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Script Classics: Adapting to the Adaptation Process

Story analyst Joel Haber explains the process of adaptation: How it’s done, and how practice makes perfect. If you're a screenwriter or novelist, Haber's insights are a must-read.

Story analyst Joel Haber explains the process of adaptation: How it’s done, and how practice makes perfect. If you're a screenwriter or novelist, Haber's insights are a must-read.

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“When I’m offered a piece of work to adapt … the first thing I ask is, 'Do I really love this?”'The second question is, 'Can I make it play?'” —William Goldman

The process of adapting another author’s work into a film can be one of the most challenging tasks a screenwriter will face. But, it also often turns out to be one of the more creatively rewarding and lucrative ones. So while William Goldman’s two questions should precede most attempts at adaptation, this article looks at how a writer should approach the task once he finds the answer to both of those questions is “yes.”

One of the more intriguing screenplays is Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, largely due to its examination of the screenwriting process in general and the adaptation process in particular. At various points and on differing levels, the film can be seen as addressing no less than four different adaptations—chronologically: Susan Orlean’s adaptation of John Laroche’s story into an article; her adaptation of her own article into a book; the character Kaufman’s attempt to adapt the book as a screenplay; and lastly, actual screenwriter Kaufman’s adaptation of his real-life struggles into the film we watch. Thus, the film simultaneously is an adaptation and is about adaptation. An examination of the screenplay highlights some of the challenges and issues involved in the adaptation process.

Kaufman’s Adaptation script becomes particularly relevant once we recognize how prevalent adaptations are in today’s film market. Such films take a variety of forms. Admittedly, the Academy’s definition of adaptations is sometimes rather inscrutable (Calling O Brother, Where Art Thou? an adaptation of Ulysses is definitely a stretch, though it was clearly inspired by Joyce’s work.); but it generally uses somewhat strict definitions of what it considers a “screenplay adapted from another source.” A broader definition of adaptation, however, would encompass a large percentage of the films released each year. A quick glance at Hollywood releases over the past year show films adapted from TV series, previously released feature films (remakes), short films, comic books, magazine and newspaper articles, books, short stories, stage plays, videogames and real life. This past summer’s hit Pirates of the Caribbean was an adaptation of a theme park ride. In fact, one of the more peculiar deals of the past year involved the purchase of rights to adapt a pop song (Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi”) into a feature.


In its broadest definition, in fact, nearly every film Hollywood produces may be seen as an adaptation of sorts. Almost every screenplay that studios buy goes through at least one rewrite during development. Many of these are rewritten by screenwriters other than those with whom the material originated. Thus, the rewriters are actually engaged in the process of adapting a screenplay from a screenplay. The process remains essentially the same whether one is adapting a script from a novel or from some other written source.

Clearly, it would therefore behoove any screenwriter to become adept at adapting. Still, the likelihood of an aspiring or new screenwriter’s having an opportunity to write a film adaptation is, of course, unlikely. Rights to source material can be prohibitively expensive, and most people would consider it somewhat foolish to write such a script on spec. Similarly, few studios will hire an unproven, first-time writer to adapt a novel other than one he wrote. So how should the beginning screenwriter practice what could eventually become one of his most lucrative skills?

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Luckily, you have multiple opportunities to begin adapting your skills to the adaptation process. For example, people sometimes write script adaptations to use as writing samples even without holding the rights to the source material. However, this may not be the wisest idea as writing samples do occasionally get picked up for production (e.g. Kaufman’s first produced screenplay, Being John Malkovich). Thus, if your script is that good, a production company could be disappointed when it learns it is actually unavailable. What are your other options?


Many older books currently reside in the public domain, and thus one does not need to buy rights to sell a screenplay based upon one of them. If you’ve got an idea for an action picture based upon Beowulf, go ahead and write it. Writing a biopic is another good option requiring one to examine a person’s life, find its core and alter the life story when necessary. On a microcosmic level, this process virtually duplicates that of the adaptation process overall. Similarly, screenplays based upon actual historical events (as opposed to contemporary stories, which may require rights agreements) usually offer solid opportunities to write adaptations without expensive rights purchases. Finally, get to know other young writers, particularly playwrights. There are many small-scale plays written each year, and some of them could form solid source material for screenplays. Less established playwrights may be more willing to negotiate a rights deal for little or no money up front in exchange for the opportunity to have entry into the world of film. Such a process could even mark the dawn of a healthy and productive working relationship.


So, now you’ve chosen the source material. What is the best method by which to embark upon the journey of adaptation? In many ways, the process parallels the screenwriting process overall, but there are some specific and important differences that make adapting unique. Naturally, the most important question one must ask with any script is, “What is this film really about?” However, though any screenwriter must ask this question about any project on which he is working, in an adaptation the question takes a different form. Generally, a screenwriter starts from an idea and builds the story around it. In an adaptation, however, you start from a story and must dig into it to find the idea that lies at its center. The question in an adaptation becomes, “What is the core idea of this story?”

In Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman character spends a lot of time researching as he struggles with the screenplay, trying to learn as much as possible about orchids. He sees orchids as central to the story; they are what lie at the core of Orlean’s book. Uniquely, in the world of adapted screenplays, he concludes that the only way to stay true to the core idea of the book is to actually abandon the source material’s story. The screenplay mentions that the key to what makes orchids special is “evolution and adaptation.” So Kaufman changes the screenplay of the film he is writing, adapting it to the Hollywood medium in which the film is to operate. Screenwriter Kaufman created a fictional character in Donald and tacked on such glaringly artificial elements as drugs, illicit romance, pornography, stakeouts, car chases, murders and, most noticeably, Robert McKee’s big no-no: a deus ex machina. Tongue firmly in cheek, Kaufman adapted his source material to its medium and market.

Rather than developing ideas of your own, putting them on cards and then arranging them, the adapter pulls the story apart, removing the order in which it is currently told and then puts them on cards to reorder them.

Hopefully, when faced with a property you intend to adapt as a screenplay, you’ll have an easier time finding the core idea than Kaufman did with The Orchid Thief. But in doing so, you must be as courageous and true to that core concept as he was. Once you’ve identified that key idea, it will guide every other decision you make throughout the writing process. You may encounter the need to change certain elements, leave scenes or characters out, combine or rearrange parts of the film or insert new ones. But as long as you do so in service of that core concept rather than holding on to a less essential piece of the story, you will be doing your job as an adapter.


What, then, should your next step be? The best is to break down what you have into its component parts. Most sources—whether real-life events, stageplays or books—will be built of interwoven strands. There may be flashbacks and/or parallel action. Minor characters, subplots and Red Herrings all might interfere with a clear picture of the main storyline. Start by unraveling these multiple strands. One way to do this is to take each individual character, even the more minor ones, and write every scene or event in which he is involved, even marginally. Also, write what each character does in each scene. Put all the scenes in chronological order, making parallel lines of events for each individual character. You might even want to assign to any given scene some specific lines of dialogue, quotes or actions from the source material. Outside information from research might also find its way onto these timelines. You will eventually have built a series of character arcs and points where the characters’ arcs intersect. But, you will see them clearly from beginning to end without all the static surrounding the source material.

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As in finding the core idea of the piece, this action also mimics, with alteration, a task of most screenwriters. Many writers like to work with index cards, assigning each individual scene its own index card then moving the cards around at will to see which arrangement works best for the film. In essence, that’s what you’re doing here, as well; but, again, the direction is opposite of what most writers are doing. Rather than developing ideas of your own, putting them on cards and then arranging them, the adapter pulls the story apart, removing the order in which it is currently told and then puts the ideas on cards to reorder them. Of course, there is no reason to avoid putting them back in the same general order as they existed in the source material. But, by pulling the storylines apart, you give yourself implicit permission to rearrange them in any way the script demands.


Most source materials (with the exceptions of stage plays, magazine articles or comic books) are much broader in scope and significantly longer than the average feature film. Thus, one of the most important decisions an adapter makes is what to cut out. Part of this job may be easy. For example, you might find pages of internal thought in a book that you’ll distill into a single action or line of dialogue. Other times you might be able to lop off an entire section of the book. Goldman did so famously in his adaptation of his own novel The Marathon Man when a major plot twist of the book was unfilmable. The novel Six Days of the Condor was tightened enough to make the film version into Three Days of the Condor.

Sometimes, however, cutting becomes more difficult. Most writers, at times, hesitate to remove a favorite scene from their own writing, even if it hurts the piece overall. Alternatively, a certain line of dialogue might be so witty that we ignore the fact that it distracts from the overall tone of the film. We all know that, as Faulkner exhorted us, we must kill our darlings when we write. But as difficult as it may be to kill one’s own darlings, it can be even more difficult to kill someone else’s, namely the author of the source material. In Adaptation, when Donald tells Charlie to “make something up,” Charlie responds that he doesn’t want to because of his responsibility to Orlean, the author.

The bottom line when evaluating whether to hold on to some element must remain, “Does it work for the film?” Should you worry about alienating the fans of the source material by leaving out a popular element? That decision depends entirely upon the size of this “built-in audience.” In only the rarest of adaptations (notably the Tolkien trilogy, of late) is the core fan base large enough to constitute a significant portion of the film’s audience. Unless the fan base is that sizable, you cannot afford to please them at the expense of losing the even larger film audience. Truth be told, if you did your job correctly and remained true to the core idea of the piece, the fans will usually appreciate and accept the changes you made anyway. There is always a specific reason you are adapting from this source in particular. Otherwise, you’d be starting a script from scratch. In most cases, the element you hesitate to cut out is not the reason you are writing the piece. Therefore, it is expendable. As Adaptation’s Charlie Kaufman character imagines Orlean saying to him, “Just whittle it down. Find the one thing you care about and write about that.”

Susan Orleon discusses the adaptation of her book, The Orchid Thief. Video by Anne Heller.


Beyond determining what to cut out of the source material, at times even more difficult is determining what you should add. Still, this decision is also potentially the most creatively rewarding part of the process. While most of the material in your screenplay will come from the source material, some will inevitably find its genesis in your own creative mind. Film adaptations often add new characters, plot points, subplots, love interests or locations. There is a significant amount of room for this when the source material is sparser, as in the adaptation of a stageplay or magazine article. Whoever is hired to adapt “Sk8er Boi” will not even need to give a second thought to inventing characters or scenes not found in the source. There are almost no details in the source! Whatever you add, however, make sure it improves what is already there. Maybe you want to add a foil character that is missing in the source. Or perhaps you feel a character needs better motivation or you want to make a character’s traits more visual. You might merely need to flesh out a thinly plotted source. These are all possible benefits to adding new material into your script. You don’t have to go as far as Kaufman did in creating his own imaginary twin brother as a foil, but remember that you have free reign as long as it works and helps make the film stronger.

A similar but different question to ask is, “How can I improve the story?” Examine the source material with a critical eye. What doesn’t work? How can I make it stronger? The possibilities are virtually endless. Ask, “What if?” and see where the answer takes you. “What if this character were a girl instead of a boy?” This alone may be enough to change a derivative tale into an original one. “What if we set it in a different city?” The book High Fidelity was set in London, not in Chicago as was the film version. What if we retold the story in a contemporary setting?

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Look at the results in such films as West Side Story, Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You. There is a reason you are adapting this source material, and that reason is not in the details but in the concept. No producer will buy a book with great dialogue but a boring and unimaginative story. If, however, a property has poor dialogue and one-dimensional characters but a solidly inventive plot, a good adapter can lay better characters on top of that plot and have them speak unique and believable dialogue. Remember the old adage: Hollywood makes great movies out of bad books.

An often effective adjustment is the combination of minor characters. Particularly in a smaller film, having too many minor characters can distract the audience though they might have been able to follow them during the more leisurely pace of reading a book. By combining characters you can often tighten your plot and make it stronger overall. An added benefit is that you lower the budget of the film, often a plus for cost-conscious studios and production companies.


Lastly, what about biopics and adaptations of other real-life occurrences? Should we be more careful not to change things too much? Do we have more of a responsibility to accuracy? Perhaps a bit, but one of the worst justifications a writer can use is, “But that’s how it happened!” Who cares? Lots of things happen in boring ways every day. That doesn’t mean anyone wants to part with $10 to watch them play out onscreen. Minor changes in biopics are perfectly acceptable and are even expected. If your property calls for more fundamental changes to the truth, you have two options. One is to change enough details that your story is merely inspired by reality. Change the names and you have a great story that just resembles a true story. There’s no reason to avoid these changes unless there is enough of a built-in audience that wants to see the actual story.

There are plenty of films loosely based upon real life. Almost Famous is a good, recent example. In fact, there are those who believe a film such as A Beautiful Mind departed so far from reality, it would have been better off changing the names of its central characters. It’s hard to argue with Oscar®, but the film could have been just as strong and perhaps even more profitable if it had been more fictionalized. Your second option when a true story requires fundamental changes is, of course, to not write the script at all. Remember Goldman’s second question when considering an adaptation: “Can I make it play?” If not, drop it and look to a different source.

Thus, the adaptation process really boils down to four main questions: “What is the core idea of the property? What should I cut out? What should I add? How should I change the source material to make a stronger film?” In fact, any screenwriter would be wise to apply these same questions to the editing and rewriting of his own screenplay. If we can divorce ourselves from our own material enough to feel as if we were adapting and rewriting someone else’s script, we’ll be better equipped to edit with the harsh and open-minded judgment that such a task truly requires.

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