Adaptations: The Yellow Brick Road to An Academy Award?

Many beloved films have come from adaptations throughout the years. This is more common in Hollywood than you may think.

Some think of using adaptations for screenplays as fodder for the “lazy writer” who couldn’t come up with an idea of his or her own.

Contrary to this belief, adaptations have been prevalent among Hollywood success stories and films for many years. In fact, the Academy Awards even has a specific award just for Writing – Adapted Screenplay. I’m happy to bust this “lazy writer” myth! Let’s take a closer look at this category so you can determine if writing an adaptation is of interest for your next script and screenwriting effort.

Adaptations, as defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are those screenplays that have been adapted from another source (usually a novel, play, short story, or TV show but sometimes they can be from another film).

Well-known Hollywood types have received the award for adaptations including Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Emma Thompson, just to name a few.

Nominations, however, have been fueled by adaptations for years, from Casablanca to Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz to Brokeback Mountain, Terms of Endearment, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and, of course, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Little Women, Pygmalion, Miracle on 34th Street, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Exorcist, The Last Emperor, Les Miserables and more.

In fact, in 2013, there were 11 Academy Award nominees that were based on adaptations alone. In the Best Picture category, five of the nominees were from books, one from a comic book, another from a play, and one that was historically based. Talk about variety! 2013 was a smorgasbord when it came to adaptations!

The benefit of working with an adaptation is that the storyline is already set. The job of the adapting screenwriter is to cull and cultivate the right story for the screen, as opposed to a novelist taking a screenplay and embellishing it for a book.

The challenges presented by an adaptation are often tied to the screenwriter’s decision of whether to be true to the original storyline or if the adaptation will follow “closely enough” for those who already know the story to be satisfied with the film version.

Adaptations are not for every writer. Some feel they stifle their creativity and don’t allow for the freedom that crafting a screenplay from scratch may otherwise provide. Adaptations come with expectations from the audience, whose familiarity can create a rave review or a rotten tomato – and some writers aren’t sure how to navigate these popular culture pieces in adaptations for the big screen.

These days, however, best-selling books are almost guaranteed to be adapted to the silver screen. Many others may lend themselves to television series or plays.

Unlike The Pursuit of Happyness or Eat, Pray, Love, some people’s true stories are not adaptable for the silver screen because they are not interesting and/or lack commercial appeal. Not every novel is a shoe-in either.

Now you may not be Nicholas Sparks or Stephen King, whose works have been taken multiple times from book to film, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get into the adaptations game.

It is best to learn more about adaptations before diving into writing them so you have some guidelines and general best practices. It is also essential that you understand the difference between book writing, screenwriting, short story writing, play writing, writing for television and other types of writing. Each of these requires specific skill sets and a comprehension of the general structure and context for the piece being written.

Just because you wrote the book does not mean you are going to be an amazing screenwriter for the film version of it. Keep in mind that all of the embellishments and backstory you are allowed in a book have to be cut back, sometimes severely, in order for the story to fit into a standard length screenplay. Many writers don’t know how cut the storyline, especially when it is their book.

In order to follow the proverbial yellow brick road to your own Oscar nomination for an adaptation, take the time to learn the pivotal differences between the writing you are accustomed to doing, including any original screenwriting you may have done, and the best practices for writing an adaptation.

As you continue to expand and enhance your writing craft, you may just find that adaptations may open up a whole new writing challenge that could complement your other writing talents.

Jennifer S. Wilkov is a #1 international best-selling award-winning author, an award-winning freelance writer, the Literary Agent Matchmaker™ and a respected book and business consultant in her business called “Your Book Is Your Hook!” She is also a popular media personality as the host and executive producer of the #1 radio talk show “Your Book Is Your Hook!” on WomensRadio. She supports first time writers and seasoned authors with the essentials to become a bestseller: a great project, a strong platform and a well-polished pitch, presentation, and hook for their book or project.

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3 thoughts on “Adaptations: The Yellow Brick Road to An Academy Award?

  1. Kevin Jackson

    How does a screenwriter “practice” writing an adaptation when you cannot write one unless a) you are hired to do so, b) spend the money to acquire the rights and then write the script on spec, or c) simply spend your time writing something you know you will never be able to shop legally?

  2. K. Rowe

    As a novelist and screenwriter, I can say that doing adaptations of your own work is darned difficult! I never imagined how hard it would be to take an 80K word novel and squeeze it into a 115 page script. And the way I’d written the book, it didn’t translate well, so I had to put a few new things in the script that weren’t in the book to make it all work. I’d read books on adaptations and screenwriting in general, and it didn’t prepare me for what I had to do in order to make it a marketable script. I definitely learned from the experience and now look at further adaptations differently. Nice article!

  3. BellyB

    Are you saying you can use an adapted spec as your calling card in this business? Don’t I need a body of original specs in one genre?

    And would it not matter, without having rights to the source property?

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