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Adapt or Perish! Five Things to Consider Before Starting an Adaptation

Hillary DePiano

Playwrights, it’s hard to deny the lure of the adaptation. Taking existing content that you already know works and adapting it for the stage seems so much faster than writing something from scratch. An adaptation also makes your job that much easier when it comes to promotion. If your source material already has fans, they’ll seek out your content on the strength of the original name even if they’ve never heard of you. Sounds great, right?

Nearly all adaptations can be boiled down into two types:

  • Format shifts: Taking a movie, short story, novel, life story, video game, comic book, etc… and converting it into a stage play. (“Based on the bestselling novel…”)
  • Reboots: Taking an existing stage play and adding your own twist, such as modernization, style changes , etc. (“It’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet… but with zombies!”)

But writing an adaptation comes with its own host of writing challenges. Here are 5 things you should consider if you’re thinking of tackling an adaptation:

1.       What’s the history of the source material? Are there already adaptations of the material you were planning to adapt? What makes your take on it stand out if the marketplace is already crowded?  Do you have a fresh perspective that hasn’t been explored before? Have others tried to adapt this material before and failed? How will you combat the issues that stalled their attempts? If no one has ever attempted to adapt this before, why? Are there known problems? You get the idea. Before you try to re-invent any work, do your homework on the source material so you’ll know both what you’re in for and whether doing an adaptation is worth your time. When I started The Love of Three Oranges in 2002, it was already an adaptation of an adaptation but I saw a need for a version that was more accessible to modern audiences and wrote accordingly.

2.       Can you secure the rights to the material you want to adapt? You may have an amazing vision for Twilight: The Musical but unless you can secure the rights (usually held by the publisher or creator depending on the content), you can’t do an adaptation. If the work you want to adapt is in the public domain, you’re free to adapt it at will but copyright is an important thing to consider for most content. Content with an active copyright is still a viable source for adaptations, it just may involve some prep work or a financial commitment for permission.

"The Love of Three Oranges", Bucknell University Department of Theatre and Dance

3.       Can you stay true to the source material while still putting your own spin on it? Almost immediately upon starting an adaptation, your inner writer will start to chafe. You can feel restricted or confined by the original story you’ve committed to sticking to, especially if you’re used to writing your own content from scratch. How much of your own touches can you put on the adaptation to satisfy your muse without violating the core of the story you’re adapting? It’s a delicate balance. The source material is your silent co-writer and you need to find your own path to telling the original story the way you want to tell it.

4.       Who are you writing this adaptation for? Why are you writing this adaptation? Will the finished product be of interest to anyone outside of yourself? You need to know the answers before you begin and let it inform your adaptation as you write. The Love of Three Oranges dates back over 375 years ago. Ten years ago, there hadn’t been a version that was targeted toward actual production and not just academic study in the last 240 years. The play’s only audience was scholars and term papers. Heck, I didn’t even want to stage any of the versions out there and I loved the show. But I knew, with a little tweaking, the show had the potential to be that perfect marriage of fun and educational that would make theatre groups and schools actually want to stage it again. Fast forward to today when it’s one of the most popular full length plays for high schools at Playscripts, Inc. If you write with a clear audience in mind, you’re setting yourself up for a greater chance of success.

5.       Do you truly have a passion for what you’re adapting? You’re going to be getting up close and personal with your source material while writing an adaptation and for years afterwards while promoting it. It’s very easy to get sick of what once caught your interest and to start to hate the content you used to love. It’s tempting to start an adaptation because it seems like an easy sell but if you don’t truly feel passionately about the source material and your decision to adapt it, you’ll never make it through the process with your sanity intact. In many ways, adaptation is always part labor of love and it can feel like a marriage from which there is no exit. Before you start adapting, make sure the content is something you’re willing to tie your destiny to.

What do you think the best adaptations have in common?

~Hillary

Hillary DePiano is a fiction and non-fiction author best known for her play, The Love of Three Oranges which has been performed in theatres around the world. For her other plays, books, and published works, please visit HillaryDePiano.com.

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