There’s nothing that makes anyone break into hives as much as the question: book or movie? From breezy first dates to stuffy dinner parties, this one gets the ball of conversation rolling unfailingly. And rightly so. Some superb shows and movies have found their origin story in equally superb novels, not screenplays. The big sprawling spectacles to the subtle thought-provoking ones, from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Dolittle and The life of Pi, from The Godfather and Silence of the Lambs to Jurassic Park and Wizard of Oz, they’ve all found themselves moving from page to screen.
And the recent past has seen both the big and small screens thumbing through books with increasing vigour. This is reinforced by recent research commissioned by the Publishers Association: Film adaptations of books take in 53 per cent more at the box office worldwide than films from original screenplays.
Be it through films or TV franchises, this trend has soldiered on solidly across Hollywood and various streaming platforms. If your timeline wasn’t a flurry of Bird Box memes in 2018, you have probably been living in, well, a similar box; the Josh Malerman book-turned-movie was one of Netflix’s biggest hits.
Last year saw numerous adaptations, from coming-of-age film The Goldfinch to fantasy series The Witcher and young-adult romance The Sun Is Also A Star. And 2020 looks to be no different – from horror film The Turning, Part 2 of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and psychological thriller The Woman in the Window.
Several other books are just imploring to be brought to life on screen. Turning to the library is a winning formula at the heart of it: producers get to bank on a pre-existing fan base, and there’s a fully developed story to rely on. And fans get to be gripped by a wave of nostalgia, have their favourite characters be brought to life, and also watch their favourites over and over again with streaming services.
After all, a good story is a good story, and a director’s compelling vision can open a whole new chapter for the tale. Stories that have been around a 100 years can feel both fresh and familiar with a revival on screen – think Little Women. Stephen King might be known as one prolific author, but his pieces are so often adapted to the screen that it’s hard to think of one that is only in manuscript form – from It to The Shining and Carrie.
The quest for the next hot franchise seems never-ending. So with everyone from the established big-hitters such as HBO to the streaming giants – Netflix, Apple, Disney, Amazon etc always on the hunt for good scripts, are authors now increasingly writing with these mediums in mind?
Film or TV potential
British author and journalist Luke Jennings doesn’t think this might particularly be the case, but he certainly thinks broadcasters are keeping an increasingly beady eye on novelists’ output. He should know – his Villanelle books adapted for television in the thriller series Killing Eve – starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer – has been a smash hit, critically acclaimed and collecting numerous nominations and awards. ‘A book, whatever its genre, has to be genuinely engaging to find a publisher. If it has TV or film potential, that’s an added value,’ says Jennings, who was in Dubai recently for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. ‘[However] the Killing Eve novels were always intended for TV, with two strong dramatic leads and a highly visual writing style.’
Author Daniela Tully strikes a note of caution. Having worked in film and television for decades – she has been involved in projects including the box-office hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the Oscar-winning The Help – Daniela admits that subconsciously the screen might define the way authors write, ‘as we have been shaped by the audio-visual medium over the past decades, with the rise in quality in TV writing, and a greater choice of content’. But she hopes that it isn’t the driving force for a writer.
Wary that an en masse following of this trend would ‘water down the prose, change the landscape of narratives’ she says, ‘there are so many books out there that are, due to the use of interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness, etc. nearly impossible to be adapted for the screen. And those books should [continue] to be written.’
Her debut novel Hotel On Shadow Lake has been translated into Danish, French, Italian and Serbian, and is being adapted for film now, with Daniela writing the screenplay. She stresses that being picked up for an adaptation is such a long shot anyway that authors don’t necessarily bank on it as they create. ‘While we all dream our [book] will land on the bestseller list, we cannot set out with that as the main goal. Every producer will look at the sales figures of the book in the decision process.’ Plus, there’s the ‘difficulties of an adaptation from prose, with Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services and TV channels having their own in-house development of ideas, resulting in scripts that are tailor made for the requirements of the format’.
Australian author Graeme Simsion, of international bestseller The Rosie Project fame, concurs. He says he doesn’t know any author who admits to writing novels with adaptation in mind, despite the fact ‘authors are not always aware of what other authors are doing – we can be solitary animals.’ Graeme says even in the case of [his debut novel] The Rosie Project, which began as a screenplay, and which he turned into a novel initially as a way of getting the movie made, he soon forgot about any issues of adaptation. ‘My focus was on writing the best novel I could, using the tools of that medium.’
However, the common fear among authors traditionally has been that TV/movie writing ignores a deep thinking of character and plot as novel writing does, going instead for bland entertainment. Graeme says while there’s some truth in that, the other side of the coin shouldn’t be forgotten. ‘Books are better at describing a character’s internal world, but movies offer the opportunity for other kinds of experiences, visual and auditory – the appreciation of fine scenery, photography, non-verbal interaction, acting, the interaction of music and story. There are simple, bland books as well as simple, bland television.
‘When I go to writers’ festivals, everyone agrees the book is better than the movie. But then I go to a film festival… These media use different tools to offer us different things, and we should approach them looking for those things to be done well.’
Daniella speaks of the many authors she knows who left novel writing to become writers for TV since the quality of writing increased. ‘The first time I set foot in a writer’s room in Hollywood was magical. The way characters came alive, their character-arc spun over three seasons. If you are a showrunner, you would lose this fear immediately, of course depending on the kind of series and genre – but the same can be said about books, when we compare pulp fiction to literary fiction.’
So over the years, have shows and movies gained more of a sort of literary legitimacy along the way? Luke thinks this has always been the case with good shows and movies. ‘They have always been respected by the literary world. But there are a lot of bad ones. No author wants their book turned into bad TV. Authors should take a close look at the track records of those who want to option their work,’ he says.
Keeping the book’s essence
Clearly, the process of adapting a book to a visual platform while keeping to the spirit of the book is a colossal challenge in itself. So do cinematic triumphs that do the source material full justice really exist?
In the case of The Rosie Project, and The Best of Adam Sharp, Graeme had already written a screenplay. ‘But, as was to be expected, the producers engaged their own screenwriters to edit or re-adapt,’ he says. In the case of Two Steps Forward, his co-author, Anne, and he hadn’t written a screenplay when the book was optioned by Fox/Ellen Degeneres. ‘In each case my involvement has been in having an opportunity to provide feedback on the new or revised script. My observation is that today’s writers are very good at sharp dialogue – particularly comedy – and I often find myself thinking ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ I read it with my screenwriter’s hat on, not as a novelist. Spirit is important, but only in terms of one or two big issues. I’ve only pushed hard on one thing: with The Rosie Project it’s important to me that autistic characters are represented realistically as fully-formed people, and not as textbook examples of autism. Sony has been very receptive to this.’
If for Luke the process was comparatively easy as the Killing Eve novels were intended for TV, for Daniella the opposite holds true. Between her career as film producer and writer, adapting a book to film has been one of the hardest tasks so far, she says. ‘The two main settings in my novel, Hotel On Shadow Lake, are Munich, during the Third Reich in 1938; and upstate New York in present time. I use letters, journals, a fairy tale, first and third person narration to unfold the mystery that also spans over two world wars. You have to “kill some babies” (characters and places you have fallen in love with during the writing process), to make your story fit the audio-visual medium. You don’t have the luxury to dwell, in order to capture the heart and soul, the very essence of your story. Instead, you have to tell the story in a much more condensed fashion for the screen.’
As a film producer herself, she says that no onscreen adaptation ever can – or should – be 100 per cent faithful to the book. ‘It’s a completely different medium with different requirements, and you are dealing with a different clientele with a much shorter attention span than your average reader, who most likely will look at their phones once in a while when watching.’
That filmmaking is a collaborative effort is something Graeme says he learned when he studied screenwriting and made several short films. It’s not the author’s role to control the process, he believes. ‘If you try to, you’ll kill the creativity of specialists who are better at their jobs than you are. My concern is not fidelity to the book but making the best movie. And you’re never going to get 100 per cent.’
Daniela agrees that as a writer you are already, mostly subconsciously, inclined to be horrified at the adaptation ‘as the world that unfolds on screen before you is not the world you had in your mind, or the chosen actors do not resemble best who you saw while giving birth to your characters in your book. I was specifically asked to write the script for my novel Hotel On Shadow Lake because of my film background, so this is a different scenario.’
Her advice to writers whose work gets adapted is to leave it to the producer and director and walk away – for their own sanity. ‘Whatever changes are done, most of the time, is for the sake of the format, and it is in everyone’s best interest to reach as many viewers as possible based on the story you created.’
Luke concurs. ‘As an author you have to be aware that film or TV is a very different medium to fiction, with very different requirements. I never imagined that the TV series would strictly adhere to my novels. The issue is not fidelity but quality, and truth to the spirit of the original work.’
Does the format matter?
Graeme says if he was given a choice between TV or movies for any of his books to be adapted into, his decision would be based more on the breadth of distribution – the likely audience – than the medium itself. ‘Mainstream movies have traditionally had a three-act structure, and if the book is similarly shaped, we have a good match. If not, the efforts to make the story fit can result in important aspects being lost. And we have to remember that a movie is typically about 90 to 120 minutes in length: think of how much longer it takes to read a book! Even with the ability to ‘show not tell’ that a movie gives us, some things are going to have to be cut.
‘Television gives us the opportunity to tell a longer story, in particular an episodic story. One difference – traditionally seen as a negative for television – is disappearing. Television used to be called the small screen, but today, television, movies and streamed content are all likely to be watched on the same screen.’
Daniela plumps for TV, and thanks shows such as Sopranos for this. ‘That structure brought the audience back to a horizontal storyline instead of the episodic vertical structure that prevailed in series before. Most series have a similar structure and narrative to a book these days. TV gives a book the necessary space to unfold, and with the rise in quality of writing, also garnered a different reputation. Nobody turns up their nose anymore at having their work adapted “only” for TV, like it used to be.’
At the end of the day, it might come down to a fine balance of a novel and a screenplay. To have a book and film complement each other perfectly and work in tandem means paying homage to the book – while taking it to areas previously unimagined. Does that also mean a good screen adaptation becomes an ambassador and help promote a genre as a whole, thus also promoting more reading?
Luke agrees, noting he has heard from many readers of the Killing Eve novels that they’ve come to the books via the TV series, and that each enhances the other. ‘Film and TV creates the stronger sensory impression, but a novel engages the imagination more profoundly. Books offer a more individual experience. We all see the same actors onscreen, but we imagine fictional characters differently.’
‘And in the end, if I’m not happy with the movie,’ says Graeme, ‘I’ve still got my books!’