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Debate – Adapted Vs Original Screenplays


Posted February 4, 2014 by

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Adapted Vs Original Screenplays

Let’s not lie about it, originality is hard. Having a thought that’s ‘never been seen before’, that’s fresh, and new, and exciting; it is only a few fortunate souls that will ever be struck with those kinds of ideas and while we can all delight in the fruits of their labour, what about the rest of us stuck with our old recycled plots?

Alright, I’m saying that like it’s a bad thing; it’s not. The Academy has certainly never thought so. After all, they have always had two writing awards- Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. It would be interesting to see, if there had only ever been one writing award, whether more adapted or original screenplays would have taken the title over the years. But they have sneakily avoided the debate about whether films are better when written specifically for the big screen or not by making both equally as valid.

So maybe it isn’t a debate after all; the Academy sees them as equals and there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that. This is an industry where movie moguls are always looking for profit, and what better way than by creating films from already successful source materials. Books, television shows, plays, memoirs- if they’ve sold before, surely they will sell again, especially when we can see them all dressed up and beautified through the magic of cinema. If you build it, they will come, and bring their wallets with them.

There seems to be an idea that adapted screenplays are reserved for comics or children’s books. One only has to look at the success of Marvel’s films or the Harry Potter franchise to see this. And currently, we’ve got The Hobbit doing the rounds (you can’t tell me that this one book was made into a trilogy simply because they wanted to ‘fit it all in’) and the Hunger Games will be joining the noble ranks of the Twilight Saga but splitting the last book into two films.

Perhaps that is a cruel comparison; The Hunger Games is my favourite book-to-screen adaptation- keeping the important plot points and adding to the narrative in a way only a film could. Screenplays are never just lifted from the book and plonked onto a page. It requires clever thought, a well thought out plan of attack. Peter Jackson, in reference to the mammoth task of adapting Lord of the Rings, referred to it as ‘cracking a code’. It is not as easy one might think…

Of course, the idea that adapted screenplays tend to equal high profit films is not helping their case. It is true that original screenplays tend to be reserved for more serious or art house type films and those do no always attract the audience desired. Original screenplays have the advantage of being written for film; they are designed specifically with the camera in mind, to be transformed onto the screen.

Does this make them better films? Not always. Perhaps it is our stereotyping that is what is causing the problem here. The tendency to think that blockbusters nowadays are all adapted screenplays with little cinematic merit, or that original screenplays are all highbrow art pieces. Many of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture are adapted screenplays, only from source materials that we have never received much public attention before – Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Perhaps it is our own ideas that need to change here. Perhaps this debate is non-existent, as the Academy seems to think. Or perhaps the real question here is that age old ‘Art vs Entertainment’ debate. And that is an argument for another day…

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Katy Embling
Freelance Contributor



    While original screen plays are seriously impressive, I’d have thought adapting a screenplay would be nearly (if not just) as challenging.


    I do see the two as equals – as commenter Jonathan says, it’s just as hard, if not harder, to adapt a book to the screen. A book has all sorts of elements that are very hard to translate to the screen, most notably the first person perspective. The makes of The Hunger Games did it quite well, but not without the help of Jennifer Lawrence, who’s charismatic enough and good enough an actress to translate all of Katniss’ emotions to the screen.

    Moreover, there are many books that have been adapted for the screen, long before it became trendy to do so (all of your examples fall into that category). Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, all the old classics have long been translated to the screen – what about To Kill A Mockingbird, which they already filmed in 1962!

    An adapted screenplay definitely isn’t a lesser kind of screenplay, I would say. The only difficulty is that the book usually already has heaps of fans and have a certain expectation of the film the director and makers involved have to take into account, which often decides whether or not the movie’s going to be a success. Just look at The Mortal Instruments movies for an example of how to do it wrong.

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