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Understanding Adapted Vs. Original Screenplays

The 91st annual Academy Awards are just hours away. Before the stars take their seats and the gold starts flying, let’s go over some last-minute Oscar-related vocabulary terms so that everyone is on the same page. I’ve been asked a number of times the last couple of days to clarify the difference between the two screenplay categories, so I thought I would go over that quickly for those who are not exactly sure.

First off, screenplays are the foundation of any film. Before the director can bring his or her vision of the story to life on screen, the film’s story must be written out in script form. Screenplays contain all the characters, their dialogue, the action, and locations, including the time of day of each scene. Of course, there are variations depending on who is writing the screenplay, but those are the basic elements.

You can see an example of what a screenplay looks like below:

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Now that we have a basic understanding of what a screenplay is and how it plays into the larger picture of filmmaking, let’s break down those two Oscar categories.

Adapted Screenplay refers to a film’s script that is based on or adapted to the screen from pre-existing source material (i.e. a novel, a comic book, a news article, etc.). Originals Screenplay refers to a film script that is wholly based on the screenwriter’s own, unique imagination and not adapted from outside material.

The classification sounds pretty simple; however, things can get a little complicated and so much so that sometimes the Academy themselves nominate screenplays for the wrong category. For example, in 2003 the Charlie Kaufman-written film Adaptation told the fictional story about Kaufman himself and his nonexistent twin brother struggling to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The Orchid Thief is a real book written by  Susan Orlean; however, the film Adaptation is not based on the story in that book. This means when Adaptation got the Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, it got nominated in the wrong category. Since the film is telling an original story, it should have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

It’s also worth noting that film sequels count as adapted material since they are based on pre-existing stories and characters from previous films, even if the previous film was an original property.

Have questions about the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing? Check out my breakdown here!


That is it! The difference between Adapted and Original Screenplays. What do you think? Do you like these definitions? Did you learn anything by reading this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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