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What is an Adapted Screenplay?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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
  • Sideways
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King
  • The Departed
  • Traffic
  • Chicago
  • 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.

WiseTour is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon160583 — On Mar 16, 2011

One adaptation of book to screen that was completely true to the book and a superb work is "Brideshead Revisited," the first BBC production in the 1980's, i believe. Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews- marvelous.

By surfNturf — On Mar 08, 2011

Oasis11 - I think that the best adapted screen play has to be “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part Two”.

Both films were based on the Mario Puzo novel with the same name. The adaptive screenplay was a collaborated effort between Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppolla.

This was probably one of the best adapted screenplays of all time. In fact both, “The Godfather” and the sequel, “Godfather Part Two” won numerous Academy awards including best adapted screenplay.

These movies are so incredible that you really start to feel like you know the characters intimately and can easily fall into a hypnotic state as you watch.

These are the best adapted screenplays as well as the best movies ever made. I know they are among my favorite films.

By oasis11 — On Mar 06, 2011

Crispety - I know that as far as original screenplays the movie Titanic won a slew of awards and picked up Best Original Screenplay award by the Writers Guild.

It received many Academy Award wins and nominations but not for the original screenplay. I thought that the movie was riveting because it told the story of the Titanic well but also entertained us with the story between Jack and Rose.

It was a very romantic movie that really transforms you at the end. I think that the movie should have won best original screenplay because it was a well made film that will probably turn into a classic some day.

This movie is so dramatic that I can’t watch it too many times because I become so emotional. My daughter on the other hand loves this movie and cannot get enough of it.

By Crispety — On Mar 05, 2011

Icrecream17 - I want to say that I know that many people leave disappointed when they watch a movie that was based on a book that they have read, but some adapted screenplays are great.

The movie “Goodfellas” was based on the Nicholas Pileggi novel “Wiseguy” which was a true account of the life of Henry Hill an Irish mobster that later went into the witness protection program.

I read the book and later saw the movie which was just as gritty as the book. The facts were very authentic and the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

It won a lot of other awards, but the only Academy Award the movie picked up was for Joe Pesci’s role as best supporting actor.

By icecream17 — On Mar 04, 2011

I know that it must be hard to write a screenplay that everyone is happy with. Most adapted screenplays will always fall short in the readers mind when the screenplay is based on a novel.

It is difficult to recreate the imagination of the reader quite the same way that the novel did. Some elements on film have to be changed in order to create a more dramatic effect and this is when the readers get upset.

Screenplay writers always have to balance the need to stay true to the original story in an adapted screenplay and creating a memorable film in an original screenplay that will move people and make them continue to discuss the film for years to come.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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