When the Academy Awards are given out each year, there are two awards for screenplays. One is for best original screenplay, which is a screenplay that is written from no source other than the writer’s imagination. The other category is reserved for the best adapted screenplay. Generally, this is a screenplay that interprets another source, like a novel, a short story, a play, or even another film.
Adapted screenplays are actually more common than originals. Many screenwriters get their inspiration from a variety of sources, and some of the most celebrated films of this century have been adapted from other sources. These include the following films:
- Brokeback Mountain
- Million Dollar Baby
- The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King
- The Departed
- The Constant Gardener
- The Pianist
Creating an adapted screenplay is a challenging process. A writer may or may not be concerned with being faithful to an original work, and sometimes, the author of the original work has enough power to exert considerable influence over the screenplay writing process. For example, J.K. Rowling has been allowed editorial control over all of the Harry Potter films based on her popular book series.
There is sometimes a schism between devoted readers of a book and the writer or writers who adapt it for film. Very popular novels have often fallen short of expectations when turned into a screenplay because, often, books can't be easily converted into movie form. Such was the case with the highly anticipated adapted screenplay of The Da Vinci Code and, in the 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Witches of Eastwick.
At other times, an adapted screenplay becomes better known and loved than its source material. Many know Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Wizard of Oz far better from film versions than from the books that produced them, though it should be noted they were all popular books. Sometimes avid readers are disgusted by the movie versions that change essential elements of a beloved novel. Many rabid Jane Austen fans found the Pride and Prejudice adaptation starring Keira Knightly disappointing, and they express concern that a mediocre film will be better known than its infinitely preferable source material.
The writer of the screenplay adaptation, however, is trying to morph one form of art into another. Peter Jackson and his wife offered many explanations for eliminating some characters and making slight changes to The Lord of the Rings because they had to “sell” the concept of the film to a studio. Not all fans of the books bought their argument. This proves to be one of the essential push and pull aspects of adaptation. Film is a different medium than a play, a novel, or a short story, and what works in a particular source may not translate well to a film. As a result, the adapted screenplay is always a critical interpretation of the work, rather than an exact copy. In fact, sometimes the most faithful copies of a work make for poor films.
If a writer is thinking of trying his or her hand at an adapting another work into a screenplay, a few things are worth noting. When the source work is not in the public domain and is still the intellectual property of the writer or inheritors of the writer, the adapter can’t sell the screenplay to others. New screenwriters who want to try adaptation should consider working from public domain material only, unless they can get consent from the writer to adapt the work. In many screenwriting contests, rules specify that adaptation may only come from public domain source work.