With so many films adapted from intellectual property, at some point in your screenwriting career you’ll find yourself writing an adaptation. Having adapted books, comics and true stories, Mario O. Moreno shares several essential techniques for writing adaptations.
Mario Moreno is a first generation Latin American screenwriter, author, filmmaker, speaker and creative coach. He’s a member of the Writer’s Guild of America West and co-authored the screenwriting how-to book The Pocket Screenwriting Guide: 120 Tips for Getting to FADE OUT. You can follow Mario on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Adaptations are like death and taxes: they can’t be avoided.
According to a statistic in George Lucas’s book Blockbusting, 60% of all films made between 1903 and 2003 were adapted from pre-existing material.
Based on the last 15 years of film releases, the percentage of adaptations over originals is likely much higher now.
So, odds are, if you continue writing for the screen at some point you’ll find yourself doing an adaptation.
If you’ve ever attempted to adapt a novel, play or true story into a screenplay or pilot, you’ve possibly discovered the art of adaptation is as challenging as writing an original—and often more difficult.
Having adapted books, comics and true stories, I’ve found several techniques essential. Scribe to scribe, I feel compelled to share them with you.
Whether you’re developing an idea for an adaption, struggling to complete the first draft, or trying to find your way through a rewrite, here are 3 tips to help take your adaptation to the next level:
[Note: While these examples reference true stories, the same concepts can be applied when adapting fiction.]
1. FIND YOUR EMOTIONAL CONNECTION.
Identifying why you want to write a story can be as important as how you write it.
It’s essential to find your emotional connection to the source material because it will lead to the most genuine expression of your inspiration and serve as creative fuel to get you from initial concept to completed project.
For example, David Seidler, who struggled with a stammer as a child, was inspired by King George VI’s stirring radio addresses to tell the story of how the King overcame his own stammer into the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech.
Ask yourself: “Why do I want to tell this story?”
Even if you can’t find a perfectly concise answer, you’ll hit on a deeper emotional truth than: “It’ll look really cool” or “I think I can sell it.”
If one of those last two reasons keeps cropping up as the answer, pick another story.
2: FRAME THE STORY.
Novels, true stories and other source material are often too complex to fit within the 1-2 hour timeframe of most pilots and feature films.
Finding a framework for the story allows the writer to focus on the aspects which intrigue them the most, the same way a viewfinder allows a photographer to frame a picture.
For example, when researching the story of Facebook, Aaron Sorkin learned there had been two lawsuits brought against the social media giant around the same time and three conflicting stories had emerged from the hearings.
Sorkin used the depositions as a framing device for The Social Network, which allowed him to explore the conflicting perspectives of the participants.
This creative decision left the audience with the choice of whom to believe (kind of like what happens when on Facebook)—as opposed to simply following Mark Zuckerberg from the cradle to the billionaire’s bracket.
Frames are flexible and can be constructed of almost anything. They are one of the best and least discussed storytelling devices.
You can see examples of frames in recent films like I Tonya (interviews), Dunkirk (one week split into multiple POVs) and Slumdog Millionaire (gameshow questions) to classics like Raging Bull (backstage bookends), Lola Montes (the circus) and Rashomon (sharing stories during a storm).
3: TREAT IT LIKE AN ORIGINAL.
At the end of the day, an adaptation has to be as well told as an original. It needs strong structure, escalating conflict, empathetic characters and thematic unity.
The best adaptations often result from writers using source material as possible ingredients for their stories as opposed to being beholden to “what exactly happened.”
For example, in trying to capture the spirit of John Nash’s life when adapting A Beautiful Mind, Akiva Goldsman changed the subject of Nash’s hallucinations from extraterrestrials to Cold War spies.
The goal was for the audience to believe Nash’s alternate reality. This would heighten the emotional revelation when both Nash and the audience discovered the truth.
Cold War spies were more plausible than aliens, so he made the adjustment (and won an Oscar).
When working on my own projects or coaching creatives, I aim to identify an emotional connection to the source material, use that connection to devise a suitable frame, and map a possible structure that maximizes the story’s emotional impact and potential—all while treating it like an original.
Aspire to do the same, and maybe your script will be the next to pad George Lucas’s stats.