By JoAnn Hess

I’m sure there’ve been many times when you’ve read that book, graphic novel, or even listened to a song and thought… that would make a great movie or TV show. The popularity and success of such works have created an obsession with IP (Intellectual Property) among producers and managers to the point where having the skill set to transform these derivative works into a visual medium is a very valuable asset.

In the following, we’re going to explore the reasons one would choose to write an adapted screenplay, the legal issues that can arise, and the unique challenges such writing presents.

So, let’s begin.


First off, why adapt in the first place? Primarily, there is a risk and cost associated with film and TV projects, and using IP has significant advantages. First and foremost, there’s usually a built-in audience or followers of the material. This translates to eyes on the screen or “butts in the seats” for a film, which can reduce the risk on the return on investment to produce the work. Original projects don’t have that pre-existing emotional attachment, so getting audiences interested is harder and has a higher marketing cost.

However, it can backfire when the material doesn’t match audience expectations. Ender’s Game, The Dark Tower, and Girl on a Train are all highly popular books that failed as films. Even Dune’s two iterations have failed. It will be interesting to see if the third attempt has learned through those mistakes.

As seen through the Marvel Universe and other hits such as The Walking Dead, there is a plethora of story material making for franchisee films and several TV seasons. However, these are also costly to make. What’s cool on the page may not translate budget-wise on the screen, and unless you are extremely wealthy, obtaining the rights for these massive works, may be out of YOUR budget as well. Also, consider if you have the credibility to get a producer or studio behind your high-budget project.

Thus, your IP selection is a very crucial, complex, and perhaps, a costly decision.

There are hidden gems in the public domain or lesser-known works as well as work-for-hire opportunities.

One should carefully weigh the risk and rewards. After all, there are hidden gems in the public domain or lesser-known works as well as work-for-hire opportunities. There’s even a category in the Oscars for Adapted screenplays. Overall, I’d argue that understanding the process to write an adaptation is worthwhile. But before you can write, there are legal hurdles to consider.


Unless you’re adapting an IP in the public domain, you will have to option or buy the rights from the original author. Generally speaking, you need to contact the publisher to see if rights are available. Publishers can have “sub-rights” to derivative works. Alternatively, one can go directly to the author, but they may not be aware of the publisher’s rights so be sure to check.


Make sure you clarify UPFRONT on the “writer’s deal” and make it TIGHT. Make it clear that while they own the original IP, YOU own the screenplay. So, when it’s picked up for production, the film rights are negotiated separately. Take care to stipulate in your contract should they squelch the deal and what your compensation is.


I’ve seen too many authors who don’t understand the film business and have stars in their eyes. Their demands drive potential producers away, leaving you empty-handed after all your hard work in writing and then securing a producer. More importantly, if the author wants to co-write the script, I’d consider that a deal-breaker.


Again, work on a deal that fits your budget. You can’t secure rights to the next Star Wars franchise, but maybe a grounded sci-fi series or work from a lesser-known author will fit your budget. Remember, it’s the audience base and story you’re securing, so value it correctly.

And contract via a lawyer! There can be hidden risks, especially in true-life stories that you want to be aware of. Best to have everything transparent and covered before finding out your hard work is useless.


Much can be avoided by using works from the public domain. How many times has Shakespeare been rewritten or A Christmas Carol? Easy A is the Scarlett Letter. 10 Things I Hate About You… Taming of the Shrew. Heart of Darkness… Apocalypse Now. The great thing about these works is that you can manipulate them at will. Take a well-known tale and twist it into something that’s your own.

While public domain means works that are at least 95 years old, check the renewal records. Some heirs retain rights to works and thus are not really in the public domain. Check the renewal/public domain records carefully.

Do your homework or cry later!

Some authors, like Stephen King, make their works available for a nominal fee. Check out Stephenking.com/dollarbaby. There are rules and caveats so check them out judiciously.


So, you’ve picked out your property and have the legal issues sorted… is it a stand-alone film? Franchise? A TV series? You need to choose the format of your project. Remember not everything translates from the page to the screen. Is it an action-packed thriller (The DaVinci Code)? Or a multi-character driven plotline (Game of Thrones)?

If the IP has a solid, satisfactory ending, it’s probably “one and done.” However, nothing is absolute so feel free to leave yourself open to a sequel but DON’T write them! You’re wasting your time. Get the first one sold. The success of that project will determine future projects. Better to sell several different projects, than have one and unsellable sequels. This also holds true for episodes beyond the pilot.

For franchisee or TV projects, make sure there’s enough material available. Game of Thrones, Watchmen, Walking Dead had a multitude of copy to choose from. It’s not impossible but it’s tough to make a series from a single IP source. It will all depend on the leeway and creativity you have. Orange Is the New Black aired for several seasons but it had to move from the original protag to other characters.

In that vein, you’ll need to read all the IPs to understand the overall story, arcs, and characters. Which “die”, which appear later in the franchise, etc. And even though each may be a stand-alone story, an “overall” story arc will tie the separate projects together. We see this with BOSCH that has a solid season and series arcs to keep it interesting even though it’s a procedural series.


So, let’s break down the story.

Translating a 300-plus page novel or a 20-page graphic novel into a visual medium can be undaunting. You need to cut or add as the story warrants. The key is to find the heart or essence of the story. Always remember what drew you to the IP in the first place and stay true. Never forget the expectations of the audience. You want YOUR take on the property, but veer too far from what the audience anticipates can doom your project. You need to find that balance.

Maintain the majority of lead character traits and voice. It’s usually the protagonist that draws the audience. They’re emotionally attached to their transformational journey. Don’t disappoint. You also want to maintain the general story flow BUT not necessarily the ARC of the other sub-characters or IP. Maintain the overall voice and tone of the story but understand that changes may be necessary to make the shortened storyline cohesive and that themes are well represented.

There are occasions to combine characters or even make new ones. Identify important subplots and secondary characters. Fill in with new scenes and characters if necessary, to keep the story engaging. Find the real beginning and ending which may be very different than that of the IP.

Does the time/place of the story need to be changed to make it relevant? Heart of Darkness written in the time of King Leopold the II is hardly as relevant as the Vietnam Era depicted in Apocalypse Now.

If this is a writing assignment, be sure to get your producer’s PERSPECTIVE. They picked the IP for a reason too, or it may be their own IP. They have elements in mind that they want in the story. These elements may require changes to the storyline or additions. Be sure to vocalize and talk these alterations through. Make sure they sign off on an outline before you begin. It’s a waste of time to write a script only to require a page-one rewrite because you didn’t get the necessary approvals ahead of time.

Once you have your outline and beats set, you’re ready to write as you would any screenplay. However, there are a few caveats to keep in mind:

If you’re writing a “based on true” story, remember that it’s not a documentary. You may need to sacrifice realism to keep the story interesting. But keep in mind the expectations of the audience.

Make sure the protagonist is ACTIVE and not just “telling” a tale. Watch for excessive use of voiceover, flashbacks, and “dream sequences” from material that’s “INSIDE” character’s heads. If you can’t bring that out externally, cut it. Remember, the story must be visually told and it’s up to you to find a way to make it work.

Listen to Ep11- Writing an Adaptation Screenplay on our Podcast

Some final thoughts…

If it doesn’t already exist, create an overarching world to tie multiple storylines together. It gives that feeling of unity even though the film or tv seasons are stand-alone stories.

NEVER forget your protags motivations and goals and don’t hesitate to use sub-character traits or storylines to enhance your hero’s.

CUT anything that slows the story or isn’t VISUAL.

Obtain the physical copies of your IP and mark it up for easy referencing. Use color-coded post-its and highlighters to keep plotlines and character arcs straight. There may be several pieces in different books, comics, etc., that are spread over the films or TV series, so knowing clearly where and what they are will save valuable time in the long run.

Reread the material several times to get a feel for the entire story. If a franchise, then read all the books to know where the plotlines are going. Does this change to fit YOUR story? Do you need more of a beginning to beef up motivations and goals? If the work is part of a franchise, make sure each film is a stand-alone, yet part of a bigger story. Marvel has done this brilliantly tying in the individual superhero stories to the Avenger films.

Lastly, Choose format wisely. Not every IP will work for TV (or film).

So, I hope you all take a look at the opportunities available in using IP. It can open up new worlds and opportunities for you and your writing. Remember books aren’t the only option. There are news articles, short stories, music, and even paintings that have inspired wonderful scripts. Just remember to make everything a part of your unique voice as possible.

Good luck and Happy Writing!

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