Adapting from the Public Domain by Jeremy Anderson

It’s easy to look at the slate of recent, current and forthcoming television shows and movies and think – Hollywood is out of ideas. They’re all sequels, prequels, reboots, or remakes. As a young writer, it’s easy to grow frustrated, knowing that you have original ideas – if only someone would give you the chance to tell them. I know the feeling well.

So, it’s with no small amount of irony that I suggest you adapt your next project from existing material in the public domain.

The past few years have been very instructive for me. Even after finally landing great representation on the strength of my own original material, it was only when I incorporated a past classic into my work that doors really popped open.

At the time, I had two strong spec pilots circling around town getting great responses. I also had a couple of series ideas I wanted to pitch when network selling season rolled around. Despite all this, my reps were reluctant to set pitches for either of these ideas – having less to do with the ideas themselves and far more to do with my utter lack of primetime credits. Interestingly, two different networks ended up buying pilots very similar (but not identical) to one of my pitches. So the idea certainly had legs. One of those pilots is currently on the air.

In the midst of all this, my manager arranged for me to sit down with another client of his – another young writer in the same boat. We had different voices, but gravitated toward similar thematic elements in our writing. My manager had mentioned to him an idea I’d toyed with a year earlier but discarded – an idea based on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. After tossing the old idea back and forth between us, we came up with an entirely new take on an old classic. With this classical source material attached, my agent jumped to set up pitches – and production companies likewise jumped to hear it.

Our idea was pretty far removed from the source, each day of development taking it closer and closer to being an original idea of its own – almost a palimpsest of the source material, and one we were quite proud of. That said, there is no mistaking that it was Dickens (rather than me or my partner) that got us through the door, first at the production company level, then the studio, and finally the network. Two networks were even willing to hear the pitch after they were officially closed to new pitches. 

What I’m getting at here is that young writers often don’t have the auspices to get through that next door. What source material can do for you is lend you its own auspices – as well as sound thematic and structural elements.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not enough to take a random public domain title, give it some minor tweak, and call it your own. Don’t fall into the trap of bad community theatre where your artistic contribution is to say “It’s Hamlet but in the 1950s with greasers.” That’s stupid. You’re not saying anything with that other than “I don’t want to sew elaborate period costumes.”

By the time my partner and I turned in our draft, we’d arrived at a nice place where the script stood on its own. People familiar with the source material would be able to recognize it in our show, but only if they knew to look for it. That’s because our characters and their struggles had taken on a life and urgency of their own, even though they were built upon the ghosts of Dickens’ own characters. And the reason for that is that we had something to say with our pilot other than “This is Great Expectations.

So, it’s not just a matter of finding a piece of source material, it’s a matter of finding one that speaks to you, and gives you the basis for a contemporary story that you want to tell. Because the real trick is to tell that classic story in your own voice, while allowing the source material to provide that familiar melody.

One Comment

  1. Mark Olmsted says:

    Of course I would choose the one work Congress has specifically extended the copywright for…Gone With the Wind…I wanted to do the love story of Rhett Butler and Belle Watling that occurs before the war and produces their son.
    I will keep that in my back pocket, but consider your advice accordingly for other projects. Thank you!

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