Adapting to the Times: Hollywood's Most Promising Screenwriters Aren't Telling Their Own Stories


It’s no longer necessary to scout out the next “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” amongst a sea of steadily churned-out YA novels with eerie, lingering similarities, because Hollywood has already moved on when it comes to the adaptation game. Vampires and werewolves and sparkly teens may have their own section at your local bookstore, but the continued popularity of literary fiction that hits the page seemingly primed for a cinematic take shows no signs of abating, and the studios have come looking for bestsellers with merit, meat, and a sizable fanbase. Those projects need writers, and plenty of promising screenwriters who made their bones writing original material are more than happy to help usher someone else’s vision to the big screen.

“(500) Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are leading the charge straight into Adaptation Land, seemingly signing on for every (or, perhaps more precisely, every other) high profile film based on a bestselling novel. The only victim of their increasingly more literary tastes? Audiences hungering for a new original story from the screenwriting duo.

Just this week, the pair was announced as the screenwriters tasking with adapting Jojo Moyes’ bestseller “Me Before You” for MGM. That project joins their adaptation-heavy slate, which currently includes Amor Towles’ “The Rules of Civility,” Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” Adena Halpern’s “29” (currently titled “While We’re Young,” not to be confused with the Noah Baumbach film of the same name), Rebecca Serle’s “Rosaline,” James Collins’ “Beginner’s Greek,” and a reunion with their “Spectacular” star Shailene Woodley, John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” For a pair of scribes who first made their mark with an inventive, offbeat, and creative screenplay, Weber and Neustadter’s upcoming slate includes just one original project amongst seven novel adaptations (that one is a Nancy Meyers comedy about an American lass who gets engaged to a foreign prince, which sounds potentially very amusing but perhaps less than creative and offbeat).

Despite their current predilection for adapting existing material, Neustadter and Weber still have the good sense to take on fulfilling-sounding projects based on beloved novels with serious redeeming value. They’re the last guys who would latch on to the next big YA novel simply to make a buck or a big splash at the theater, and their version of The Spectacular Now (directed by James Ponsoldt) is a moving, honest depiction of teenage love in all its messy glory. And yet, it’s still become far too commonplace to see the pair attached to the next big adaptation, and no matter how solid the material may be, that’s a shame because we know they are capable of crafting special and original work.

And they are not the only ones.

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s stock has risen exponentially in the past couple of years, thanks to her “Saving Mr. Banks” script, a Black List pick back in 2011, now turned into an awards season contender starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Marcel’s previous writing work was limited to creating and writing on the now-cancelled Fox television series “Terra Nova” – impressive, considering just how extremely different her show and her film about “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers are (read: very different) – and she’s continued to make some, well, unexpected choices when it comes to her work. There’s little doubt that people were shocked to learn that Marcel, a newbie scribe who has written about futuristic families and family-friendly Hollywood stories was set to pen the adaptation of the sex-heavy “50 Shades of Grey” book series. If nothing else, it proved that it’s impossible to pigeonhole her. It also proved that it’s impossible to understand exactly what she wants her signature style to be.


Marcel’s decision to pen the “50 Shades” script may be for obvious reasons – money, exposure, taking badly written material and making it even remotely acceptable – but it’s also one that comes with plenty of baggage. While the “Shades” book series, penned by E.L. James, is extremely popular, it may prove to be a victim of too much too soon. The books first burst onto the scene back in the summer of 2011, but slow-moving production decisions mean that the first film of a planned trilogy it won’t hit theaters for almost a full year from now. Will people still care? And, with the recent news that screenwriter Patrick Marber has come on board to help polish the script and beef up characters, it’s questionable just how much of the final product will sing with Marcel’s own work.

Plenty of other very talented scribes are getting into the high profile adaptation business – in recent months, author and screenwriter Nick Hornby signed on to adapt Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” (currently filming with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role), filmmaker Oren Moverman decided to help Cate Blanchett adapt “The Dinner” for her directorial debut, rising star Matt Johnson (director and co-writer of Slamdance hit “The Dirties”) was linked to a new “Encyclopedia Brown” movie, and even Shauna Cross (who penned “Whip It” from her own novel, which she then followed up with a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” script) took on adapting duties for Gayle Forman’s YA novel “If I Stay.”

Hornby has made big business out of selling the rights of his own books for cinematic adaptation, and even trying his hand at his own version of their screenplay, as he did for the British version of “Fever Pitch.” But Hornby, for all his literary success, also churned out a beloved and original (though loosely based on a true story) screenplay with 2009’s “An Education.” If that’s the sort of one-off project we can get from Hornby, the news that he’s adapting someone else’s novel for the big screen stings indeed (though it does ensure that “Wild” will come with some welcome biting wit).

There are plenty of beloved books out there that would benefit immensely from a big screen version, but the continued pilfering of screenwriting talent who have proven themselves capable of writing original material comes with a price – the loss of potentially great and dramatically new productions. It also comes with the implication that even the most creative types can be enticed by the promise of an existing work, a well-established fanbase, and the probability of more money come payday. Like any creative industry, Hollywood needs original work, and when some of the people most adept at creating it are busy reworking existing material, it’s not a good (or inspiring) thing for anyone involved.