Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mystery Man: On Adaptations

Let me get on my Project Gutenberg soapbox.

One of the most under-appreciated opportunities for aspiring screenwriters is Project Gutenberg. As many of you know very well, most of the assignment jobs screenwriters pick-up are adaptations of known works. I truly believe that before you ever step onto the world stage with your writings, you should already have lots of good experience under your belt adapting books into screenplays.

I’d say you should adapt at least 5-10 books just to be safe.

No, I’m not kidding.

Your fabulous, original, award-winning screenplay may open a couple of doors and get you a couple of meetings, but the question will inevitably surface, “Have you ever adapted a book before?” And what’s the correct answer to that question? “Are you kidding? I love adaptations. I’ve already adapted this, this, this, this, and this.”

But, wait, how do you get around that little copyright thing?

Thus, new writers should take advantage of Project Gutenberg, which has over 25,000 free online books that are all in the public domain. Consider the fact that a couple of scripts on the 2008 Black List are adaptations of classic works in the public domain. There was, as I recall, A Tale of Two Cities, from Dickens, of course, and Galahad, a retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through the eyes of, well, Galahad. That’s not unusual. Playwright Tom Stoppard made a name for himself with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which was a play about two very minor characters from Hamlet in a world that sort of echoes Waiting for Godot.

In any case, something you may want to do for yourself in 2009 is adapt a book into a screenplay. Do this not for the sake of getting a sale but for the more important experience of internalizing a story and transforming it into a film. And do that at least 5-10 times. And yes, many of those are books have been adapted endlessly over the years. So try to look at the source material from a completely fresh perspective. Do a modern reinterpretation. Do the story from the perspective of a secondary character -- or the antagonist, like Gregory Maguire did with Wicked. Restructure the book. Make it non-linear. Do it in reverse. Explore aspects about characters that didn’t get explored back then, like sexuality. What if the lead was a female instead of a male? Or vice versa? Consider adapting lesser known works by famous authors. Take one of those generic science, political, or social works of non-fiction and be totally inventive with it as Kaufman did in Adaptation. Adapt a book no one has ever dreamed of adapting. Add an unexpected twist. What would the story be like if something didn’t happen or happened differently? Write a sequel.

There was a recent roundtable discussion in the Hollywood Reporter with Oscar-hopeful screenwriters on adaptations. British playwright David Hare said that when it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen one must be “promiscuous to be faithful. You can't simply step your way through a book with perfect fidelity. If you do, the whole thing is completely dead.” Pay attention to these guys!

And finally, consider Project Gutenberg’s Top 100 authors:

Dickens, Charles
Twain, Mark
Shakespeare, William
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir
Austen, Jane
Thomson, J. Arthur
Jacob, P. L.
Verne, Jules
Maspero, G. (Gaston)
Baum, L. Frank (Lyman Frank)
Litchfield, Frederick
Wilde, Oscar
Carroll, Lewis
Wells, H. G. (Herbert George)
Beard, Charles A. (Charles Austin)
Beard, Mary Ritter
Poe, Edgar Allan
Burroughs, Edgar Rice
Sayce, A. H. (Archibald Henry)
Stevenson, Robert Louis
McClure, M. L.
Dumas père, Alexandre
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Spicer, William Ambrose
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm
Nichols, J. L. (James Lawrence)
Burbank, Emily
Jefferis, B. G.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith)
Doré, Gustave
Hugo, Victor
Milton, John
Landor, Arnold Henry Savage
Dawson, William Francis
Joyce, James
Conrad, Joseph
Grimm, Jacob
Grimm, Wilhelm
Pope, Alexander
Tolstoy, Leo, graf
Kipling, Rudyard
Pierce, Ray Vaughn
Stoker, Bram
Brontë, Charlotte
Kafka, Franz
Buckley, Theodore Alois
Montgomery, D. H. (David Henry)
Montgomery, L. M. (Lucy Maud)
Dante Alighieri
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
Wodehouse, P. G. (Pelham Grenville)
Lang, Andrew
Balzac, Honoré de
Guizot, François Pierre Guillaume
Eliot, George
Defoe, Daniel
Williamson, Robert Wood
Potter, Beatrix
James, Henry
Jowett, Benjamin
Alcott, Louisa May
Sunzi, 6th cent. B.C.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de
Campbell, Douglas Houghton
Clark, Bertha M.
Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider)
London, Jack
Speed, Harold
Ibsen, Henrik
Stanton, Henry
Garnett, Constance
Andersen, H. C. (Hans Christian)
Scott, Walter, Sir
Shaw, Edward R. (Edward Richard)
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich
Giles, Lionel
Wyllie, David
Rawlinson, George
Hardy, Thomas
Stockton, Frank Richard
Darwin, Charles
Berens, E.M.
Swift, Jonathan
Machiavelli, Niccolò
Barrie, J. M. (James Matthew)
Rolt-Wheeler, Francis
Henry, O.
Thomson, Alexis
Miles, Alexander
Maupassant, Guy de
Melville, Herman
Shaw, George Bernard
Dudeney, Henry Ernest
Bierce, Ambrose
Davis, Richard Harding
Seaman, Owen, Sir

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at MysteryManOnFilm.blogspot.com and tweets at Twitter.com/MMonFilm. And he has nice shoes.

This post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.


  1. What are your thoughts on adapting a book that was never very popular in the first place? I've been mulling over one with an absolutely incredible story,executed terribly. (He made it all snooty and academic, when it needed to be an adventure!) Would I be laughed out if I tried to pitch a movie based on a book that sold less than 10,000 copies?

  2. Hey there,

    So long as the book is in the public domain, I see nothing wrong with giving it a shot. Stranger things have happened.


  3. thanks for this, just found it today... I have been toying with an HP Lovecraft adaptation, but his stuff is grey area is it not? some day it is all public domain, others say be careful...


In order to prevent spam, comments are moderated. Thank you.