The Gravity Lawsuit and Adaptation

Do you listen to Scriptnotes?

You should; it’s awesome. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a podcast about screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

This week’s episode explains “The Deal with the Gravity Lawsuit.” It’s extremely illuminating, and if you’re new to the business, I highly recommend listening to it. There’s a lot of minutia, but it’s important minutia.

tl;dl: Writer Gerritsen believes that the film Gravity is based on her novel of the same name. It’s not a completely insane claim; New Line bought the rights to her book, Warner Brothers bought New Line, Warner Brothers produced a film with the same name in the same setting (near Earth orbit).

Gerritsen isn’t suing over her copyright; they bought the film rights fair and square. She’s suing because she’s owed a bonus if a film was ever made of her book. Warners says the Sandra Bullock movie was developed separately, and any similarities are coincidental.

The novel is rather different from the movie, but one could imagine how the development process could transform one into the other. In fact, Gerritsen claims just that. I don’t know anybody involved, and either version seems plausible to me.1

Anyway, back to Scriptnotes. At around 46:32, Craig says:

Let’s say Gerritsen never sells her film rights to New Line Productions, okay? She just publishes her book, she goes on her merry way.And then one day, Warner Brothers makes Gravity.

Same situation. The only thing that’s different is that she didn’t sell the film rights to New Line. Would she not be able to sue Warner Brothers? Of course she would. And what would the law suit be? It would be a copyright case.

The problem with this hypothetical is, saying that the purchase is the “only” thing that’s changed presumes that the Cuaróns would have written Gravity with out having read her book (or the screenplay based on her book).

I don’t know whether that’s true or not; I don’t know if they ever saw the book or screenplay, even. But the hypothetical situation assumes that they did, in fact, come up with the screenplay on their own, which is the point of contention.

In other words, Craig’s argument that Gerritsen is wrong rests on the assumption that she’s wrong. It’s circular logic.

Here, I believe, is a better hypothetical situation, followed by a question I genuinely do not know the answer to–

Let’s start with an imaginary horse racing book (to take another running hypothetical from the episode), about a boy who loves the freedom of riding a horse, but can’t afford to own one. So, he works for a rich family as a groomer, and secretly takes the horses out at night. When their daughter catches him, she encourages him to enter a big race. To the astonishment of his wealthy benefactors, the boy wins!2

Then the producer says, “The last five horse racing movies tanked at the box office. You know what’s hot right now? Ostriches!” So now the film gets moved to the Middle East, and becomes an ostrich racing movie.

Go Pros - is there anything they can't do?
I’m not making this up.

A director comes on board, and she wants to make the main character a girl, to address women’s issues in the Middle East. So class warfare goes out the window, in favor of feminism.

The head of production at the studio looks over the budget and says, “Ostrich racing is fucking expensive. Cut the race.” Now the girl merely works at an ostrich farm, and there is no big race to finish the movie.

And on and on. The point being, very little of the original remains. We’ve all heard stories of books being adapted into something entirely unrecognizable. So my question is: at what point is the movie no longer based on the book?

If we’re talking about a screenplay, the answer is easy. WGA members, in the arbitration process, read every draft of the script, and assign credit based on that. In the horse-race-to-ostrich-farm scenario I outlined, it’s a pretty easy guess that the the first writer would not be getting credit.

But what if it’s a book that started this whole chain of events? Even though the final product is way different, none of it would’ve happened without the novel starting the process.

Of course, the same argument could be made about the first draft of the script. Sooooo…? I dunno.

Anyway, it seems to me, that’s what Gerritsen means when she says “this isn’t a copyright issue.” She believes, if she had access to the discovery process a trial would grant her, that she could trace a line from the proverbial ostrich farm to a horse race. Or, rather, from the Sandra-Bullock-floating-in-space movie to her outbreak-on-a-space-station book.

I don’t know what the answer is. Do you?

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Gravity” is kind of an obvious name for a movie about astronauts stuck in space.
  2. Not a great story, but whatever. Imagine Stephen King wrote it, and it sold a million copies.
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