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06/15/2002 - Riffing

Yesterday the trades announced a new project based on an old Agatha Christie story. I remember reading that book in my Agatha Christie phase and was excited to see that someone had found a way to retell the story in a modern setting. News like that inspires us all to think back over stories read long ago for plot hooks strong enough to employ in a spec screenplay.

There are a lot of words for this: "update", "a play/take on", "re-working", re-imagining", "modernization", "interpretation", "adaptation" and my personal favorite, "a riff on...". Feel free to combine these terms to most clearly define which approach you're taking toward a pre-existing concept.

The most straightforward of these types of projects are the modern retelling of classics. Some obvious examples of this kind of project are: CRUEL INTENTIONS (modern teen remake of LES LIASONS DANGEREUSE by Christopher Hampton), EVER AFTER (female empowerment slant on CINDERELLA) and the TV film THE KING OF TEXAS (Shakespeare's KING LEAR set on a nineteenth-century American ranch). The eternal truths underlying these classics are neatly displayed in modern settings (or jazzed up period settings), which also helps to keep the works alive for modern audiences who might not connect to the formal style of the originals.

Interpretations are fun because a writer can comment on the foibles of the source material and get the audience to root for a character besides the hero. For example, Tom Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUIDENSTERN ARE DEAD adopted the perspective of two negligible characters in HAMLET. Watching the tragedy through the bewildered characters' eyes made for a highly original play and later, film. I also heard of a project in development a while back called PAMELA WEST by Stu Krieger, which essentially was THE WIZARD OF OZ told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. There's a logline no one could resist.

If you decide to rework a pre-existing piece, first of all be sure that it's in the public domain. Don't use characters from an original book or film without permission, any more than you would write a sequel to a movie without being hired to do so by the rights-owners.

Next, decide to what extent you want to tweak the story. Do you want to simply place the source material in a new time period or setting? Or do you want to tell the story from a different perspective, or switch the hero's/heroine's gender? Do you want to give the story a different outcome entirely? Perhaps there's a story that you love, except you wish the second act took a different direction.

Whichever direction you decide to go in, keep your pitch simple and intriguing. The best thing about these classical riffs is that they put an immediate image into the pitchee's mind. Your story is one they know already, as does your future audience.


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