In today’s Scriptnotes podcast—their twenty-fifth episode, by the way; so congratulations on that achievement—screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss the process of optioning a novel for adaptation.
I emailed John, a fellow Trojan, after last month’s discussion on writing credit arbitration to ask:
How dicey does it get if a novelist adapts their own book? If the script is close to the original story, doesn’t the novelist/first screenwriter have a pretty good foothold for getting sole credit on the screenplay, even if other writers work on a polish or rewrite?
The obvious answer is that if the original script is close to whatever ends up on screen, that novelist/adapter should end up with credit. My intention was to ask those more familiar with the process for some further insight or nuance I might be missing. While the hosts didn’t answer my question directly, Craig indirectly addressed it today:
If you write a spec screenplay based on a title that you have rights [to], it does give you a bit of leverage when it comes time to sell that script.
Since modern studios like properties with a built-in audience, an author with popular source material will arrive at the table with an upper hand over those without rights to the story or those with an original script that isn’t backed by a hot seller. The former situation is the true power of the novelist/screenwriter, while the latter is the result of Hollywood’s current business model.
Here are three scenarios for adaptations.
1. The Faithful
The film version of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is so close to the original play that his adaptation receives full credit. Since the producer liked the story, there was no point in purchasing the rights just to overhaul the whole thing.
2. The Name
An example of complete overhaul actually occurred with Stephen King’s novel The Lawnmower Man. The final film was so different from the original book that King sued to have his name removed from the credits. In this case, the rights actually desired were to call the movie Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man in hopes of attracting King fans to the theatre. The plan backfired.
3. The Screen Story
When a novel must be restructured to make a proper movie, this is when the original author may not receive full credit.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that author Daniel Wallace faithfully adapted his novel Big Fish. Since the book is a series of vignettes, a more one-to-one series of cinematic shorts would give Wallace credit. However, the final movie, adapted by John August, arranges those vignettes within a more conventional framing device to create an original screen story. Even though the final script conveys the same idea as the novel, details have been changed or added to make it a movie. That’s why, in our hypothetical case, if Wallace were the first screenwriter and August were the second, both would receive credit given August’s contribution.
For author/screenwriters falling into the faithful category, they have a pretty good chance of receiving sole credit their your script. For adaptations intended to market an author’s name or where a separate screen story is constructed, credit will be shared. In any scenario, Hollywood feels that stories with a platform will give them more bang for their buck.
In time, original screenplays may become the fashion again. I hope so. But scripts based on successful books will always be in demand. So, if your story works well as both a manuscript and a movie, write the book first.