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The Future Of Screenwriting Is Written In The Books

Morgan Greenwald |
September 20, 2014 | 3:49 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Are books the new prototypes for scripts? (Flickr)
Are books the new prototypes for scripts? (Flickr)

Before technology grabbed hold of the world and created an entirely new market for entertainment, there were novels. Novels were no more than words on paper, weaved into a storyline with a sole purpose of unfolding in a reader’s mind and nowhere else. When the movie industry exploded, however, books became something other than their own entity- they became another type of screenplay. Today, books are not just for a reader to imagine, but for a director and a team of producers to create on screen for an entirely new demographic. Essentially, when an author writes a novel, they are potentially writing the next big screenplay.

What does this mean, then, for the original screenplay and the people who write them? Judging by the numbers, screenplays aren’t dead, but they’re certainly heading in that direction. 

Of the 25 top-grossing movies of all-time in the USA, 12 were adapted from another piece of work, whether that be a play, a comic or a novel. Similarly, over the past decade, five of the movies that won awards for best picture were adaptations, including last year’s winner, "Twelve Years a Slave." 

On average, about half of the nominations for best picture over the past decade have been adaptations; at the 81stAcademy Awards, even, all five of the nominations were originally a written work. 

These numbers are not meant to show that the job of the screenwriter is becoming obsolete. Rather, the requirements of a screenwriter are changing from content producer to adapter, as authors, playwrights and even journalists are creating original content more and more frequently, both consciously and unconsciously. 

Take Argo, for example. The 2012 thriller, which grossed $228 million worldwide, was a hybrid screenplay, adapted from the book "The Master of Disguise" written by CIA operative Tony Mendez as well as a 2007 Wired article titled “The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” More importantly, the film is based off real-life events that took place during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. 

This type of screenwriting tactic is not unusual today. Instead of formulating entirely new ideas, companies are fond of taking old stories, notably historical events, and turning them into something workable for the big screen. 

Albeit not a new phenomenon, adaptations have only grown more popular in recent years, especially with large franchises like "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." 

Theodore Braun, associate professor in writing for screen and television at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, notes, “If you look at the big franchise adaptations- the 'Twilight' series, these sorts of things- you’ll see that the film resides in a much larger network of existing readers and fans and will be part of a group of readers and viewers that spans any different platforms.” Because such franchises have such large existing audiences, film companies prefer to adapt these to film than create an entirely new fan base for an original piece of work. 

But what does this mean for the screenwriter? “You find an increased emphasis on being faithful to the original [work],” says Braun. “Whereas screenwriters had traditionally been expected to take a great deal of liberty in their adaptations, more recently the pendulum has swung back toward faithfulness.” 

Essentially, the 21st century screenwriter is no longer a lone wolf, but a team player in a much bigger picture that involves working with directors, producers, and even original content producers, and thus the screenwriter has lost a great deal of creativity s/he was once so revered for. 

“It’s increasingly challenging to bring completely original material to the marketplace for feature films,” says Braun. So long as we as viewers continue to provide a marketplace for adaptation, so long will there be little room for creativity in the job of a screenwriter. 

Contact Staff Reporter Morgan Greenwald here.



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