinnacles and Pitfalls, or Why it’s a bad idea to combine Jane Austen and zombies (Part 1)


When Deen Gill approached me asking if I'd be interested in him blogging about what he's learned writing adaptions, I thought sure, a few pointers would be great. But the man has gone above and beyond and kicked off part 1 of his guide to writing adapations with a hell of a detailed start. This is a must read for any screenwriting considering adapting either their own material or that of another author's. Ultimately this part focuses on where we are in terms of our story craft and how adaptions can either help or hinder us depending on which path we take - CJ

One of my favorite authors is Philip K Dick. He never received the accolades he should have been awarded in his lifetime, but his written work is finally getting some traction. Why? Film adaptions.

You have seen his work but probably didn’t know it. The people that know his name know Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and some can even name the novel from which it came, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” The novel is spectacular, the film equally so. But they are not the same story. While Dick clearly wanted to keep the mystery of Deckard’s humanity shrouded (was he a man chasing android imposters, or an android doing so?), Scott clearly stated that hunter Rick Deckard (expertly played by Harrison Ford) was indeed an android himself. I didn’t like this inference, being a Dick purist myself. Blade Runner has become one of the best sci-fi films of all time. Both the film and the novel deserve immense credit, but this is not always the case. In fact, in most cases it’s not.

An adaption is simply a film treatment of someone else’s (or sometimes one’s own) source material. Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, R.L. Stevenson, Jules Verne, Shelley all have had their works adapted. Some were major successes, some horrendous failures. So why should you care? That’s what we now answer.

Many beginning screenwriters complain that they start off with a great idea, get 20-30 pages in, and fall flat. “What do I do now?” they ask in a panic. Shelve it I say. A great idea is not a great story. In fact, it’s not a story at all. Ask around Hollywood what an idea is worth (I’ll give you a clue- it’s the number that starts with a Z). Ideas are not stories. More to the point, most ideas can’t even be stories. They could possibly be short scripts (the value of which is hotly debated in professional screenwriting circles. I say short scripts have value, other say they are worthless, but that’s for another time).

The problem for the screenwriter is that we have tons of ideas all fighting for our time (I have 8 finished scripts, but I have 28 partial scripts and ideas that I am trying to keep track of). So how do you know what is worth your time and what isn’t? Feel. That’s the best answer I have to offer. Just like making bread or music, writing must be done by feel. But writers don’t have developed ‘feel’ early on, so they write lots of crap. I did. So did you. But if you don’t write quality material so that you know what ‘feel’ feels like, how do you develop feel? Answer: adapt.

My first two adaptions were both PK Dick stories. I still have them. I love them, but I will be glad to sell them if I get a fair offer. DEEN! ISN’T THAT STEALING? Nope. Both of the stories were from the days before PKD got his literary production straightened out, and sold the stories to sci-fi pulp mags which went defunct, lost their copyright and fell into public domain. Public domain is a small percentage of PKD’s stuff (and of course he gets credit for the source material in my works), but the material is mine to use fairly. This gives me the opportunity to work with some solid plotting and characterization, while developing my feel.

Warning 1- be sure the material you source is actually in public domain, or you will be sued.

There are lists of public domain works on the internet, but some of the name that pop up frequently are Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Verne, Grimm, some of the works of Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Poe, Zane Grey, Max Brand, Bradbury, Harry Harrison and dozens of others.

Warning 2- just because the source material is available, that doesn’t mean it should be adapted.

I looked through a dozen of PK Dick’s stories before I found two that I wanted to work on. Now, you don’t have to use public domain material. You can use anything if you are willing to pay the price that the current copyright holder wants for the source material… if you can even get a hold of them

For now, let’s just stick with public domain. BUT DEEN, WON’T SOMEONE ELSE USE THE SAME MATERIAL? Maybe. If you select something that is inexplicably popular like Shakespeare (I cannot stand Shakespeare). But even if someone figures out what PK Dick stories I used, and adapts them for themselves, they are not going to reproduce the 25-35% of original material that I included in the script, and I welcome the challenge. I say my original material + Dick, beats your original material + Dick. If you sell your script instead, awesome. I congratulate you for besting me on the field of fair competition.

But it’s not likely. I’m here:

BUT DEEN WHAT IF THEY SELL THEIRS INSTEAD? So what? If your purpose for adapting is to develop feel, you have lost nothing. If you sell it, it’s a bonus. Be blessed. Pick out some public domain source material, write a script and develop your feel. Know the format for screenplays, plug in the material, expand or trim, revise, revise, revise. Write what you would like to see. See?

Warning 3- DO NOT try to adapt full length novels.

It’s too much material. I started my adaptions with PK Dick because I wanted to adapt my own 65,000- word novel for the screen, but I didn’t know what it felt like, so I started with Dick. Not only do I have 2 solid screenplays that are commercially viable (movies made from Dick source material have grossed over 2 billion dollars), but I have a better feel for adaption.

Warning 4- adapting your own material is much, much harder.

It’s excruciating. When you consider that a screenplay is about 25-30,000 words for a 120 page script, that means I have to cut out half of my source material to make an effective screenplay. What characters do I cut? What subplots do I eliminate completely, and which ones do I include? It’s hard to do well if you are using full length source material, like I am with my own stuff. The PK Dick stuff was from two novellas (long short stories) and were about the right length. And I didn’t have the same emotional investment with PKD’s stuff that I had with mine. Cutting (or expanding) his stuff was easy. My own material is much tougher to trim. As of this writing, I am still not finished, but I have a solid direction.

Next time we will discuss what adaptions have been extremely successful (and why), and what adaptions have been total train wrecks (hint: see the title)

About The Author

Deenur _'s picture
Real name: 

Screenwriter, author, all around good guy. Passionate about strong plotting and characterization. I see way too many character violations for the sake of moving the plot along. If the writing is strong and thoughtful, it will move the reader/viewer along, engaging them, pulling them in, and making them fans. My work has been read and vetted by B-movie film legend Bill Rebane, actor Joseph C. Phillips, and producer Jeff Faehnle.  https://www....Read more



Simon Mapp's picture

Interesting piece. When I first started writing scripts I used original source material as it helped me concentrate on the script structure rather than worry about plotting. The first script I ever wrote was based on Poe's "Tell Tale Heart". I have over the years done a few more, including one on SR, but nowadays I tend to be "inspired" by them rather than doing straight adapts.

I'd add one warning re adapting out of copyright work - if it was written in a language other than English, be sure the translation you use (assuming you don't use the original!) is also out of copyright. For example, Proust may no longer be in copyright but many of the English translations of his works are. Copyright is a bit of a minefield...

For those interested in adapting "public domain" works, in the UK written texts become available 70 years after the death of the author - so names like F Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and so on are now free to use. H G Wells will become available next year, I think I'm right in saying. So they don't have to be from the dim and distant past!

Deenur _'s picture

Good comments Simon. Thanks!

Simon Mapp's picture

Interestingly enough SimplyScripts are running a One Week Challenge based on adapting fairy tales into horror films and so there's lot of scripts over there at the moment demonstrating the myriad approaches that are possible.

Fairly Finfield's picture

Thank you Deen! Great write up. And perfect timing as I'm currently working on adapting some public domain material. I was wondering if you could speak to any responsibility the writer has regarding historical characters. Meaning is a writer free to develop their own personality traits for actual historical characters, say Abraham Lincoln for example, or is there some kind of ethical standard one should be mindful of?

Thank you. I'm looking forward to your next installment.

Deenur _'s picture

I am adapting that very thing right now- a bounty hunting family from the old west. They are a real family but details about them are sketchy so of course I am taking lots of license. I would say notoriety is key: the more that is already known, the more restricted you are. Fans that are already established are going to expect some authenticity to canon (see current superhero blockbusters and their criticisms). Thank you so much!

Fairly Finfield's picture

Thank you Deen. That does make sense. I've read most of the books on these characters that I can find so I'll try to stick to the historical account as not to offend the built-in audience. Thanks for the reply. I really appreciate it. And good luck with your project. I'd love to see it someday. There are just not enough period pieces from the 1800s coming out in my opinion.

Deenur _'s picture

Thank you for the kind words. And I am also not a fan of horror, FYI :)

Fairly Finfield's picture

Thanks Deen! I often feel alone on that. Horror is a pretty popular genre. Maybe my imagination is just too good. I can deal with watching it more than I can deal with reading it, but I don't enjoy doing

Simon Mapp's picture

This may be of interest: