With some imaginative reworking, an existing Intellectual Property (IP) available in the public domain can be spun into material that’s fresh and new. Working off an existing IP offers writers the chance to showcase their ability to inject their own unique take on known (or unknown) works. What’s more, adapting works in the public domain costs nothing, and it mitigates the potential risks studios, producers and financiers have to take when investing in a script – regardless if it’s written by an upcoming writer or a Hollywood veteran.
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When a work enters the public domain via programs such as the recently announced Open Access initiative taken by The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), it means anyone can copy, build upon or reuse the material for commercial purposes, without permission. Through the Open Access institution, over 34,000 works of art have been released into the public domain. Additionally, the supplemental information (metadata, collection, artist and background information, etc.) of over 61,000 works has also been released. Meaning, these works, and their accompanying back stories, are now free to be reworked, reimagined and rewritten into the next great screenplay.
If this year’s Oscar season proved anything, it’s that audiences are still hungry for new worlds even if the themes are familiar. Films like Black Panther, The Favourite and Roma spanned cultures, time and setting to tell stories that are unique and imaginative. Looking at some of the highlights from the CMA’s release, a new well of inspiration is right at our fingertips: A template for a screenplay’s setting and tone can be based on a landscape painting done by Courbet; the inspiration for a new story can be spun from the characters depicted in a mid-19th century urban portrait of life in the antebellum north – the possibilities are endless.
Here are eight highlights from The Cleveland Museum of Art’s and ways to develop them into new ideas:
1. The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) by Albert Pinkham Ryder
An image in motion – Ryder’s painting uses a very muted, earth-tone-oriented palette paired with dark, medieval imagery to convey a sense of dread, and rightly so. Taken from the CMA’s website, “Ryder’s subject was inspired by a horse race… in 1888. One of the artist’s friends wagered $500 on the race and then committed suicide after the horse lost.” Whether it manifests as a period piece or a modern retelling, a story inspired by this painting can be one that examines the pitfalls of gambling. Incorporate the dark undertones alive in the painting and it can be reminiscent of films like Casino or even The Black Swan.
2. Hunting near Hartenfels Castle by Lucas Cranach
World-building: It’s essential to the writer’s process. It draws the reader in by making the setting and characters come alive. There are many famous examples of writers telling elaborate stories based on the world’s characters inhabit in paintings – even Freddy Mercury and John Lennon dabbled in such adaptations. Cranach’s painting depicting a Protestant community in Saxony almost does the work for us. The castle in the distance, the Princes and their squires in the left frame, the braggadocios suitor in the bottom right; these are characters ripe for stories. In the wake of successful, expansive stories such as Game of Thrones, The Crown or this year’s Oscar contender The Favourite, period pieces featuring rich, complex characters have cemented their place among audiences.
3. Hand and Wheel by Alfred Stieglitz
The Georgia O’Keeffe biopic – but perhaps seen through the eyes of her husband whose only true way of connecting with her is through his photography. As the CMA website states, “The image was made during her reunion with her husband – and much-beloved car – after an extended convalescence following a nervous breakdown. O’Keeffe had paid for the car herself; for her, it was not just a glossy object of consumer desire but symbolized independence and freedom.” In today’s climate, a Georgia O’Keeffe story is both timely and relevant.
4. The Mechanisms of Human Facial Expression (Figure 45) by Guillaume Benjamin Armand Duchenne de Boulogne
In pursuit of the exploration of the intersection between human physiology and emotion, Duchenne de Boulogne photographed those who he had triggered with electric shocks to observe their facial expressions. Duchenne’s experiments can serve as the basis for a dark, institutionalized horror/thriller film done in the vein of Shutter Island, Gothika or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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5. The Power of Music by William Sidney Mount
In the mid-nineteenth century, William Sydney Mount became known for his genre paintings depicting American life. The Power of Music depicts a scene taking place on antebellum Long Island City. Using subtle nuances in spatial relations, Mount approaches racial divide in the northern community in a telling way. This subversion of setting — taking place in New York instead of the south — can be an interesting take on race given today’s climate. Much like Mount’s dignified and graceful portraits of African Americans throughout all of his work, the character featured in the forefront of this painting can be a starting point for a strong protagonist done in the vein of Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave or Green Book.
6. In the Omnibus by Mary Cassatt
As stated on the CMA’s website, “the theme of travel was appealing to artists in 19th-century Paris — it represented a public space where people of different classes and genders were juxtaposed in close proximity… a quintessential modern life subject, Cassatt depicts a bourgeois lady accompanied by her baby and a nursemaid doing errands in the city. Cassatt’s series on travel can be a template for a road-trip movie with a very specific tone not unlike Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.
7. Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows
Another moving image – Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s depicts a scene taking place at a “raucous salon” where a private (and illegal) boxing event is being held. Following in the footsteps of films like The Fighter, Raging Bull, Rocky and Creed, a film based on the origins of illegal boxing in New York could be one direction, while a modern retelling of a backroom boxing ring is also viable. After all, “for some contemporaries, boxing was a powerful analogy for the notion that only the strongest and fittest would flourish in modern society.”
8. The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Based on actual events, Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons depicts the fire at the Houses of Parliament in London during October of 1834. “[Turner] used the disaster as the starting point to express man’s helplessness when confronted with the destructive powers of nature.” Man vs. nature is an ever-apparent theme throughout film, and the tone of this painting feels reminiscent of stories such as The Revenant, The Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood.
The above are just a few examples of ways these works can be adapted into great stories. Given the release of hundreds of thousands of works into the public domain within the year’s first few months, 2019 is already becoming a hotbed of material waiting to be adapted. The Cleveland Museum of Art is just one reputable institution that has participated in this initiative: The New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum have also released thousands of works into the public domain.
Andrew Schwartz is a marketing professional and script reader working in the entertainment industry. He has written and read for outlets such as The Blcklst, BlueCat Screenplay, Final Draft and more. Find him on Twitter at @writingshorts or his Instagram page dedicated to The Sopranos, @sopranosgram.