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Movie Ideas: Adapting Book and Plays

The Godfather. Terms of Endearment. Casablanca. On The Waterfront. Chicago. Harry Potter. The Exorcist. Jaws.

They’re all examples of novels or plays that were successfully adapted into screenplays. Lately, a lot of successful movies have been adapted from comic books.

As long as movies have been made, stories have been adapted from original source materials.

Let’s look at an example.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest started as a novel written by Ken Kesey in 1962. Kesey wrote about his experiences and observations working in and around a mental hospital in Palo Alto, California.

In the novel, Randall Mc Murphy (an outlaw on the run) hides out in a mental facility. While there, he instigates a rebellion of sorts among the patients, who are stuck in their ward, like prisoners, held captive by the acerbic, and humorless Nurse Ratchett.

The novel was later adapted into a stage play by Dale Wasserman. It was a big hit on Broadway, where  McMurphy was played by Gary Sinise, and later Kirk Douglas.

Douglas bought the film rights to the novel from Ken Kesey for $20,000. Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman wrote a screenplay – based on the novel. After a while, Douglas gave the rights to his son, Michael Douglas, who decided to produce the film. Kirk Douglas was too old to play McMurphy by that time, so Jack Nicholson got the role.

The movie came out in 1975. The movie, directed by Milos Forman was the second film ever to sweep the five major categories at the Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress.

So, let’s say you find a novel or a play you think would make a great movie. How do you option or buy the film rights? Normally, the producer is the one who secures the rights. You act like a producer.

To start with, you have to figure out who owns the rights. The best place to start is to contact the writer. Verify that the writer of the article, does in fact, hold the rights.  Be sure it’s not the publisher, as sometimes happens. If the rights are available, then talk with the writer about making a deal to option or buy the rights.

If you buy the rights, you’ll have to know how much to pay. The original writer might be expecting a big payday. Since you’re just starting out, you can’t afford that.

You have to think like a producer.  Talk to the writer about how a movie based on their work will boost their book sales.  A lot of times, the original writers will be flattered. You might even get them to option their work for a minimal fee. Dollar options do happen.

Salesmanship helps.   You might be thinking, “wait a minute ere, I’m the writer, I’m not selling my scripts. That’s for agents.”  Well when you’re starting out you kind of have to be your own agent.  Writers create opportunities.  Get used to it.

You put together a contract saying that, for a dollar, you’ll get the film rights to their story for a year or two. What if the writer wants a bigger payday for the rights?  What’s a fair number?  Well, Kirk Douglas paid Kesey $20,000. Paramount paid Mario Puzo $14,000 for the rights to the Godfather.

Most people don’t actually buy the film rights, they option them.  What does this mean?  It means that you set out a contract with the novelist or playwright to hold the exclusive rights for a year or two while you adapt their work into a screenplay and try to sell it. During that period no one else can adapt the material or shop it.

Optioning rights costs much less that buying them.  Part of your option contract sets out how much the original writer will make if you sell your script. How do you decide how much you’ll pay him?  Probably best to say something like 20% of what you make.

As a first-time screenwriter, you won’t make all that much money to share with them.  You’ll be lucky to make between $50,000 and $150,000 if you sell the script to a WGA signatory production company. Less if you sell to a low-budget producer.

You’ll definitely want to get a lawyer involved. Issues like merchandising, residuals, and sequel rights will be involved. Tempers can flare when it comes to splitting profits. Play it safe. Hire an entertainment lawyer.

Another approach I’ve taken with authors, is to partner with them on the screenplay. I’ve offered them a 50-50 split of all money earned, and a 50-50 credit split.  We then co-wrote the script together.  It’s a very appealing offer for any news writer. And if it works out, you’ll both get paid, and both get credit.

A few years ago, writer-director Dan Mirvish found an off Broadway play called Between Us that he thought would make a great low budget film.  There were only four main characters and just a few locations.  There were great parts for actors.  It had the flavor of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Mirvish approached the playwright, Joe Hortua, about adapting his play into a film script.  They collaborated on the screenplay. They shopped it around.  Actors became interested.  Ultimately, Taye Diggs and Julia Stiles signed on. The film was greenlit in 2012.

When you option or buy the rights to a project like this, you have to think like a producer.  You have to act like a producer. If you can get the rights to a great book or play, you will help yourself in many ways.  You’ll potentially be getting built in buzz, solid reviews, a pre-sold audience, and material that will attract talent.  What’s not to like?






Image credit: Creative Commons, Qualcuno Volo’ Sul Nido del Cuculo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) 2008, by Cliff, is licensed under CC By 2.0



Image credit: Creative Commons, Qualcuno Volo’ Sul Nido del Cuculo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) 2008, by Cliff, is licensed under CC By 2.0

Movie Ideas: Adapting Book and Plays

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The compettiion is fierce, in graphic design, architecture, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2018). Movie Ideas: Adapting Book and Plays. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Apr 2018
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