Why choose to adapt a literary classic instead of creating your own original screenplay? There are many reasons;
Films based on the classics, (including Shakespear, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, Lewis Caroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G Wells) are generally considered to have a very large built-in audience.
After all, many of these authors’ works have been read by millions over the years, and in many cases are universally loved and admired.
People who’ve read the original works and loved them often look forward to the movie version for various reasons. They may simply want to enjoy the experience of reliving the story again. They may want to take a friend, a date, or a child to share their love of the classic.
Sometimes fans of the original works are interested in seeing which choices the filmmakers have made in casting the film, in choosing locations, or in how they’ve chosen to express the classic’s themes.
In terms of creating a buzz, or heat around a film’s production, and funding, classic literature holds certain advantages. Actors are always looking for good roles, to showcase their talents, and they know the classics will offer them the opportunity.
Similarly, producers, directors, cinematographers, and the many, many other people who contribute to the film’s production can expect to be part of a rich filmmaking experience.
When A-list actors and directors show interest in being part of a film production, it helps producers to raise funding for the project.
Perhaps most importantly, screenwriters can adapt an important work of literature without paying for the film rights, in cases where the literary works have fallen into what is known as the “public domain.”
Copyright laws vary from country to country, and it’s always a good idea to check with a lawyer, but according to my research, in the United States, the law says it’s okay to use material without purchasing film rights, 70 years after the author has died.
There are other ways a literary work can fall into the public domain. For example, works that are centuries old may have been written before copyright laws existed in that country. In certain cases, an author can decide if he wants his work to be considered public domain. There are other factors, which is why I recommend checking with a lawyer.
In my experience, very few rookie screenwriters attempt to adapt such classics. When writers are just starting out, they are most interested in finding their own original voices, they’re most excited about discovering their own ideas, and they’re primarily interested in self-expression.
All of that is well and good and makes perfect sense. However, I’d like to recommend that young writers out there consider adapting material in the public domain.
We’ve already pointed out why such screenplays often have great advantages in terms of built-in audience, interest to experienced actors who can carry a film, and in attracting funding.
I’d like to wrap up this discussion of basing your screenplay on a celebrated work of literature, by talking about some successful examples;
West Side Story (1961). The film, based on the classic story of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, was filmed by director Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins was a huge hit in the early sixties, starring Natalie Wood. The film won 10 Academy Awards that year, including Best Film.
The popular animated film, The Lion King, (1994) was clearly inspired by Hamlet,a story in which leadership of a Prince’s kingdom is usurped by his an evil Uncle, who kills his father, and marries his mother in order to take over.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Deliver us From Eva (2003), successful comedies, were both based on the Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew.
10 Things I Hate About You was adapted for the screen by the writing team behind Legally Blonde, Karen McCallah Lutz and Kirstin Smith. The screenplay for Deliver Us From Eva was adapted by James Iver Mattson, Be Brauner and Gary Hardwick.
She’s The Man (2006) was successfully adapted from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the film, Amanda Bynes poses as her brother to play on the high school soccer team, and as in the play, she becomes entangled in a romance with another girl at school.
Examples of other classic authors who’ve been successfully updated include, Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which was loosely based on the Homerian epic The Odyssey.
The movie Cruel Intentions (1999), was written by Roger Kumble based on the French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The film was set in a present day high school setting, and starred Sarah Michelle Geller, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phyippe.
The list goes on, including The Phantom of Paradise, based on The Phantom of the Opera, My Own Private Idaho, based in Falstaff’s subplots in Henry IV (Part 1), Henry IV (part 2) and Henry V, Moulin Rouge!, based in part on La Boheme, My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalian, and A Knight’s Tale, based on The Canterbury Tales.
Some of he best screenwriters have adapted public domain stories. Don’t feel like it’s a cop out. What’s more, these days Hollywood have gone crazy over “Intellectual Property.” production companies and studios love the idea of built-in audiences and classic material that appeals to actors and directors. These film stories are free. What’s not to like?
You only get one chance to make a first impression with your screenplay. Be sure your script is up to professional standards by having a screenwriting veteran/script reader for the studios read and give you feedback before sending it out. Don’t blow it.