What are the Rules of Adaptation?

Posted by Linda Seger on

Question from Gloria in KS: I would be interested in reading about the process of taking a book that is not your own through the screenwriting process and into a movie format. I understand how to get it into a workable and enjoyable screenplay format -- that's the easy part. What do I need to do beyond that? If it is an older book, do I still need to get 'permission?' Who has to 'sign off' on the project? It's obviously not your original idea -- although making a movie from the story is your idea, and the screenplay is your craft work. Is an agent needed and, if so, when? Maybe a discussion of this process would help other learners out there in cyberland, too.

Dr. Linda Seger responds: If the book is older than the early 1900s, you can do whatever you want with it. If the book has been written since the early 1900s, you have to find out who owns the rights to it, and then option the material. If it's well known, the option might be a million dollars. If it's not well known, the option might be $10. You can contact the publisher's Rights and Permissions Dept. to find out who has the rights.

Then, you have to decide whether to try to sell this with a treatment, or write the script and then try to sell this. If you can get an agent, great. But, if your option is for 6 months or 1 year, you don't want to spend 6 months trying to get an agent. So before you option this, it might be good to have some kind of a marketing plan about how you're going to do this.

Most books are optioned by a studio or a production company, so if you do it as a writer, you have to be a good strategist. Hopefully, if you only do a treatment, you'll have some sample scripts to prove that you can write the script.

My book 'The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film' will take you through this whole process, including showing you a sample option agreement if you can't afford a lawyer.

Good luck.

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