Our guest today is John Robert Marlow, a novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation specialist. His book Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood (Macmillan) shares advice from authors, screenwriters, directors, and producers whose films have earned a combined total of over $50 billion.
Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or computer screens—storytelling is in our blood. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to adaptations because movies are the global campfires of our time. They amplify the story’s impact and reach, and bring viewers back to the book—I’d be crazy not to do this!
Adaptation Nation: Movies Based on Books and Other Stories Reign Supreme
For more than a decade, Hollywood adaptations have claimed a steadily growing share of box office receipts and Academy Award nominations. This year marks a new high point in this long-trending dominance.
As of mid-February, 80% of the top 10 (and 74% of the top 50) highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations. Of this year’s 42 major-category Oscar nominations, 39—or 93%—are for adaptations or work on adaptations. Seven of the eight Best Picture nominees are based on books, true stories, or both—and no. 8 is a remake (or adaptation, if you will) of an earlier movie.
The five nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are of course adaptations—but so are 3 of the 5 Best Original Screenplay nominees (which are based on true-life stories). Add 5 of 5 Best Director nods and very nearly every acting nomination, and 2016 is already a near-total sweep at box office and Oscars. It’s quite possible that, come Oscar night, adaptations will score 100%.
2016 OSCAR UPDATE: 100% of this year’s major category wins (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress) were for adaptations, or work on adaptations. Spotlight won for best picture.
“Adaptations are super-hot right now,” says Christopher Lockhart, story editor at the world’s most powerful entertainment agency, WME. “It’s all about the underlying property. A script based on source material is good. One based on source material that’s been bought for some other medium—book, video game, and so on—is better, because it shows someone else has confidence in the work and thinks it will be successful. And if you’re fortunate enough to have something that already has an audience of some kind, even if self-published—that’s ideal because now you’ve got an existing fan base for a studio to build on.”
Screenwriter Ryan Condal, who recently sold his first script Galahad (based on the Arthurian legend) for $400,000, feels the same, saying, “Probably 99% of the active projects in Hollywood are adaptations of one kind or another.”
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at how this year’s Best Picture nominees—all of them adaptations—made it to the big screen.
The Martian tells the tale of an American astronaut stranded on Mars. The story began as a serialized novel in 2009, posted to author Andy Weir’s website as writing progressed over a three-year period. The chapters drew about 3,000 faithful readers, many of whom emailed technical corrections that were then incorporated into the science-heavy story. When the book was complete, Weir thought he was done. Until fans requested an ereader version, which he then offered as a free download. When readers asked for a Kindle version, he put the book on amazon for 99 cents—the lowest price allowed by the online bookseller.