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Monday, March 15, 2010

Adaptation of a Classic

Here’s a unique problem but one that I have a lot of experience with. My best screenplay/novel happens to be a twist on a well known classic. My reps love it and I’m hoping any day now to hear those magical words “We’ve sold it!” Writing it both as a screenplay and as a novel was absolute joy. I’d grown up with this story, I’d seen it retold a million times, so when I came up with own fresh spin it felt like I was striking gold. It felt less like writing and more like unearthing.

Flash forward to today and I’m judging screenplays for a contest. One of the scripts is based on the works of a famous author. I can understand the enthusiasm the writer must have felt in taking his favorite author and putting his work on screen. It must have felt like magic to him to walk around inside this world and to be with these characters.

He’s not getting through to the next round though. Worse than that I don’t see this being the screenplay that’s really going to get this guy’s career started. It won’t be kicking open any doors or getting people’s attention.


Well for starters the writing isn’t very gripping. That’s a problem when dealing with passion projects. Your personal passion may or may not make it to the page. Another part is some writers assume that because their starting material is classic their work must be equally gripping. You know what they say about assumptions. Just because you’re working with “a timeless classic” doesn’t mean you can slack off with your craft. That’s something I struggled with myself. After I had the story I went over it time and again wondering and worrying over the tiniest details. The rules for screenplay writing still apply, knock ‘em off their seats early and keep ‘em wowed throughout, never give anyone an excuse to stop reading. The unfortunate contest script has given me ample reasons to stop reading.

But there’s a larger issue, namely that the screenwriter chose an AUTHOR who is famous, but the stories and characters he’s using on aren’t well known at all. These tales, despite being studied in English class haven’t worked their way into the pop culture landscape. (In case your curious, yes I did base my soon to be masterpiece/bestseller on a very well known work) When you go for something that isn’t as well known you’re really putting yourself behind the 8 ball. If the reader or exec hasn’t read the story before you’ve got a problem. Either he doesn’t like the story in which case you’re dead anyway or he does like it but he’s wondering how much YOU had to do with that. Are you a good writer or do you just have good taste?

Remember, as much as you may love this old time master, it’s about you as a writer. You have to demonstrate YOUR talents. Best way to do that is to take a story everyone knows so it is obvious what changes you made and how you put your stamp on it. And always be aware that it is a constant battle for the reader’s attention. Treat a classic with respect but always remember it is just a platform for your screenplay.

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