Grab your free STRUCTURE HACK and more screenwriting awesomeness!COUNT ME IN!


The Pros And Cons Of Screenplay Adaptation


We'll also send you the very best screenwriting tips, hacks and special offers on the web.

Featured In
September 17, 2014 2 comments
screenplay adaptation

If you struggle to come up with original concepts that grab the reader, or are concerned about Hollywood’s lack of faith in original screenplays, maybe you should consider writing a screenplay adaptation.

The Pros Of Screenplay Adaptation

1. Hollywood LOVES Adapted Screenplays

As we all know studios and producers are increasingly risk averse nowadays when it comes to original material. Adaptation of an already existing work of fiction accounts for the majority of films produced in Hollywood today.

Whether that’s from a comic book, a novel, a play, a short story, or whatever — the fact is, Hollywood has decided its better of relying on material already with some kind of fan base, than “taking a big gamble” on a fresh idea.

2. There’s A Vast Library Of Work In The Public Domain To Use For Script Adaptation 

Almost anything published before the early 20th century is in the public domain. Hundreds of short stories, novels, and plays are now freely available, waiting for screenwriters like you to snap up and turn into screenplays.

Most of the classic works that come to mind are in the public domain, but don’t assume. For example, some works by Edgar Rice Burroughs are available, but some are not.

What is clear is that there’s a vast library of work by authors such as Tolstoy, Kafka, Wilde, Fitzgerald, Twain etc. that are in the public domain and up for grabs.

3. Screenplay Adaptations Give You A Ready Made Story

If you’re one of those writers who struggle to come up with fresh and original ideas, adapting an existing work could be the perfect answer.

No more bashing your head against a brick wall trying to come up with that great high concept. Simply tap into that existing wealth of material out there and focus on turning it into a great screenplay.

The Cons Of Screenplay Adaptation

1. Copyright Law Is Complicated Surrounding Adapting Screenplays

Multiple rules cover print and digital media, and the year of publication influences which law applies. Here are a few examples of the complexities:

  • Wikipedia incorrectly cites a copyright period of 95 years for anything published between 1923 and 1978, but all works published before 1923 are in the public domain.
  • Most works published before 1963 are in the public domain, but in some cases the copyright may have been renewed.
  • What may not be under copyright in one country doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not under copyright in another. For example, US writers need to be particularly careful of this as American laws seem to change more often than in other countries, so you need to double check everything.

Fortunately, there’s no need to worry about the details of copyright law. You can do a bit of online research to see what’s up for grabs and what’s not.

2. Not Every Story Suits Being Adapted Into A Movie

Of course, some stories are more easily adaptable than others. While a short story by Tolstoy may translate fairly easily into the modern era, a novel by James Joyce may not. There’s a reason why many of these stories haven’t made it on to the big screen.

Do your research thoroughly. Does the story suit the visual medium of film? Is the story relatable to modern audiences? etc.

After Deciding To Write An Adapted Screenplay, What Next?

1. Check Free Sites For Material You Can Turn Into An Adapted Script

All works there are in the public domain, or seem to be. Use sites like Project Gutenberg to check out a specific older story, or to study what’s available.

Almost all of the works listed there can be read online or downloaded and read off-line.

Some works come with disclaimers. For example, the online edition of Space Viking by H. Beam Piper comes with this disclaimer from Project Gutenberg. “Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.”

Space Viking is about a reluctant space pirate, Lukas Trask, goes after the man who killed his wife. Along the way some space piracy and empire building goes on.

There is sci-fi action on the ground and in space. The hero is more of an anti-hero, facing a bad guy who is even worse. The story also includes princes, barons, and commentary on 20th century political philosophy.

Some updating is in order, for sure, but the bones of a great screenplay is there as well.

2. These Story-Related Issues Need To Be Considered Also:

  • Are there dozens of movies and scripts out there already on the same story? While another script adaptation of Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby might work, it will be incredibly difficult to attract any interest in the script without an amazing new take on the material.
  • Do you really love the story enough to put in the time required — probably 6 months at a minimum — with no promise of a payoff?
  • What story elements would need to be changed to “sell” the story to a modern audience? James Gray’s movie Two Lovers, for example, updates Dostoyevsky’s short story White Knights from 1848 St. Petersburg to modern day Brooklyn with great success.

3. Do Some More Research On How To Adapt Screenplays

Check out these articles and more:

Michael Hauge’s Rules For Adaptation 

Script Mag’s Advice On Adapting A Book To Film 

Writer’s Digest: Turning A Novel Into A Screenplay

4. Use These Resources To Check If The Material Is In The Public Domain

US Copyright Office

Copyright Renewal Database

The Watch File

The Online Books Page

If you are stuck for a great script idea and eager to practice the art of adaptation, there are plenty of great old stories out there you can use as a screenplay adaptation. You just need to find something that excites you and get cracking on it.

*Attention Manuscript Writers!

Make sure your fiction or non-fiction manuscript has every advantage and will attract the attention of literary agents in the traditional publishing world or be an entertaining, selling, page-turner in the indy publishing world.

You always need another pair of eyes to show you where your story can be even better, where you might have made a logic error, or where there are opportunities to more fully develop your voice and style.

Julie Gray offers story and substantive editing that will not only improve your manuscript with expert, experienced feedback, but also show you how to be the best writer you can be going forward.

Check out her site Big Picture Editing


  1. Jess says:

    Just finished first draft of an adaptation about the Underground Railroad in America. Might send to you guys soon to see what you think.

  2. Zlatan says:

    I trying to adapting my book at the moment into screen play. Can you guys help?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


We'll also send you the very best screenwriting tips, hacks and special offers on the web.