Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Screenplay Adaptation

Apr 19, 2024

Popular films like Half of a Yellow Sun, Elesin Oba, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Gone Girl, and The Godfather all have something in common—they’re all film adaptations of stories that first existed in books. Many beloved films have their origins in literature. But what does it really take to turn a story from a book into a movie or a TV show? Let’s enter into the world of adaptation in filmmaking.


What is a Screenplay Adaptation?

Adapting a story means transforming it from its original form (the pages of a book) into a new form (a screenplay for film). This process requires careful consideration of how to translate the essence of the story while making it suitable for the new medium.

It’s not only novels that get adapted into screenplays; in fact, any medium used to tell a story is a candidate for adaptation if the story told is found worthy to appeal to the audience of another medium. Many types of story adaptations occur, but here are the five (5) most commonly adapted media.


Types of Screenplay Adaptations

1. Book Adaptations 

Adapting a book or literary source into a screenplay is a common practice in filmmaking, with countless films and series derived from books. There are numerous examples to choose from.

  • J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” films,
  • George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, 
  • Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beasts of No Nation” film.
  • Chimamanda Adichie’s “Half of A Yellow Sun” film,
Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)


2. Television Adaptations

Here we’re talking about series that get their own films. We see this happen a lot, especially with kids’ shows, like “Scooby-Doo” and “The Addams Family”. There are also the vice-versa adaptations, such as “Penguins of Madagascar” a TV series that was adapted from the 2005 film “Madagascar”. 

#Did_You_Know: If you’re turning a short film you wrote or produced into a feature film or a series, it’s also considered an adaptation! So long as the story keeps its original premise and evolves into a different type of work, it falls into that category.


West Side Story

West Side Story (2021) | Disney Studio

3. Play Adaptations

Play adaptations, also known as stage plays, follow a similar pattern. The most renowned examples are Shakespeare’s works such as “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays often set the stories in contemporary settings, adding a new twist to the original plot. For instance, the 2006 comedy “She’s the Man” is a modern retelling of “Twelfth Night.” Another example is Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, adapted from the popular Prof. Wole Soyinka play, Death and the King’s Horseman.

Musicals are another form of theatrical adaptation. Popular examples include:

“West Side Story” (1961, 2021)
“Mamma Mia!” (2008)
“The Sound of Music” (1965)


Watchmen - Screenplay Adaptation

Watchmen (2009) | Warner Bros.

4. Comic Books Adaptations

When you think of comic books, you probably think of properties published by the two dominating houses, Marvel and DC. However, many other comic books exist outside these two franchises and some of them have also made it to the big and small screens. Good examples include:

  • “Watchmen” (2009) and its 2019 TV adaptation of the same name by HBO
  • “The Kingsman” franchise
  • “Annie”. Now this is a wonderful example of a concept that has gone through various adaptations. It started out as a comic strip by artist Harold Gray in 1924, which was based on an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley entitled “Little Orphan Annie”. The comic strip was later adapted as a Musical production on the stage and to the screen. The most recent adaptation of “Annie” is a 2021 television special that aired on NBC. 


Mortal Kombat 2021 - Screenplay Adaptation

Mortal Kombat (2021) | Warner Bros.

5. Video Game Adaptations

Video games have always been an inspirational medium for filmmakers. There is so much content to source from them, and from a business perspective, they already have an existing market ready to buy movie tickets. Loyal game fans always want to see how their favorite characters are portrayed on the big screen and they’ll never pass up that chance. This is always good news for film producers – ka-ching! Popular adaptations include:

  • “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001)
  • “Silent Hill” (2006)
  • “Warcraft” (2016)
  • “Detective Pikachu” based on the Pokemon animated series and games
  •  “Sonic the Hedgehog” (2020, 2022) and,
  •  “Tekken: Bloodline” (2022) based on the Tekken game franchise.
  • “Mortal Kombat” (2021)

Do you remember when the first “Mortal Kombat” film hit the screens? 1995! There are three Mortal Kombat films to date, and who knows how many more are yet to be made. It’s such an awe to watch them all in order because you get to appreciate how far the visual graphics and CGI field has come!


Ways to Adapt a Screenplay

Adapting a story from one medium to another is a creative challenge that filmmakers often undertake to bring beloved tales to life on the big screen. There are several ways to approach adaptation, each with its own unique characteristics and considerations. Here are three common approaches to adapting stories:

1. Based on…

This type of screenplay adaptation closely follows the original characters and most, if not all, of the original plot. For example, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a very thorough and to-the-bone type of adaptation.

2. Adapted from…

In this type of screenplay adaptation, the plot is recognizable from the original source, but the narrative and dialogue can change. For example, “Matilda” (1996) is based on a 1988 novel by author Roald Dahl. The whole plot and characters are exactly from the book, but some of the dialogue and narration are dropped or changed to suit the pace of the film.

3. Inspired by…

Films that are inspired by source material are under little to no obligation to adhere to it. A good example is “The Cat in The Hat” (2003). The movie is based on the short story by Doctor Seuss, and so are the characters, but the events are mostly made up by the screenwriters.


Sonic movie - Screenplay Adaptation

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) | Paramount Pictures


The Screenplay Adaptation Process

Adapting a story for the screen involves a meticulous process to ensure that the essence of the original work is captured while making it suitable for a new medium. Here’s a basic outline of the adaptation process:

1. Identify the work to be adapted: Choose a novel, play, comic book, video game, or other source material that you believe will translate well to film.

2. Seek rights: Obtain the necessary legal permissions to adapt the work. This often involves negotiating with the original creator or rights holders.

3. Identify major characters and their roles in the story: Determine which characters are essential to the plot and how they will be portrayed on screen.

4. Create a plot outline: Develop a detailed outline that captures the key plot points and character arcs of the original work. This will serve as a roadmap for writing the screenplay.

5. Write your script: Use the plot outline to write the screenplay, ensuring that you stay true to the spirit of the original work while making necessary adjustments for the screen.

6. Edit, edit, edit!: The first draft is just the beginning. Revise your screenplay multiple times to refine the dialogue, pacing, and structure. Consider seeking feedback from others in the industry to improve your script further.

Screenplay adaptations can be a challenging but rewarding process, allowing filmmakers to bring new life to beloved tales and introduce them to new audiences.


Winnie the Pooh - Screenplay Adaptation

Winnie the Pooh has been in the public domain since January 1, 2022

The World of Public Domain

Remember the folktales you used to listen to and read about? These types of stories have been around for longer than we can begin to imagine in our communities and the issue of who owns them never comes out. At this point, can we even trace it? Well, the good news for screenwriters is that these types of stories become categorized in the public domain section. 

Public domain refers to works that are not protected by copyright law and are therefore free for anyone to use, adapt, and distribute without seeking permission. This includes classic literature, folklore, and other works whose copyright has expired or were never copyrighted in the first place. When a work enters the public domain, it opens up a world of creative possibilities for writers, filmmakers, and artists to reinterpret and adapt these stories in new and exciting ways.


Key to a Successful Screenplay Adaptation

Keep this in mind when you decide to adapt a story for the screen:

  1. Read and re-read the work you wish to adapt. It may seem already obvious, but it never hurts to stress it out. It’s very important to understand the core message of the story and all the elements that tie it together – plot, characters, themes, and conflicts. You cannot adapt what you don’t know. 
  2. Visualize the writing process. *Cue cards, writing board, whatever works for you.  
  3. Find the landmarks within the story…. The scenes can change, but the premise remains the same.
  4. Don’t write it until you own it! Unless you have legal, written permission to adapt the work, do not start working on the concept. This applies to whether you are the buyer of the rights or have been commissioned to write the script. To prevent getting into any legal conflicts, there shall be no ink on the paper until all the ownership rights have been settled. 


Always Seek Permission First!

Always seek permission first when embarking on a screenplay adaptation. In this house, we don’t take without asking. Every work of art has rights to it, and attempting to use said works without obtaining those rights first is a recipe for disaster – nobody wants a lawsuit!



Begin your screenplay adaptation journey on The Scriptwriter by Albantsho. It’s intuitive to use and, best of all, it’s currently free. Click HERE to get started.

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