The Three Most Important Professional Screenwriting Rules when Writing a Script Adaptation about a Real Person or Event.
I recently read a memoir that the author is very interested in turning into a movie/TV adaptation. My observations about the book and adapting the work into a script reminded me of the Three most important Professional Screenwriting Rules in doing an adaptation, specifically when the source material is about a real person, who is still living.
1 The Dead don’t have any rights.
The Living do have rights, including the legal right to tell their own story. There are dozens and dozens of rules regarding script adaptations with real events or living people as the source material, but this is number one because a writer can potentially get into a lot of trouble if they don't observe this rule.
When a Professional Screenwriter writes a script adaptation based on a living person as the focus of their story (and/or the person's life as the source material) they must have a legal agreement allowing them the right to pursue the project. There are exceptions to this basic rule, including a screenplay adaptation that depicts a living person who would be legally considered a “celebrity” or is in the “public spotlight.” However, this exception to the rules has complicated nuances, as do other exceptions to this basic rule. The bottomline is that the professional screenwriter should always get legal advice from an attorney who specializes in entertainment law before proceeding forward.
2 When writing an adaptation, create a script that will entertain your audience.
This is the Second Most Important Adaptation Rule, and the one that many non-professionals (and plenty of professionals) end up breaking. Many artists believe the highest creative calling is an adaptation that is accurate about the facts and they are almost always wrong.
Making sure the adaptation is factually true with the source material doesn’t even come close to the importance in writing an entertaining script. Those who believe it should rank this high are writers might want to consider work on propaganda films or industrial videos.
The entertainment industry also has a category of filmmaking called “documentaries.” People who choose to be entertained by a factual based depiction of an actual person / and /or real event can seek out the documentary version of the story.
This rule is all about prioritizing the writing of an entertaining story rather than one that mimics a history book. The goal is to capture the spirit of the living person, and/or real event you are depicting in your story and doing this in the service of entertaining an audience. Those who lose sight of this prime directive are the ones who create movies that are difficult or boring to watch and rarely find a commercial audience. There’s little nobility in writing a script that stays true to the facts, but no one sees because it was either never produced or was shunned when it was seen.
Not keeping the facts Holy in writing a script adaptation can be a problem for the real people being depicted in the story. This is why working with the main subject of your adaptation is often problematic. Many Professional Screenwriters never meet the subjects of the story they are writing even when given the opportunity. Contact with the source of your adaptation can be illuminating for the Professional Screenwriter, but there's always the chance that it will do the opposite - hinder the creative process.
3 An adaptation should be relatable to the commercial audience taking in your work.
No surprise that I rank this number three because of my hardcore philosophy of writing a script that will resonate with an audience. Meaning that your creative loyalty begins with you as the artist and the relationship you have with your audience. Everything else comes in second place when telling your story - the facts… the original source material… especially the person(s) that are the focus of the source material.
Now this rule can be very much different when writing an adaptation of fiction, like a novel. The Professional Screenwriter who adapts a beloved book (or series of books) should probably heavily consider what the readers found enjoyable. But when considering a non-fictional adaptation, loyalty to the potential audience of your work is more important than living up to those who were there, or know the person who is the focus of your story.