The Writing Life: Adapting Your Work

by Sherri Burr


I was fortunate to conduct one of the last television interviews with the late Navajo artist R.C. Gorman in 2004. I asked him about his propensity to exploit his copyrights by turning a single oil painting into lithographs, posters, greeting cards, mugs, calendars and so forth. Gorman’s response was, “Why limit?”

Writers should adopt Gorman’s approach and explore the many ways that the written word can be adapted into other forms. Take for example Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple. Ms. Walker licensed the movie rights to the book in the 1980s and Stephen Spielberg produced a haunting film starring Whoopie Goldberg as Celie and featuring Oprah Winfrey as Sophia in her film debut.

Oprah acquired musical theatrical rights and co-produced The Color Purple: A New Musical, which opened on Broadway on December 1, 2005 and was nominated for several Tony awards (but lost for Best Musical to Spring Awakening). The latter was adapted from a play by Frank Wedekind. I saw both musicals in early January 2008 on a trip to New York and was amazed at the power of authors to address the significant emotional issues encountered by human beings, including adoption, abortion, suicide, and emotional abuse.

In the version of The Color Purple that I saw, the role of Celie was played by Fantasia, an American Idol winner. Thus, a Reality TV participant teamed up with television talk show host Winfrey to present a variation of a book that won both the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award.

Your work doesn’t have to win major awards to be worthy of adaptation. Section 106(2) of the U.S. Copyright Act specifies that all authors of copyrighted works have the right “to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.”

Poems become songs (think of rap music as poetry spoken to a beat). Songs become films (remember Roy Orbison’s song that became the inspiration for the film Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts). Many a New Yorker article has become a feature film. The point is to think expansively about your works. Be open to deriving other works based on your original works.

Take a page from R.C. Gorman’s legacy: don’t limit!

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the February 2008 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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