Using the Source Material of Others

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If you’ve ever read a poem, a short story, an article or a book or seen a play, a photograph or a painting so evocative that you thought, “This should be a movie,” then you’ll know it’s often the first step towards the creation of something new and wonderful yet familiar and comfortable. Regardless of where the idea begins and where it ends up, after that first step there are several more that will help ensure that when using the source material of others, you do so with honesty and respect.

Identify Strengths
Obviously the source material has strengths or you wouldn’t have been so enamoured with it and wanted to turn it into something else. Usually these are the key components of the story but sometimes they are also the small details. As a general rule, the strengths of the source material should be retained in order to become the strengths in your adapted piece of writing.

Identify Weaknesses
Even when you’ve been struck by the adaptability of something, you will need to remain objective enough to be able to identify its weaknesses (and there are always weaknesses). Whether it’s turning a single image into a lengthy book or turning a lengthy book into a ninety-minute screenplay, whether it’s meshing four minor characters into one or eliminating a subplot, or whether it’s turning the ending of the story completely on its head, identifying the weakness and then turning it into a strength is the only way to deal with it.

Identify the Appropriate Medium
It’s easy to assume that all adaptations should end up being films but the source material should be assessed to determine the appropriate medium on a case-by-case basis. If a book is long and the plot can’t be condensed, then perhaps it should be a miniseries instead of a film. Girl with a Pearl Earring was a painting that became a book that became a movie but paintings are often used to inspire poems. There’s an entire section in Postcards from Planet Earth (a collection of poetry I studied in Year 12) devoted to poems inspired by paintings and they are equally fascinating.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Changes
Just because something works in one medium doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to work in another. In Carrie Fisher’s celebrated novel, Postcards from the Edge, the novel is broken into four distinct sections, the last of which is most recognisable as the story of the film. I wrote the following in my review of the book: “For fans of the movie, it is almost unrecognisable. When Carrie Fisher wrote the script for the film, she was very selective in what she took from the novel (I’d estimate less than 20%). The movie is better for it because while I give the movie 5 stars, I can only give the book 3 stars and I wonder if I would have given it 2 stars if I hadn’t seen or wasn’t so fond of the movie. I applaud Fisher’s ability to recognise the limitations of her novel and turn it into the film that the novel should have been.”

Recognise What Absolutely Cannot Be Changed
At the same time, it’s just as important to know what absolutely cannot be changed. If you’re adapting a story about the Titanic, you can’t decide that the ship shouldn’t sink. If you’re adapting a story about Dracula, you can’t change the fact that he’s a vampire. Or at least you shouldn’t. These are crucial components of the stories and people familiar with the source material will be expecting these elements to be included in the adaptation. And when they realise that these elements have been changed, they usually aren’t happy.

If you’re thinking about changing fundamental aspects of a story, then you should consider why you need the original story to begin with. You probably don’t.

Get Permission
Think it’s strange that getting permission is at the end of this list of steps? You shouldn’t. You don’t need anyone’s permission to adapt. You only need permission if you want to publish or produce your adapted piece. And sometimes having the adaptation already written can help to convince the owner of the original piece to sign over the necessary rights.

If it doesn’t, if you can’t convince the owner to let you use their work (where permission is required), then you might be able to tweak the story to disguise its origins. EL James did it with her Fifty Shades series (originally Twilight fan fiction).

Susan Orlean’s “Orchid Fever” and The Orchid Thief and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation
One of the greatest examples of using the source material of others is “Orchid Fever”, a 1995 article by Susan Orlean in The New Yorker magazine. It tells the true story of John Laroche, a Floridian plant expert obsessed with rare orchids, self-described as the smartest person he knows and a character so large that the page couldn’t contain him. Almost as soon as it was written and published, it was optioned by a film company with the intention of turning the story into a film. Sounds simple, right? In 1998, Orlean published a non-fiction book based on the article. But the film was still in development.

Charlie Kaufman was the scriptwriter brought in to turn the story into a film but he suffered terrible writer’s block in adapting the source material. So instead of a straight adaptation, he wrote a fictional version of himself into his script (giving himself a fictional twin brother in the process) and made it the story of the difficulties he was having. Susan Orlean and John Laroche also became fictional versions of themselves, so much so that when Orlean finally read the screenplay, she later told GQ magazine she said, “No! Are you kidding? This is going to ruin my career.”

It’s not hard to see why. In the film, Orlean (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) is portrayed as someone cocooned in a life of big city success but who lacks real feeling for who she is and what she has accomplished. She’s envious of Laroche’s passion for orchids, his passion for life in general. They begin an affair, take drugs and become caught up in the illegal poaching of ghost orchids. Obviously she came around to the brilliance of Charlie Kaufman’s high concept screenplay or the movie wouldn’t exist.

If you haven’t seen Adaptation and you’re a writer or you want to write, put it on your to do list (and if you have time, read Orlean’s original article and book). It shows how hard using the source material of others can be at times, how desperate a writer can be to justice to it and how frustrating it can be when they just can’t figure it out. It doesn’t offer solutions to these problems so much as it is a commentary on the process of adaptation and writing in general. If you watch it and find it strange, watch it again. (If you’re not a writer, you might not get it. There are a lot of in-jokes. Yes, it’s one of those films.) And again. On subsequent repeated viewings, you’ll find it frustrating, hilarious, uncomfortable, spot on and brilliant. But most of all, just like the steps above are intended to assist with, you’ll find it honest and respectful.

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