Thursday, January 27, 2022

Dear O'Abby: Can I adapt my favorite book as a screenplay?

 Dear O'Abby,

I've been obsessed with a particular book for years, and I have been waiting and waiting for someone to make a movie of it.  So far, no one has and I don't get it because this book has everything a great movie needs - cracking dialogue, interesting characters, exotic locations, the whole nine yards.  So I'm thinking about adapting it myself.  I've done some screenwriting classes, and made some short films that have been screened at film festivals, so I'm not a rookie.

What I was wondering is if I need permission before I write the screenplay?  At this point I'm just a writer without a director or producer or any financiers attached and I am not expecting to get any of these things in place before I finish writing the script, so do I need permission to write it?



Dear Adapting,

It really depends on the book. Generally, you need permission to adapt a book into a screenplay.  There is often money involved and often you will only get to "option" the book for a certain period of time.  If the book is a really popular one, the amount of money involved is likely to be considerably more than for a book that is less popular.  There is little point in investing the time and effort into writing a screenplay that you will not be able to pitch to a producer or distributor.  Best to get all the rights ironed out before you start writing.

The best thing to do is to contact the publisher of the book you'd like to adapt.  Most big publishing companies have a whole rights department to deal with requests like this.  Don't be surprised if the rights are already with someone else.  Find out when their option expires if you can, and make sure you enquire again before that date.  Whoever holds those rights may wish to renew their option, but if you're in there with a fresh offer, you may be able to get them.

Alternatively, if you can find out who holds the rights, you may be able to buy the option from them.  If it's a property they've had hanging around for a while without the project progressing much, it may not be that difficult.

If the book is out of copyright and in the public domain (see Operation Awesome: Public Domain 2022), you will not need to obtain the rights before writing your screenplay.  

I hope this is helpful and good luck with your adaptation (if you manage to get the rights).

X O'Abby

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