During the infancy of cinema, it’s not surprising that the bulk of material was adapted from works that were originally written for the stage.
(Excerpted from Could It be a Movie: How to Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Up on the Screen)
The physical theatricality of melodramas and vaudeville skits didn’t require sound in order for the plot to be understood. As title cards and onstage “ambiance” piano players gradually gave way to the first talkies, fledgling writers began to adapt more material from novels and short stories gleaned from magazines such as Collier’s and the popular Saturday Evening Post. During the 1960s and 1970s, adaptations of novels accounted for nearly a third of all movies produced in the United States. Today, that total has dropped to roughly 12% and is concentrated on power-house authors such as Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, and that master of horror, Stephen King.
Novels and plays, however, haven’t been the only sources of inspiration for screen material. Consider the following:
• Diaries and journals. The most famous of these, of course, was The Diary Of Anne Frank.
• Comic strips. Superman, Spider-man, Dick Tracy…need we say more?
• Games, both board and electronic. Examples: Clue and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.
• Vintage photography. E.J. Bellocq’s images of Storyville prostitutes in 1917 Louisiana were the inspiration for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby.
• Psychological case studies. The demonically possessed girl in The Exorcist was actually a boy in the real-life plot that came to William Peter Blatty’s attention.
• Details at 11. Pick any story that’s made the day’s headlines and the odds are that it’ll be a movie of the week within six months.
While current statistics suggest that nearly 75 percent of current film fare is original, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that the definition of “original” is murky at best. Do remakes of prior films such as Sabrina count as new? What about adaptations of foreign flicks; do translations and Americanized interpretations of their content constitute a fresh story or just a different spin? And where does one draw the originality line with Star Trek spoofs like Galaxy Quest or the similarities between Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars?
Inspiration comes in all shapes, sizes, and genres. It’s how much of it you can claim as an original concept that makes the difference between a good day at the box office or a bad day in court.
Let’s say that it’s three o’clock in the morning and you’ve just finished reading an absolutely breathtaking book. In your mind’s eye, you already know whom you’d cast in the lead roles, what kinds of witty things they’d say to one another, and where you’d want to film it if it were a
If it were a movie….
A light bulb clicks on your head. Why not write that script yourself? After all, you love the plot, you’ve bonded with the characters, and you even recognize — from reading this book — what it takes to deliver a visually compelling piece of cinema. And hey, the author of the book—some woman in Great Britain named J.K. Rowling—might be so impressed that she’ll write you a lovely thank you letter.
That’s the fantasy.
The reality is that she’ll have her attorney send you a not-so-lovely letter suing you for infringement of copyright. Even if she had no desire whatsoever to turn Harry Potter and his
adventures into a box-office blockbuster, it’s illegal for you to steal the concept and turn it into something else. Just as you wouldn’t want your own works “borrowed” by another writer, the rules of registration and copyright exist to protect those whose brilliance has preceded you.
While that’s not to say they wouldn’t be flattered or even intrigued by your enthusiasm to reframe their masterpiece, you need to observe the proper protocol in acquiring permission. Specifically, that procedure is:
• Find out whether the book, play, or short story is in the public domain.
• If the work is not in the public domain, determine what rights are available for option.
• Consult an attorney and get your agreement in writing.
Excerpted from “Could It Be a Movie? How to Get Ideas Out Of Your Head and Up on the Screen” By Christina Hamlett. Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website athttp://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 31 books, 157 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.