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From novel to script: writing an adaptation

April 22, 2021
5 min read time

Hollywood loves adaptations. Especially if you adapt a screenplay or script from a bestselling book with an enormous reader following. And, if the book pretty much lives on the New York Times Bestseller List, has made millions in sales, and is part of a series, that’s even better. Not only will the project have a built-in audience, but franchise potential. Or be a streaming series like Bridgerton where each book can be a new season.

Do you ever read a book and imagine it would make a great movie? If you seriously want to adapt a book, you must first secure permission and rights to do so if you don’t want to waste time and talent. The exception is a property that was written before 1925 and is in the public domain. This means the rights are available to the public to do whatever you want with "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Odyssey". Copyright laws are not as old as the hills. Anything written before 1925 is fair game, thereby making Jane Austen’s work highly popular for adaptations. That’s why we see so many screen adaptations of "Sense and Sensibility".

Bestseller list vs indie-published books

If the novel that’s captured your interest is on the bestseller lists — The New York Times, USA Today, or other notable lists of books that are selling scads of print and ebook copies, you might have a rocky road ahead in getting the rights simply because most books on those lists are published by one of the Big Four publishing houses. That means the copyright is tied up in a contract and for you to secure the rights will not only involve lawyering up, but proving your worth and passing the publishing gatekeepers who probably have their own idea of who will write the movie. If the book is published by a smaller boutique house or even self-published by the author, your road to acquiring the rights could be easier. Indie-published books don’t often reach the NY Times Bestseller List because they lack the benefit of a large marketing machine behind their work. And money. Most Indie published authors don’t have $10,000 to buy advertising to nudge their work onto the lists. The more money you put into advertising a book, the closer you come to a bestseller list, similar to a film’s campaign for an Oscar® nomination.

There are fantastic indie-published novels out there, many by choice because the author prefers to retain control over their work. And many of these authors have websites because they promote themselves and their work constantly and those websites have “contact me” forms. Indie authors are surprisingly accessible because engagement on social media platforms is necessary to sell books. If you fall in love with an indie-published book and are interested in securing the rights, contact the author to talk about the possibilities. Having control of their own copyright, the author could very well be interested in signing on the dotted line for either an option or legal permission for you to write and shop the project.

Adapting your own book

Let’s say YOU are a novelist who is interested in adapting your own work to a script. Then, you’re free and clear to proceed with the screenplay because you own the copyright. But, here’s a funny thing about being an author who writes screenplays. Hollywood generally believes that novelists should not write screenplays. And if you try to adapt your own book, that’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve heard producers and studio execs essentially say novelists should stay in their lane and that lots of books are not adaptable. This is where I scratch my head in confusion, because if we’re talking about a successful book, there’s something there that can be adapted into a screenplay. To say otherwise makes you look uninformed, and/or with a grudge, or like someone who writes checks at the grocery store. Maybe these naysayers have read scripts by novelists that weren’t adapted well, I’ll allow them that, but I’m here to tell you good stories can be adapted into good movies and authors can write screenplays.

The option process

Let’s say you find a novel or story you want to adapt, and the author is indie and owns their film rights, and judging from Amazon Books (the largest distributor of ebooks), the book is moderately successful. You want to write the screenplay or pilot based on their work and you have the author’s email. You contact them, they have interest, and while the author Googles and creeps you on social media to see if you’re for real, you wait for their decision. You might ask the Universe to give you the rights without an option because that often involves you paying the author money to exclusively borrow the story, write the script, and take it around for a set amount of time. Options are often a year’s length with an extension if things look good, but it’s up to you and the novelist. Here’s where you need a lawyer to draw up an option agreement and contract to have in writing all the particulars like who gets what if the project gets picked up. Contracts are important.

Next, you write the screenplay and find the process relatively smooth going. Not only does your new project come with a built-in Hero’s Journey that works beautifully and have fully fleshed-out characters, but it hits all the marks, and the beats are already paced out and you just need to insert those scenes into the screenwriting template. Of course, the real work is determining what to keep and what to lose for the movie, and how to craft those scenes so the story flows. And writing dialogue to make each scene count, but you know how to do that. Just make sure you don’t deviate too much from the book’s story if it is wildly popular or you’re going to have an angry built-in audience on your hands. You finish the piece and get ready to take it out with the added benefit that your screenplay is adapted from IP. Producers love guaranteed audience potential, and you’ll find they always ask you for the number of sold books. That’s how they gauge the book’s success, so be ready with a number that includes ebook downloads and the author’s estimation of book club membership reads that aren’t exactly a sold book, but similar to watching a movie on Netflix with your membership. Indie authors have access to this information on Amazon etc. Before taking it around, consider sinking some advertising dollars into the book so when a producer takes a look, it will look popular that week. Then, sell that thing to a network, producer, studio and pat yourself on the back.

The adaptation usually goes faster than writing a screenplay from a seed of an idea and is an enjoyable project, in my opinion. If you like writing exercises, I highly recommend you adapt something into a screenplay or a pilot, or web series. Not only is it a wonderful exercise (like crafting a TV spec), but most Academy® Awards Best Picture winners are adaptations and Hollywood knows this. Don’t be shy screenwriters, find something to adapt, get permission, and enjoy the ride.

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