Everything is Adaptation
When working on a new piece I find two voices. One voice is my own. The other is a voice that questions if the first voice is mine.
Am I original?
Of course I am. Originality is what I love in art and something I pride in what I do, yet ...
Have I heard this before?
When I write I wonder if the voices in my head are telling tales I’ve heard before. Is this story original? Has it been done before? Finally I’ve found comfort in a universal truth in storytelling:
Nothing you ever write is original.
Terrifying, I know, but please stay with me here. Originality is so treasured in our craft that The Academy gave it a specific award. Not Best Screenplay, but Best ORIGINAL Screenplay. If it’s not original, the only thing accepted is adaptation.
Lean in a bit here while I tell you a little secret -
Everything is adaptation.
Crazy? Not as crazy as you think. Let’s take a look at a few films you may know and love, for example.
The film Poltergeist (1982) is a good start. This iconic paranormal feature was spawned from several minds, starting with Spielberg. He put together a treatment with the help of Tobe Hooper, who took Spielberg’s original Alien Horror concept and tied it to stories he’d become fascinated with in a book he was reading which was about, surprise, poltergeists. But there is adaptation beyond the fundamental concept of book to screenplay.
The Native (DECADES OLD SPOILER ALERT) aspect where the house was built on an old burial ground was inspired by true stories one of the writers came across. Additionally, one of the biggest beats where one of the children in the home is snatched up by a tree outside his bedroom window comes from the real fears Spielberg had about a tree in his childhood. All of this life experience and passing knowledge wrapped up into this iconic horror film that we call original.
No film comes from nowhere. It’s all pieces of you, and in this case, pieces of several writers inspired by the world around them.
Juno, the 2007 film about a teenage girl and the decision to give her unplanned pregnancy up for adoption was penned by Diablo Cody. This was Diablo’s first screenplay (yeah, I know, she’s an anomaly of brilliance) and was actually asked to bring her unique vision to a script after being discovered as a blogger. She thought, “What’s a story that’s never been told?” and came to wanting to tell this little story about this big decision.
Original idea off the top of her head, right? Well, kind of. She herself hadn’t made this journey, but the titular character Juno was very much based off her. The voice of her protagonist is her teenage voice. The decisions the character makes are based off the decisions she believed she would have made in this situation. The journey itself she witnessed from another student in high school, and Juno’s best friend (and baby daddy) was based off her own best friend when she was that age.
All of the dynamics of this film come from moments from her life adapted into the best storytelling elements possible for screen.
Get Out, the 2016 film from Jordan Peele was heralded as a unique original piece of work subverting the horror/thriller genre. To many, this film went to places that they hadn’t thought of, but for others so many pieces of Get Out felt adapted from their own lives. This is because the film, right down to the inciting incident, came from Peele’s experience. “I had a Caucasian girlfriend a while ago. I remember specifically asking if the parents knew I was black. She said no. That scared me.” Peele would go on to say that the meeting was fine, but this feeling and his ability to adapt that into a feature narrative won him an Academy Award.
This goes on and on.
Everything is adaptation.
No movie exists from nothing. All storytellers do is take the world around them and turn these collection of stories they’ve heard, stories they’ve told, into the ingredients to complete a recipe.
We adapt the stories of our lives, both personal and secondhand, into consumable works of art.
In truth, the only part of your movie that can be original … is you.