Adaptation vs. Original Idea

I teach a class where the students adapt a short story or short play into a short film. I catch a lot of flack because I’m so mean and don’t let them film their own precious original ideas. Yeah, well, the world is mean. Which would you rather have, a not-very-good film that is based on your own not-very-good idea, or a film that is really, really, really good, based on someone else’s killer idea?

It’s easier to write a good script from a good idea. Well, rearrange that to: It’s impossible to make a great film from an idea that is not great.
If your film is not great, you have wasted your time. “Good” and “Very Good” are worthless to you as a career builder.
Most (95%) student films (I started teaching 19 years ago) are based on weak ideas.

No one out there cares if you came up with the idea yourself.
They are only interested in seeing a superb movie that you made.

If you are adapting someone’s superb short story, instead of your own semi-lame idea, you will make a far better movie.
It will help you in the long run.
You will get better actors to be in your movie because your script started off at “Hoo fuckin’ ray!!” instead of “I hope we can save this.”
You will therefore make a better movie.

That’s basically it.
Adaptation vs. Original Idea From A Beginner is practical & pragmatic and realistic. It’s also cold and heartless, but so is the real world.

I push for adaptation because it delivers far, far, far better results.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the 5% who has a fantastic idea for a movie. Then have at it!

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Adaptation vs. Original Idea

  1. Ian

    I can see your point but isn’t developing an idea just as an important skill as adapting? Shouldn’t we also try to to develop that skill as well so we don’t necessarily have to rely on an adaptation. When I was in college we had to develop our own ideas. Some may not have been great but you have to start somewhere and some bad ideas can lead to a good one. Luckily, a teacher would actually point out that an idea wasn’t good. In my senior year we had class critiques of our work in progress and everyone helped everyones ideas so they would be better in the end.

    I also don’t understand why “good” and “very good” are worthless. Doesn’t that count for something? Isn’t that better than just “bad”. And don’t we have to at least start somewhere so we can go from good to great in our careers? I’m not saying it happens over night.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Lots of ways to do it. These students want to make shorts that will get them work. It’s not precisely the same as “just a learning experience,” where it’s a great idea to start with your own work. That’s the difference between “great” and “very good.” “Very good” will not get you work.

      If you’re still learning, still in student mode, then it’s all fine, as it’s all a step on the way to learning something more.

      Part of this comes from my own past. My thesis film, which was very personal, was written by me and was actually semi-autobiographical. A guy in my class did his thesis film, adapted from a short story by T.C. Boyle. My film, based on my idea, was good. His film, based on a published short story by a master storyteller, showcased his talent as a director and he got hired to direct a feature because of it. He’s been EP on four or five television series.

      That experience is where I came up with my “Adapt someone else’s work” class.

      His movie was better than mine. His movie helped him professionally. He started the first day of the semester with an idea that worked. I (and lots of my students) was playing catch up from the first day.

      Sub optimal.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      In my screenwriting class, everyone has to start with an original idea. No one is allowed to adapt. That’s the fun of teaching multiple classes… you can be Jekyll or Hyde.

  2. Ian

    I just want to point out that I’ve seen some really bad adaptations from some really great short stories. I guess it’s all in the execution.

    I might do an adapation for a short screenplay though. Not a bad idea.

  3. Lisa

    Ashley, I have had an idea for an adaptation for several years now. I feel strongly that 2012 is the right time for me to finally get to work. My idea is loosely based upon a very successful book / movie made about 40 years ago.
    I have been hesitant to begin because 1. I am a procrastinator and 2. I am concerned that the original author and production company will recognize their plot and claim proprietary rights. Do you know of any instances where someone has taken a book/ movie and rewritten the dialogue and characters into a successful screenplay. The plot is the only thing that is the same. I may move forward with this either way because I feel so strongly about it. I value your opinion and wanted to know what your thoughts were before I begin?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Well, an interesting question. I highly don’t recommend taking someone else’s plot and using it to write a screenplay. First of all, it’s unethical. Plus, purloining intellectual property is a super duper way to get in a lot of trouble. Yeah, they may not notice, but if they do… I heard someone say this in a meeting… keep it in mind…

      “They have floors of attorneys.”

  4. Reggie

    Well after reading some of these blogs I am convinced I have to buy your book. I purchased screen writing for dummies and was told your book compliments it dearly. You are very insightful and have made me conscience of errors I constantly make. If you mind me asking…what work have you released…that hit the main stream theaters?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Reggie,
      If you were to judge me on my work in theaters… well, not so successful. Three films have been made. An English childrens film, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE. Never came out in this country as the releasing company went broke three days before it was to open in theaters. Second film, another children’s film, ERNEST RIDES AGAIN, came out in a ton of theaters but no one went. They discovered the very very hard way that no one wanted to see another Ernest movie in theaters. After that, they made them direct to video. Third film, about the French Foreign Legion and the Algerian revolution, was an independent film but did not get distribution.
      It’s not easy to get a film made. Not easy to get it out there. I feel very lucky to have had (so far!) three films produced.
      Will

  5. Richard

    When you have your students adapt short stories into short films, do they have to contact the publisher and get the rights? Or for student films is that step not necessary? What if it’s a short film you’re going to put on youtube, does that have to be cleared by the publisher?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      If you’re only showing it in a classroom, you don’t really need to get the rights. Once you put it out there in the world, you do. It’s better for students to learn the legal machinery and go through the process of getting the rights. I have them get it cleared, no matter what they’re going to do with it. Or use a work that is in the public domain.

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