Information for Screenwriters: The Difference Between Adaptation and Inspiration

Reposted by writer, Patricia Anne Jackson

Q&A: What’s the Difference Between a Movie That’s “Based On” a Book and a Movie That’s “Inspired By” One?

Q: I have a question regarding the rights needed to make a film “based on” a book, and/or “inspired by” a book. First of all, is there a legal difference between these two terms? It seems that one implies a more direct adaptation (“based on”) and the other a looser connection to a book, but is there some legal basis for determining this? Also, does one need to purchase the rights to a book that “inspires” their film? How about a book that it is “based on”?

A: In answer to your first question, while technically there is no legal significance to the specific words “based on” or “inspired by,” there is legal significance to what each term may imply.

If a movie is “based on” a book, it is implied that the film is an adaptation of a preexisting book. This is such a common practice that at some point in the 5 hour 37 minute Academy Awards telecast, between shots of Jack Nicholson, I believe they may even present an Oscar for the “Best Adapted Screenplay.” Most of those screenplays are based on books.

We can assume that any screenplay based on a book is going share unique characters, plots, scenes, etc. with that book. We may never have been graced with the presence of Kate Winslet’s sex starved, Nazi cougar had that character not first been fully fleshed out in the book The Reader. The filmmaker who makes a movie that shares a prior book’s copyrighted material must get rights from the copyright owner of the book in order to make that movie. Without obtaining the necessary rights, a movie based on a book likely would be considered copyright infringement.

It gets a little bit trickier when you say “inspired by.” This could mean a whole lot of different things. Let’s say you read the short story “Flowers for Algernon.” You finish the story crying, inspired to write a movie about a man who overcomes obvious mental shortcomings to become president of the United States. You didn’t include any of the unique elements from the story in your film, it simply served as the inspiration for your script (you also read a lot of newspapers over the last eight years). In a case like this, you wouldn’t need to obtain any rights from the author of “Flowers for Algernon.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, “inspired by” may only be one small step below “based on.” Perhaps you decide to make a statement about North Korea by writing a script inspired by the book 1984. The plot is essentially the same but the characters are now Korean and it’s set in modern day North Korea. You’ve taken a lot of creative liberties with the story and added your own unique elements but you use nearly identical plot points and many of the same scenes from the book. In this case, your film will likely be seen as a derivative work based on the original classic novel. Therefore, you would need the necessary rights in order to make your film.

The toughest call are those situations in between. Theoretically Clueless was inspired by Jane Austen’s book Emma. Now unfortunately I’ve never read Emma, but I have seen Clueless, and I’m fairly certain that the song “Rollin’ with the Homies” was not a part of the book. Cluelesswas entirely original except for the underlying concept. More recently, it could be said Disturbiawas inspired by Rear Window. Again, you had a unique new movie that essentially shared a concept with a prior work. In these “inspired by” cases, it’s not always entirely clear if you need permission from the copyright owner of the materials by which your film is inspired.

There’s a great quote by some great person, neither of which I can remember, but it basically said that no piece of art is truly original, because no artist can help but be inspired by art that they love. Whether or not you are going to need permission for the owner of an underlying work depends on the situation and requires a fact specific analysis. If your film is “based on” a book, it’s almost certain you’ll need permission. If a book only serves as your “inspiration,” you may be in somewhat dangerous territory so I would recommend treading lightly and carrying a big lawyer.

It should be noted that if a once-protected work is very old, it may be in the “public domain,” meaning that the period of copyright protection has lapsed and anyone can copy it without permission. In other words, if the book you’re interested in is in the public domain, you won’t need to obtain permission to use it as the basis or inspiration for your film. In my example above, the creators of Clueless didn’t have to worry about whether their film was close enough to Emma to require permission because Emma is old enough to be in the public domain.

This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry.

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Dealing Effectively With an Agent

Dealing Effectively with an Agent

Questions an agent may ask:

  • Are you willing to further expand your platform?
  • Are you open to revisions? (Basically that’s a trap—say yes and mean it!)
  • Do you have the time to revise prior to publication?

Questions you should ask:

  • What kind of revisions do you foresee?
  • Who do you see as a potential audience for my work?
  • Do you have experience selling in my genre? And do you have specific publishers in mind for my book?

If there are other agents you’re waiting to hear from, this is the time to let us know. We’re hoping you can’t imagine anyone else representing you, but we understand that partnering with an agent is an important decision. Out of consideration, set a reasonable timeline of up to three weeks to make a final choice.

Our Wish for You …

Ultimately you are our compass. We’re hunting for buried treasure, so please point us in the right direction. Establish an image, craft your best work, connect with us on a personal level, and your future will shine ahead of you like a sea of glossy book jackets. You can find an agent. We know this because we’re hoping to find you, too.

brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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What Separates “Real Writers” From the Other Kind?

WORDS OF SUCCESS

“It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say; they’re going to write.”

~ Sinclair Lewis

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How Long Does It Take to Write a First Draft of a Novel?

WORDS OF SUCCESS

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

~Stephen King

While Mr. King is a writing machine and he has had Tabitha by his side all these years helping him, I agree that a first draft should be cranked out quickly. I would say, more judiciously, that if a book is taking more than a year to get the first complete story down on the page there is some greater block. This is where a good writing coach comes in.

Patricia

Keep Writing!

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Fiction Novels: Write the Whole Book (several times over) Before Submitting

By: Rachelle Gardner

 

Classic wisdom for unpublished authors seeking traditional publication has been this:

If you’re writing a novel (fiction), you need a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, you need a book proposal plus two or three sample chapters. If you’re writing a memoir, who knows — everybody has a different opinion.

Here’s what is true and will always be true: unpublished fiction authors MUST have a complete novel before trying to get an agent or publisher. No question, no exceptions.

But things are changing in publishing, especially when it comes to non-fiction. In some ways, the standards are higher. It’s more of a risk for a publisher to say “yes” to an unproven author. And in light of this reality, I’m going to make a bold and probably controversial suggestion.

No matter what you’re writing, even if you’re already published, even if it’s non-fiction or memoir:

Consider writing the whole book before you search for a publisher.

Why would I say such a thing? A few reasons:

1. It lowers the risk for the publisher.

Recently I’ve been submitting proposals to publishers with the entire manuscript attached rather than just a few sample chapters. Without exception, editors are telling me how much they appreciate me sending them the entire book. It takes away so much of their risk and guess-work. Even though they’re planning to edit the book, they know exactly what they’re getting. They know for sure that the author can deliver a manuscript that satisfies from beginning to end.

2. It makes the publisher much more confident.

There have been instances when I sent the entire manuscript to an editor, and soon I was told that the editors, the sales people, and the marketing people had all read the manuscript cover-to-cover. When that many people at a publishing house have that “can’t put it down” feeling, it leaves no doubt in their minds about whether they can sell this book. They experienced the book themselves, and they’ve already begun to develop a vision for how they can sell it. Their confidence in the value of the book is high.

3. Consequently, you have a much better chance of selling it.

When several members of the publishing committee all have a strong gut-level “buy in” on your book, they naturally want to try and acquire it. They’re much more likely to put an offer on the table because of the certainty about the product they’re acquiring. This is completely different from the more common scenario — a strong proposal and some killer sample chapters that still leave them waffling a bit as they wonder… will the rest of the book deliver what this proposal says it will? Is this going to be a satisfying reading experience, making people want to recommend the book to their friends?

4. Finishing a book is harder than you think.

One of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is how very difficult it is to write an entire book when you’re contractually obligated to a deadline, and you’ve never written a complete 60,000-to-100,000 word piece before. You have no idea what it’s going to take until you do it. You may be uber-confident you can deliver the entire thing and have it be awesome, but publishers know this isn’t always the case. The best way to set yourself up for success is to prove to both yourself and your potential publisher that you can do it — by having it already done.

A few notes:

  • For unpublished novelists, I am not saying anything different than the standard wisdom that has always been true: don’t try to get an agent or publisher until your novel is complete, edited, revised and polished.
  • I am not trying to create a new gospel for publishing. I’m simply putting this idea out there as a suggestion that might help some of you reach success.
  • I always prefer memoir-writers have a complete manuscript rather than just a sample. Memoirs are tricky and very difficult to craft from beginning to end, in some ways even harder than a novel. Memoirs usually require not only a complete manuscript, but one that has been worked and reworked multiple times before it’s right.
  • This advice isn’t meant to supersede whatever advice your own agent is giving you. Trust your agent!
  • You may find that you can get an agent with your non-fiction proposal and sample chapters, but your agent may suggest you write more of the book before submitting to publishers. Be open to discussing this.
  • Publishers still buy non-fiction based on a stellar proposal and sample chapters. Just remember, the more you can provide them to raise their level of confidence and emotional buy-in, the stronger your chances.
  • If you go to the effort of writing the whole thing and still can’t sell it to a traditional publisher, you’re perfectly positioned to self-publish. So there’s really no downside.

 

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Writing Historical Fiction

FACTS AND STORYTELLING IN HISTORICAL FICTION

By Michael Loyd Gray

When I began writing my new novel about Amelia Earhart’s last days, The Canary, I knew it had to start with her as a castaway on a lonely Pacific island. But with her navigator, Fred Noonan, already dead, there was a decidedly small cast of characters. Having Amelia talk to herself endlessly would become endlessly tedious. Some research and an unexpected discovery came to my rescue. Here’s what I knew: based on recent findings, there is evidence suggesting Earhart might have made a forced landing on a tiny atoll’s reef – Gardner Island. The more I looked into it, the more plausible it seemed. That inspired me to fictionalize her last days. The opening pages were easy: Amelia alone on an island with no reliable water source except rainwater and no food other than small birds, turtles, and legions of coconut crabs. But quickly I knew the book had to be more than just a brave young woman and her mental and physical deterioration. As I looked more into young Amelia’s life to discover a writing voice for her, I learned she had moved from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Hyde Park in Chicago to finish her last year of high school, in 1914-15. This was before she had thought much about flying. The discovery made me think about who she was in those days and soon I was doing a Google search of Hyde Park on Chicago’s near south side, a place I once visited to hear a novelist read, and the location of President Obama’s house. As I stared at the map of Hyde Park and imagined young Amelia walking to school and then home again to care for her ailing mother, my eyes drifted west, to the suburb of Oak Park, and I had my epiphany: Though they never met, Earhart and Hemingway spent a year of school only a few miles from each other. Ernest was then 15 and Amelia was around 17. Suddenly I knew what the book needed – an interior story in which Amelia fondly remembers her Hyde Park days and a yearlong friendship with the young Hemingway. The Canary became a better novel than it might have because I was open to how facts buried in silent history gave it the voices it needed. If you are writing historical fiction, here’s the lesson. Being accurate is important. I had to do a lot of checking to make sure I depicted Hemingway and Earhart with historical accuracy, even though they never met. When they went to a baseball game, it had to be at Weeghman Park and not Wrigley Field, because Wrigley was called Weeghman in 1914. The Cubs didn’t even play there. It was home to the Chicago Whales. Writing historical fiction means getting the history surrounding your characters right, but it’s also an opportunity to not be shackled by history. Your goal is to tell a great story and not merely to document history. Amelia lands and slowly dies is not much of a story. But Amelia meets Ernest and has adventures with him is a good story and it humanizes the iconic aviatrix and also generates even more sympathy for her and her plight. After all, it’s fiction – you’re making it up and setting it against an accurate historical background. Where the Cubs played in 1914 has to be accurate. But a relationship between Earhart and Hemingway that never happened – you’re free to create one and thus make history subordinate to good storytelling.

BIO – Michael Loyd Gray was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Illinois. He earned a MFA in English from Western Michigan University and has taught at colleges and universities in upstate New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a Journalism degree and was a newspaper staff writer in Arizona and Illinois for ten years. Gray’s most recent novel is The Canary (August 2013). He is the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. Gray’s novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize. His novel Not Famous Anymore was awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation and was released by Three Towers Press in 2012. His novel King Biscuit was released in 2012 by Tempest Books. www.michaelloydgray.com

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Freewriting/Critique Group

We meet for 90 minutes every week to prime the spontaneous writing lobes of our brains and to support each writer through the completion of a manuscript. Supportive, insightful, direct feedback. The only professionally run writing group in Denver. $25 drop-in and $75 monthly.

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The Mercury Cafe, March 25

3-25-14_Mercury Cafe Reading

Here I am reading a memoir piece last night. It went well. Even after a kajillion (is that a word?) edits, when I read out loud I always hear things I want to change. My daughter teased me that I got “that look” on my face and she thought I would start making corrections right then and there. LOL

Here are some suggestions for public readings:

1) If it is a regular event, visit first to see if your work is appropriate for that venue.

2) Verify time constraints of the host beforehand.

3) For longer pieces read out loud at home to get exact timing, unless of course you are the featured speaker in which case you can probably read as long as you like.

3) Have fun! It is always great to be in front of a live audience.

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What’s Up With Everyone Using Present Tense? The Pros and Cons

This piece is excerpted from On Writing Fiction by David Jauss. One of the great resources on writing around.

ADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense. Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense.

2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist. As Joyce Cary said, he chose the present tense for his novel Mister Johnson because its title character lives in the present and he wanted his readers to be “carried unreflecting on the stream of events,” just as Mister Johnson is. “As Johnson swims gaily on the surface of life, so I wanted the reader to swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives,” Cary said. Many of the most successful present-tense novels and stories deal with characters who, like Johnson, are “boxed in the present.”

[Learn 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel]

3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme. One major theme of Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love is “the presentness of the past,” and therefore the use of the present tense when narrating past events makes excellent sense. Whereas the character Charlie Baxter fears the erasure of the past, his friend Bradley feels the present is, at times, less present than the past and therefore more subject to erasure. “The past soaks into you,” he says, “because the present is missing almost entirely.”

In Bradley’s view, the past is eternally present in memory. As he says, “That day was here and then it was gone, but I remember it, so it exists here somewhere, and somewhere all those events are still happening and still going on forever.” Bradley does more than merely state his view that past events continue to happen in the present; he demonstrates it. At one point, after two young lovers, Chloé and Oscar, have been housesitting for him, he hears the sounds of their lovemaking coming from the basement. He goes to investigate the source of the sounds, and once there, he says, “I felt the two of them passing by me, felt the memory of their having been physically present there. …” And then the narrative, appropriately, shifts to present tense: “I follow them up the stairs. I watch them go into the kitchen and observe them making a dinner of hamburgers and potato chips. They recover their senses by talking and listening to the radio. I watch them feed each other. This is love in the present tense. …”

4. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships, of course, but there’s something to be said for this kind of simplicity. For example, when we’re writing in present tense, we can simply shift into the simple past when a flashback starts and then return to the present when it’s finished.

DISADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration both work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back from an indeterminate present at many past times, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense, when the narrator is speaking from and about a specific present.

2. It is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense. While it is certainly possible to create complex characters in present-tense fiction, it’s more difficult to do so without natural access to the basic techniques that allow us to manipulate order and duration. These techniques allow us to convey our character’s subjective experience of time and thereby achieve more psychological depth and realism. They also help us complicate a character by placing her in a larger temporal context. The more we know about a character’s past, for example, the more we can understand her present. Without the kind of context flashbacks provide, our characters tend to become relatively simple, even generic.

[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]

3. The present tense can diminish suspense. Because present-tense narrators do not know what is going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events. The narrator of Doctor Faustus provides a good example of this kind of suspense: “The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell. …” Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, laments that we have to sacrifice this particular kind of suspense when we use present tense. What we gain in immediacy, she says, we lose in tension. Present-tense fiction can create another kind of suspense, of course—the kind we feel when no one knows the outcome—but not this kind.

4. The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time. As a result, a present-tense story sometimes seems, in the words of Macauley and Lanning, “less the work of an author than an unedited film.” Take, for example, Kate McCorkle’s slice-of-life story “The Last Parakeet,” in which for no apparent reason we watch the “Today” show with the narrator while she eats a bowl of Rice Krispies. The principle of selection can be applied more readily, and ruthlessly, in past tense.

Keep Writing! Patricia

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How to Write Numbers in Your Narrative

Recently, I had a client whose manuscript featured a great deal of numbers. This caused me to do some research on the subject. As in many grammatical issues some of the rules have changed since I received my foundation teachings years ago. While I found some contradictions among authorities the following resource seemed most reliable. The link is: http://ur.psu.edu/stylemanual/editorial/numbers.html

Keep Writing!
Patricia

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