Chapter 2: What Can—and Can’t—Be Adapted (MYSAM Book Excerpt)

by John Robert Marlow

Make your Story a Movie -- The Book

If you haven’t already, you might want to read the book’s Introduction: The Power of Hollywood and Chapter One: Why Adapt? before reading this chapter. Onward…


Get the Rights, or Get Out

Once upon a time, Hollywood adaptations were limited to films based on what might be termed “traditional” sources—books, plays, historical events, the occasional true-life story. No longer. Today, almost anything can be—and currently is being—adapted by Hollywood. Though novels still lead the pack in terms of overall box office success, script purchases and worldwide grosses reflect a broadening of categories.

What follows is a list of the Top 30 highest-grossing adaptations, as of the time of this writing (figures rounded to the nearest million). Remember that DVD sales alone are likely triple or quadruple the figures shown below—and that neither figure accounts for merchandising and other rights exploitation.

[BLOG NOTE: The most recently-updated figures can always be found on this site's Box Office page.]

  • Titanic (HIS), $2,045,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (NOV), $1,328,000,000
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon (GAM), $1,124,000,000
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (NOV), $1,120,000,000
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (THM), $1,066,000,000
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (THM), $1,044,000,000
  • Alice in Wonderland (NOVs), $1,024,000,000
  • The Dark Knight (COM), $1,002,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (NOV), $975,000,000
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (THM), $963,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (NOV), $956,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (NOV), $940,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (NOV), $934,000,000
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (NOV), $926,000,000
  • Shrek 2 (NOV), $920,000,000
  • Jurassic Park (NOV), $915,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (NOV), $897,000,000
  • Spider-Man 3 (COM), $891,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (NOV), $879,000,000
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (NOV), $872,000,000
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (GAM), $836,000,000
  • Spider-Man (COM), $822,000,000
  • Shrek the Third (NOV), $799,000,000
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (NOV), $797,000,000
  • Spider-Man 2 (COM), $784,000,000
  • The Da Vinci Code (NOV), $758,000,000
  • Shrek Forever After (NOV), $753,000,000
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (NOV), $745,000,000
  • The Twilight Saga: New Moon (NOV), $710,000,000
  • Transformers (GAM), $710,000,000

Given that it has become possible to film almost anything the human mind can imagine, the only real questions left for those considering a adaptations would seem to be these:

  • Is the source material cinematic (or can it be rendered cinematic)?
  • Can this material be adapted while remaining true to the heart of the original?
  • Can I get the rights?


Given sufficient imagination, it might seem that any existing work can be successfully adapted, and to a very large extent that’s true. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books total nearly 1,500 pages; the Snow White faery tale, as related by the Brothers Grimm, a mere six pages; while toys like the Transformers have zero pages.

There are, however, two things that simply cannot be successfully adapted. These are no-fly projects:

  • Works to which you do not hold the rights
  • Works to which you do hold the rights, but whose owners insist on retaining control of the adaptations

If you own the rights because it’s your story and you wrote it, and you understand that Hollywood is free to alter your work after buying it, then you’re good to go. If you hold (as opposed to own) the rights—because (for example) you’ve optioned them from the owner (see Chapter 31)—and your agreement with the owner makes it clear that Hollywood is free to alter the work after buying it, you’re also good to go. But if neither is the case, you must realize that both of the “no-fly” situations mentioned above are hopeless.

If you don’t control the appropriate rights in the underlying property, you obviously can’t sell the project. It would be like stealing someone else’s car engine, sticking it in your own car—and then selling your car. Not cool, to say the least. (Prison time, to say the most.)

This isn’t as simple as it might appear; screenwriter Bill Marsilii, with the best of intentions, once sold a book adaptation to a studio (that is, the studio agreed to buy it)—only to find out later that he and his producers (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) didn’t control the rights yet because the author they were dealing with, who thought he controlled the film rights, actually didn’t. Fortunately, things were straightened out and the deal went through.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis ran into the opposite problem. “A studio came to me,” he relates, “to adapt a series of books they’d recently optioned. I read four or five of the books, pitched them my take, we made a deal and I got started. They said they were still tidying up the author’s long-form contract, and my deal was of course contingent on them closing the rights deal, but this type of thing takes months and is almost always about haggling over the fine print. Everything substantive is negotiated in the short-form deal.

“I was really excited about these books, so I jumped in and spent several months developing it, coming up with a story and characters that would work to launch the series and creating a detailed outline—only to discover that, to their chagrin, the studio couldn’t close the deal with the author. The whole thing fell apart. The studio executives were mortified and very apologetic, but in truth it was my own foolishness for doing all that work before someone else’s deal was nailed down. But writing is about passion, and I am quite sure, after learning this lesson, that I would make the exact same mistake again.”

Of course, you could always do the adaptation with no paper (contract), hoping the source material’s owner will, in a fit of awestruck gratitude, hand you a free option—but you can’t count on that. “You’re taking a huge risk adapting it without controlling the rights,” says Bill Marsilii. “You’re basically renovating somebody else’s house and trusting that after you do that, they’ll say thank you and let you take possession instead of saying never mind, forget about it.”

Confirms Haggis: “When dealing with a spec project, you have to get control of the source material, legally, before you put months into writing a screenplay. Don’t do it otherwise, as the rights-holder can turn around and sell it to someone else, or refuse to sell at all—and then you’ve done all that work for nothing.”

It might even be that the original author no longer holds the rights—so they couldn’t make a deal with you if they wanted to. Leslie Dixon is one of Hollywood’s few A-list female screenwriters. Her credits include Limitless (NOV, she also produced the film), Mrs. Doubtfire (NOV), Freaky Friday (2003; MOV / NOV), The Thomas Crown Affair (MOV), Outrageous Fortune and other films. “For a writer or producer,” she says, “the most important thing is to really know for certain who has the rights. That’s really, really critical, before you even think about anything else. You don’t want to start writing something and then find out that someone else has the rights locked up for years and your script’s never going to see the light of day.”

If you don’t own the exclusive film rights, or cannot lock them up with an option or purchase (see Chapters 3 and 31 for more on this)—walk away.

Controlling rights-owners are equally fatal to the dealmaking process. Simply put, Hollywood demands the right to make whatever changes it likes, at any time it likes, for any reason at all, or for no reason whatsoever. Absent huge, raging success on the order of, say, J.K. Rowling, this is non-negotiable.

Rights-owners who insist on control of any aspect of the movie doom the project from the start. If you’re planning to adapt someone else’s work, do not grant them contractual control early on and hope they’ll change their minds later, because if they don’t, the project is dead and your time has been wasted. Unless you can finance the film yourself, and so have no one else to please, this is another walkaway. Even if you can finance it yourself, consider: what happens if a studio wants to pick up the film—but insists on making a few changes before release? If you are unable to authorize those changes, the deal disappears.

It’s fine and in fact desirable for an adapting writer or producer to work with the story’s owner to create an adaptation that everyone is happy with—but the original owner must understand that once the screenplay finds a buyer, that buyer will control the nature of the final product.

Michael Nozik has produced over two dozen movies, including The Next Three Days (MOV), Love in the Time of Cholera (NOV), Syriana (NFB), The Motorcycle Diaries (NFBs/TRU), The Legend of Bagger Vance (NOV), and Quiz Show(NFB/HIS). “I’ve been involved in several situations,” he says, “where the owner of the source material wanted to create restrictions on what the buyer could do with the adaptation, what kinds of changes they could make—but ultimately you can’t work that way. Those deals usually fall apart and the movies never get made.”


A third category of source material—works in the public domain—is often problematic. Here, the same thing that allows you to adapt such works—the lack of any enforceable ownership rights—also allows anyone (or everyone) else to do the same. Look at it from the buyer’s perspective.

Let’s say you’re retelling the Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table. Why should I (as a buyer) pay you for that? Not only can I hire someone else to write it, cheaper—but what would be the point? I’ve heard and seen that story a hundred times before, and (worse) so has everyone else.

True enough. But what if, in your story, King Arthur is an aging coward, Guinevere a murderous bitch who covets his throne, Galahad the only honorable knight at the table, and Lancelot a near-invincible warrior torn between honor and his queen—who chooses him as her champion when Galahad accuses her of murdering the king?

Now you’ve got a story that resonates with the power of legend, but is also unique—and therefore protectable. This is exactly what Ryan Condal did with his Galahad (MLF) screenplay.

“There’s something primal about those old myths and faery tales,” says Evan Daugherty, whose first script sale—Snow White and the Huntsman (MLF)—fetched $3.2 million in a studio bidding war. “But at the same time, they were originally meant for people of a different era and culture. So in some ways they’re relevant to us now, and in other ways not. I looked backward, and tried to figure out how I might update Snow White and make it a little more relevant to a modern reader or audience.”

By looking backward, Daugherty wound up ahead of the curve. “The interesting thing about Snow White and the Huntsman is that at this juncture in Hollywood, adapting these old public domain folk tales or faery tales and spinning them around in some kind of revisionist way has become very of-the-moment—but I wrote the first draft of this screenplay years ago.”

If you’re going to tackle something in the public domain, you must—as Ryan did with Galahad and Evan did with Snow White and the Huntsman—make it your own in some way that renders it both unique and protectable. Other examples include Titanic (HIS), Braveheart (HIS) and 300 (COM/HIS)—all of which retell historical events with largely (or entirely) fictionalized characters.


If you don’t own or control the rights Hollywood demands, do not adapt. (For more on this, see Chapter 3.)

Next excerpt coming in November.

Book available for pre-order on amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.



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