I recently graduated from college with a film and video degree. The one thing I can’t get anyone to answer is on adaptation. I have asked people ranging from well known screenwriters, feature film producers and so on. They always dance around my question!

I am writing a screenplay based on a true-life story, but my information is coming from a non-fiction book that tells the story. Much like THE PERFECT STORM in the way that it is told by a third party writer of the facual events. What is the process that I need to go through to get the rights, without putting me in debt for life?

–Scott Adams

The reason people are dancing around the question is because there are so many variables in each situation. A blanket answer probably would be false as often as it is true. I can talk you through a very general scenario that will give you an idea of the issues involved, but an experienced attorney will ultimately need to get involved.

The first two questions this person would ask are:

To what degree are you basing the project on the book, versus public domain material? In the case of THE PERFECT STORM, the movie is very clearly based on Sebastian Junger’s book, relying on his research, characterization and storytelling structure. The producers paid Junger money – in this case, quite a lot of money – for the right to adapt his book into a motion picture. Even though the people and events depicted are non-fiction, it’s Junger’s unique telling of the story that makes it literary material. Junger controls the copyright and all subsidiary rights (such as making a movie).

Other producers might make a movie about the same maritime tragedy without buying the book rights. But the job would be a lot more difficult. First, they would have to document all their research – every interview, every article – to defend themselves against a possible lawsuit by Junger and THE PERFECT STORM’S producers. These interviews would be more difficult than you think, because Junger probably made contracts with the key people involved in the story, so that they couldn’t cooperate with other writers. Finally, the rival producers would need to come up with an original storytelling structure that doesn’t mirror Junger’s.

It sounds difficult, but it’s not an impossible task. An example is OUTBREAK, which was produced by Arnold Kopelson for Warner Brothers. He and producer Lynda Obst were both trying to buy the rights to "Crisis in the Hot Zone" an article about an ebola scare that would eventually become a best-selling novel. Obst ended up winning the rights, but undaunted, Kopelson developed a fictionalized version and got it into production first. The "real" version never ended up being filmed.

Are the characters in your movie based on real people, even if the names or some details are different? If so, you face problems of defamation, libel and invasion of privacy, among other complications. This topic is an entire semester in college, so I won’t try to summarize the details and defenses. But know that you’ll have to tread carefully. For instance, Kimberly Pierce’s BOYS DON’T CRY faced legal action from one of the women portrayed in the movie, because the film placed her at an event she denies witnessing. And 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace was none too thrilled about his depiction in THE INSIDER.

Don’t take this as saying you can never use real-life people in your story. Just remember that it’s complicated.

After asking yourself these two questions, answer honestly: Are you adapting events, or are you adapting a book? If the answer is the latter, you need to option the rights.

Are you including real-life people in your story? If so, you need a plan for addressing the potential challenges they may bring.

I hope this helps.