What is Best Adapted Screenplay? The Ultimate Guide to This Oscar Category

Every year, the Academy Awards honor the best in cinema across a variety of categories. Among the most prestigious is the Best Adapted Screenplay award, which recognizes excellent work in adapting existing source material into a brilliant screenplay for the silver screen.

An adapted screenplay is a screenplay derived from previously published or produced material. This could be a novel, non-fiction book, short story, play, comic book, or any other pre-existing work. It’s adapted and re-envisioned as a script for a film.

Many of the greatest and most beloved movies of all time started out as adaptations of other works – The Godfather, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, and No Country for Old Men are just a few notable examples. The art of adapting a story from one medium to another is a special skill that this Oscar category celebrates.

What Qualifies as an Adapted Screenplay?

For a screenplay to qualify as “adapted” for the Academy Awards, it must be based on some pre-existing source material that is not an original screenplay or a sequel. The source can be fiction or non-fiction works such as:

  • Novels
  • Novellas
  • Short stories
  • Plays
  • Musicals
  • Biographies/Memoirs
  • Essays/Articles
  • Comic books/Graphic novels

As long as the screenplay is directly sourced from and inspired by a previously published work, it meets the criteria for the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

Some recent winners that were adapted include:

  • Women Talking (2022) – Adapted from the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews
  • CODA (2021) – Adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Belier
  • Nomadland (2020) – Adapted from the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
  • Jojo Rabbit (2019) – Loosely adapted from the 2004 book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
  • BlacKkKlansman (2018) – Adapted from the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
  • Call Me By Your Name (2017) – Adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman

The Challenges of Adapting Source Material

While drawing from an established work provides a foundation, adapting a novel, play, or other source material into a screenplay is no easy task. Screenwriters face several key challenges in the process:

  • Condensing the work: A screenplay is typically only 90-120 pages, which equates to around a 2-hour runtime for a film. Novels can easily run over 500 pages. Whittling down the source into a concise yet impactful narrative arc requires deft skill.
  • Capturing the essence: While abridging and modifying the source is expected, the adapted screenplay needs to faithfully capture and convey the core themes, tone, and essence of the original work. Missing the mark here defeats the purpose.
  • Finding the right focus: Deciding which storylines, characters, and perspectives to prioritize versus what gets cut or consolidated is often a difficult balance. An adapter has to be decisive yet prudent.
  • Getting approval: For recent or in-print source works, the screenwriter typically has to option the rights and get approval from the original author or their estate to make alterations. Negotiating this can be delicate.

A prime example of a notoriously difficult book to adapt was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Despite its ambitious structure and intertwining narratives, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer managed to craft an admirable multi-genre screenplay that captured the essence of Mitchell’s work.

What Makes a Great Adapted Screenplay?

While the skill of adaptation inherently presents built-in challenges, truly great adapted screenplays manage to strike the perfect balance of:

  • Faithfulness to the source: The adapted script should feel authentic and true to the original work’s core identity – the major themes, tone, characterizations, etc should be recognizable.
  • Knowing what to keep and cut: An adapter needs to focus the sprawling source material into a cohesive narrative progression. Deciding what storylines or characters to omit or condense is crucial.
  • Enhancing the original work: The best adaptations don’t merely recreate the source, but find meaningful ways to put a fresh spin or new perspective that elevates the material. A different medium allows new creative opportunities.
  • Compelling cinema: At the end of the day, the adapted script needs to work as a piece of engaging, cinematic storytelling in its own right, not just a 1:1 translation.

Some examples of adaptations that improved upon their source include:

  • The Shawshank Redemption – The 1994 film is beloved while the 1982 novella had a relatively lukewarm reception at first. The screenplay tightened and emotionally deepened the narrative into a true classic.
  • L.A. Confidential – By combining two separate crime novel plots into one rich neo-noir tapestry, the 1997 film’s screenplay streamlined a dense story into a compelling, multi-layered character study hailed for its smart dialogue and moral complexity.
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley – While faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s novel’s dark character study and premise, the 1999 adapted screenplay enriched the psychological depths and sexual ambiguities of Tom Ripley.

Critics praised how the scripts for these films expanded on the source in subtle but resonant ways – an attribute of most adapted screenplay honorees.

The Adapted Screenplay Writing Process

So how do writers successfully tackle the tricky task of adaptation? The process typically involves:

  1. Acquiring rights – First, you’ll need to legally option or purchase the rights to adapt your desired source material if it’s not in the public domain. This allows you to work off the original text.
  2. Extensive research/analysis – Read and re-read the source multiple times, analyzing the core narrative, themes, characters, imagery, symbolism, and context. Become intimately familiar with every nuance of the original work.
  3. Planning/outlining – Decide your main storyline focus, what (if any) combination of plots/narratives to blend, what characters to build the story around, and how to adapt it into a traditional three-act screenplay structure.
  4. Writing drafts – Now the actual scriptwriting process begins, translating the source material into dynamic scenes, visual moments, and feature-length narrative progression over multiple drafts.
  5. Feedback and revisions – Get feedback from producers, the director, other writers and revise as needed to refine your vision and create the best cinematic experience.

Notable Adapted Screenplay Winners

Let’s look at a few celebrated examples of Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners and what made their scripts so exemplary:

  • No Country for Old Men (2007) – The Coen Brothers stayed remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s taut neo-western novel and sparse dialogue. But they elevated the cat-and-mouse tension into a morality play on the cycle of violence and randomness of evil.
  • The Departed (2006) – While drawing from the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, the adapted script by William Monahan enriched the stakes and complexity of the undercover cops/mobsters plot through character depth and a densely woven crime epic tone.
  • Sideways (2004) – Adapters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor kept the emotional core and well-developed characters of Rex Pickett’s novel while molding the midlife crisis premise into an instantly iconic odd-couple comedy/drama.

These three scripts demonstrate the versatility of the adapted form – accommodating high drama (No Country), fast-paced thrills (The Departed), and rich character studies (Sideways).

Difference Between Adapted and Original Screenplays

While the two screenplay categories differ in source, the skills required do overlap – constructing a coherent narrative, multidimensional characters, compelling dialogue, visual storytelling, etc. However, adapted faces some unique challenges:

  • Restrictions vs freedom – Adapting a pre-existing work inherently comes with more creative restrictions in terms of story/characters. Original scripts offer a blank canvas to build from scratch.
  • Source interpretation – For adaptations, writers are tasked with interpreting the source text in a way faithful to its original intentions. This provides more guidance but adds the burden of adaptation.
  • Built-in audience – Popular or acclaimed source material comes with embedded audience familiarity and expectations that need to be addressed appropriately.

On the other hand, original screenplays require generating completely new story ideas, constructing fictional universes and characters without any raw material to start from.

Tips for Aspiring Adapted Screenwriters

If you’re interested in pursuing adapted screenplay writing as a career path, here are some tips from the experts:

  1. Read the book/source inside and out – Don’t just skim the text, but study it thoroughly – the themes, motifs, character arcs, dialogue, setting descriptions, etc. Become fluent in the original work.
  2. Identify your core through-line – While the source may have meandering plots, pinpoint the central story you want to focus and build your script around. Be decisive in your choices.
  3. Don’t simply transcribe – Look for opportunities to enhance the source material in an authentic way that accentuates the cinematic experience – new perspectives, consolidated characters, richer subtext.
  4. Stay flexible during production – Be prepared to collaborate and revise with the director, producers, and talented actors who may breathe new motivations into the characters through their performances.
  5. Trust your vision, but be open – Have confidence in your interpretation, but don’t be too rigid. Remain open to authentic creative detours that enhance your adaptation.

Above all, strive to capture the essence of the source work while elevating it into the most dramatically impactful and cinematic experience possible on screen.


The Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar honors those who can masterfully re-envision existing works of fiction or non-fiction into brilliant, cinematic scripts. It celebrates the unique talents involved in:

  • Condensing dense source material into cohesive narratives
  • Making difficult creative choices on what to keep, cut, or alter
  • Infusing original perspective while respecting core themes
  • Translating prose into fluid, visual cinematic stories

From The Godfather and Schindler’s List to Arrival and Moonlight, adapted screenplays have yielded some of the most powerful and unforgettable films ever made.

While it requires incredible skill and dedication, adapting source material into compelling, emotionally resonant screenplays is a hugely rewarding craft. As long as great stories exist, the art of adaptation will endure and continue to be recognized among the highest honors in cinema.

So there you have it – a comprehensive look at what exactly a Best Adapted Screenplay is according to the Academy Awards and the talents it takes to pull off a masterful adaptation from book to screen.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Barbie up for best adapted screenplay? The 2023 film Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, is eligible for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars because the screenplay is based on and inspired by the iconic Barbie line of dolls and brand created by Mattel. Since the story is adapted from pre-existing source material (the Barbie franchise), it falls under the Adapted Screenplay category rather than Original.

What is the difference between best picture and best screenplay? Best Picture is awarded to the producers of the overall best film of the year, as voted on by the Academy. Best Screenplay recognizes excellence specifically in writing – either an Original Screenplay written directly for the screen or an Adapted Screenplay adapted from previously existing source material like a book. A movie can win both Best Picture and a Screenplay award.

What does best screenplay mean in Oscars?

At the Oscars, Best Screenplay is split into two categories: Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. Original honors screenplays directly written for the screen as an original work. Adapted recognizes screenplays derived from adapting already published novels, plays, comic books or other source material into a script.

What makes a movie an adapted screenplay?

For a screenplay to qualify as “adapted” rather than original, the script must be based on and inspired by previously published source material such as a novel, non-fiction book, stage play, short story, comic book, etc. As long as the writers drew from an existing work, it is considered an adapted screenplay.

Why isn’t Barbie an original screenplay?

Barbie is not eligible for Best Original Screenplay because the script by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach is inspired by and adapted from the pre-existing intellectual property and brand of the Barbie line of dolls and franchise created by Mattel. Since it draws from established source material, it meets the criteria for Adapted Screenplay.

Is Barbie eligible for Best Original Screenplay?

No, Barbie is not eligible for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Because the story and script are adapted and inspired by the Barbie brand and toy line which pre-dated the film, it can only be considered for Best Adapted Screenplay per Academy rules.

Who is the youngest person to win best screenplay?

The youngest person to ever win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay was Ben Affleck, who was 25 years old when he co-wrote and won for Good Will Hunting in 1997 along with Matt Damon.

What is the difference between best original screenplay and best adapted screenplay?

Original Screenplay honors scripts that are entirely original works directly written for the screen and cinema. Adapted Screenplay recognizes scripts that have been adapted from other source material, such as novels, stage plays, comic books, etc. The original work existed before the screenplay itself.

Who was the first woman to win best screenplay?

The first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay was Frances Marion for the 1930 film The Big House. She pioneered the role of Hollywood’s first major screenwriter and script doctor.

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