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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
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is an adapted screenplay?
An adapted screenplay is a script for a film or television show that is based on pre-existing material, such as a novel, play, short story, or even another film. The screenwriter reinterprets the original work to fit the cinematic form, which often involves significant changes to structure, dialogue, and character development to suit the different medium. The essence of the original work is maintained, but the storytelling is crafted to engage a viewing audience.
How does an adapted screenplay differ from an original screenplay?
An original screenplay is written without any reference to pre-existing published or produced material, stemming purely from the writer's own ideas. In contrast, an adapted screenplay is specifically derived from an existing work. The adaptation process requires the screenwriter to decide what elements to keep, alter, or omit to translate the story effectively into a filmic narrative, which can be a complex task given the constraints and opportunities of the visual medium.
What are some challenges in writing an adapted screenplay?
Writing an adapted screenplay presents unique challenges, such as remaining faithful to the source material while also making necessary changes for cinematic storytelling. Screenwriters must condense lengthy narratives, develop characters within a shorter time frame, and often alter plot points to create a coherent and engaging film. Balancing the expectations of fans of the original work with the need to reach a broader audience can also be a delicate task.
Can an adapted screenplay still be innovative and original?
Absolutely. An adapted screenplay can be highly innovative, offering a fresh perspective or new interpretation of the source material. Screenwriters may explore untapped themes, shift the narrative focus, or employ unique storytelling techniques that distinguish the film from its origins. This creative reinvention can result in a work that stands on its own as an original piece of art, even as it acknowledges its literary or cinematic heritage.
Are there any notable awards for adapted screenplays?
Yes, adapted screenplays are recognized by several prestigious awards within the film industry. The Academy Awards, commonly known as the Oscars, have a specific category for Best Adapted Screenplay, which honors the screenwriter's skill in transforming existing work into a successful film script. Other notable awards include the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, both of which celebrate excellence in this challenging form of writing.