Some media forms, such as comic books and TV shows, already have a visual component that makes the process much easier. Other forms, such as epic fantasy or sweeping space opera, force screenwriters to leave some of the best bits off the script. Non-fiction works, including memoirs and historical accounts, can force the writer to choose between factual accuracy and screenplay structure.
With the growing market for screenplay adaptations, rookie writers should pay attention to the pitfalls that can stop their progress before they start. If you're called on to do a screenplay adaptation of an existing work, here are some things to keep in mind.
Characters Come FirstAs with any story, whether it's your first spec script or a work-for-hire adaptation, the wants and needs of the characters must be first and foremost in your mind. If the source material gives you what you need to define those wants and needs, then the adaptation process becomes much easier. If the source gives you only names, dates, places and events, you will need to flesh out the characters from what you have available. Movies need actors. Actors want roles. Your script has to give them those roles.
Conflict Drives StoryWhen the source material for an adaptation gives you convincing, conflicting and convicted characters, your screenwriting efforts can feel like a walk in the park on a spring day. When the source's characters fail to establish a conflict, or when the source material has no apparent conflict, the writing process can feel like a walk through hell in gasoline underwear. The burden falls on you to give the characters goals to reach, obstacles to overcome and conflicts to drive their pursuit of those goals.
Condense As NeededHow many times have you heard fans of a piece of source material complain, “I really HATE that the movie left out XXX from the book/comic/video game/TV show!” The next time you hear this complaint, ask them to do some math: how else do you expect to condense all that source material down to a 110-page screenplay? Don't be afraid to drop characters, condense personalities, shorten time frames or rearrange events to make your adaptation work as a stand-alone screenplay.
Core Elements Attract FansOn the other hand, you should be familiar with the elements that attracted fans to the original source material. If you have Bruce Wayne drive the Batmobile to visit his still-living parents, you've missed a major core element of that character. *cough-ManofSteel-cough*
You don't need to include every possible piece of “fan service” in your adaptation, but a few shout-outs will earn you both the good will of the hardcore fans and admiration from the producers and authors that you recognize what made the source material work.
If you do an adaptation of another writer's material, remember that an adaptation is just that. You are adapting the material for a different medium. The screenwriter, the original author and the fans of the source material must understand that an adaptation is not a translation.
The biological definition of “adaptation” is “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.” Your job in writing a screenplay adaptation is to make the source material better suited for a different environment.
If you want to know more about how to write adaptations of other source material, get in touch with us at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com or on the Story Into Screenplay Facebook page. Houston-area residents are eligible for in-person one-on-one screenplay consultations. Writers outside the Houston area can also receive coverage services, online critiques and telephone or Skype consultations.
If you are in the Houston area Memorial Day weekend, I will be giving a talk on Saturday, May 23, at 10am at the Comicpalooza convention. Learn how to “Turn Your Story Into a Screenplay” at this special presentation.
Also, my newest short film, Breathe Easy, will be screening at the convention. Screening times are Friday, May 22, at noon, Sunday, May 24, at noon, and Sunday, May 24, at 8pm. You can see posters, stills and news about the film on the Breathe Easy Facebook page