Original Screenplays vs. Adapted Screenplays

The realm of filmmaking is rich with various types of screenplays, each carrying its unique attributes and challenges.

In recent years, there’s been a noticeable surge in the popularity of one particular type of screenplay: the adapted screenplay.

But what sets an adapted screenplay apart from an original screenplay, and what are the nuances involved in writing each type?

An original screenplay is essentially a script that springs from your own unique idea. It’s a creative expression that’s entirely yours, and you hold the copyrights to this original work. In contrast, an adapted screenplay takes its roots from someone else’s original idea. To create such a screenplay, you must acquire the rights to transform that idea into your own script.

Explore the intricacies of these differences and learn the art of crafting an adapted script in the following sections.

The Original Screenplay

An original screenplay is a literary work that originates from a story that is entirely new and has not been told before. This means that the script is not an adaptation of any pre-existing story, and you, as the writer, are the sole creator and copyright owner of this unique narrative.

Understanding Copyright

When you create an original screenplay, copyright protection is automatically bestowed upon your work from the moment it is written. There is no need to formally apply for or purchase copyright protection. Your original concept, once penned down, is legally yours, and anyone wishing to replicate or commercialize your script must seek your explicit permission.

While purchasing a copyright isn’t necessary, securing proof of copyright can be wise.

You can register your original screenplay with entities like the Writers Guild of America or the US Copyright Office for added protection.

Which Genre of Original Screenplays Sells Best?

In the current market, horror screenplays with modest budgets are the most marketable. It’s important to note that no genre guarantees an easy sale, but horror, particularly when it’s compact and budget-friendly (under $5 million), stands a better chance of rapid production.

Horror films enjoy a dedicated fan base, and audiences tend to be more accommodating of low-budget productions in this genre, provided the films are genuinely terrifying.

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Notable Examples of Original Screenplays

Annually, the Oscars celebrate outstanding screenwriting with the “Best Original Screenplay” category.

Some renowned winners of this award include “Get Out” (2018), “Green Book” (2019), “Parasite” (2020), and “Promising Young Woman” (2021).

However, it’s worth noting that in 2020, only 25 original scripts were sold, a minuscule figure in comparison to the thousands of screenplays that enter the market each year.

This brings us to the increasingly sought-after screenplay type in Hollywood – scripts based on intellectual property, also known as “The Adapted Screenplay”.

The Adapted Screenplay

An adapted screenplay, as the name suggests, is a script that is derived from a pre-existing story.

This source material can take various forms, such as books, novels, news articles, or life stories, where the copyright is held by someone other than the screenwriter.

Adapting a story does not necessarily mean replicating the original work verbatim. It involves taking the essence of the original and either closely reinterpreting it or weaving it into a new narrative.

Copyright Considerations

The primary distinction between an original and an adapted screenplay is that the latter is based on someone else’s creative work. Consequently, the copyright of the original material belongs to its creator, and you must negotiate rights with them to legally develop a screenplay based on their story.

Famous Adapted Scripts

Each year, the Oscars recognize “Best Adapted Screenplay” with its own award category. Some notable films that have won or been nominated include:

  • “The Social Network” (2010) by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich.
  • “127 Hours” (2010) by Simon Beaufoy & Danny Boyle, based on Aron Ralston’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
  • “Argo” (2012) by Chris Terrio, inspired by Tony Mendez’s “The Master of Disguise” and Joshuah Bearman’s article “The Great Escape.”
  • “12 Years a Slave” (2013) by John Ridley, adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir.
  • “Whiplash” (2014) by Damien Chazelle, expanded from his own award-winning short film.
  • “Moonlight” (2016) by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
  • “The Father” (2020) by Christopher Hampton & Florian Zeller, from Zeller’s French play “Le Père.”

Adapted scripts can originate from a variety of sources, including books, articles, plays, short films, or even works in other languages.

Crafting an Adaptation

Before embarking on writing an adaptation, securing the adaptation rights is crucial.

Typically, this involves contacting the original author (the copyright holder) to discuss your intention to adapt their work. This conversation may include pitching your interpretation and negotiating financial terms, which can vary depending on the author’s recognition.

The agreement you enter into with the author should include a definitive end date, providing a reasonable period for you to write and market the screenplay.

Many authors are enthusiastic about seeing their work translated into film, so approach them confidently with your proposal.

Once the rights are secured, you need to determine which elements of the original work will feature in your screenplay. In television, it’s common for authors to be involved as producers or consultants, as seen with Piper Kerman’s involvement in “Orange Is the New Black” and Caroline Kepnes in “You.” In films, however, authors typically have less involvement in the adaptation process.

Adapting a novel or other lengthy work into a screenplay often involves significant condensation and modification. You’ll need to identify the core elements – characters, plot, themes – and decide what will make it into the film version. This process starts with a detailed outline, helping you discern which aspects of the original work are essential for your adapted screenplay.

The goal isn’t to create a carbon copy of the original story, but rather to craft a film that captures the essence of the story while making necessary adjustments for the cinematic medium.

Is Pursuing an Adapted Script a Wise Decision?

There was a time when adapted screenplays were not taken seriously in the industry, but that era has passed.

Adaptations have proven to be commercially successful and are often seen as a safer investment by producers compared to original scripts. They come with built-in audiences and established narratives, reducing development costs and increasing the likelihood of attracting viewers.

While original screenplays will always have their place, writing an adapted screenplay is now a strategic career move. By adapting a beloved book, article, or other copyrighted work, you can make a significant impact in Hollywood.

Adapted screenplays offer a unique opportunity to bring your creative interpretation to a story you love. However, always ensure you have the rights to adapt the work into a screenplay before you begin.

Whether it’s an original or adapted script, we eagerly anticipate your next film potentially making a splash at the Oscars!

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