Why so many novels never make it to the big screen
The Independent on Sunday
The cinemas are full of turkeys yet that brilliant novel you read three years ago has never been made into a film. Danuta Kean descends into development hell and finds out why so many authors get trapped there
Published: 15 April 2007
Four of the biggest stars in the world are fighting each other to make the film of your book. It is past midnight but your agent keeps calling to tell you by how much Tom, Nicole, Demi and Oprah have increased their offers. What do you do? If you are the bestselling author Celia Brayfield, you make marmalade. “It was my fourth novel, Heartswap,” she recalls. “The auction for film rights had been going on all night. I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to try my grandmother’s marmalade recipe. I called it the ‘Paramount Marmalade’ after Tom and Nicole bought the option.”
It is easy for authors to get carried away by the glamour and money when Hollywood calls. It is also very dangerous, according to the novelist Deborah Moggach. “When producers want you, it’s a seduction. They take you out to dinner and tell you you’re wonderful, but once they have got their leg over that’s it,” she says brutally.
Movies gobble books up and spew them out at an alarming rate. Already this year audiences have seen screen versions of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen, Dito Montiel’s superb memoir A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and Joseph Kanon’s The Good German. Later in the year comes a film version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, while book-based franchises from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to The Bourne Ultimatum will be joined by the first part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass.
Books provide filmmakers with ready-made plots on which to base screenplays (useful when plagiarism claims start to fly), and a proven audience. But unless they are global mega-sellers like Dan Brown, J K Rowling or Michael Crichton, the actual authors are lower on the food chain than the screenwriter, and if you think they are respected, watch Sunset Boulevard or The Player.
According to Nick Marston, the managing director of Curtis Brown’s media division, there are two types of film: bullseye films, which rely on word-of-mouth and have to hit their upmarket audiences spot on if they are to be hits, and shotgun films: mass appeal movies which can hit far more targets.
“Blockbuster films thrive off mass appeal,” he says. “If you have a literary novel, translating it into an adult movie is harder because it appeals to a smaller audience.” Films like Notes on a Scandal break out of the art house circuit because they have hit the bullseye, getting everything right from fine acting to a great script, critical approval and audience-enticing awards.
Big budget films have to be shotgun films, aimed at the widest market possible, because they must recoup more money to pay for the production and marketing costs. A Harry Potter film appeals across the board; even the most astute insider would not have predicted an adult-orientated literary film like Brokeback Mountain to become a massive hit. Bullseye hits are made on the festival circuit. As they garner awards, the buzz they generate compensates for their lack of marketing budget and initial limited appeal. Like Brokeback, The Last King of Scotland and Notes, they become must-see films.
Celia Brayfield keeps a framed copy of her contract with Paramount on the wall of her office to remind her of why she prefers books to screenplays. With its red wax seals and expensive paper, it looks very grand. It’s only when you read it that you realise exactly what the studio thinks of authors. “Film contracts are calculated to make a writer feel like plankton,” Brayfield says. “There is one clause in my contract that states ‘You have the right to attend the premiere in Los Angeles, but at your own expense.’”
It’s nothing personal, says William Nicholson, the award-winning screenwriter and novelist and the writer who turned Russell Crowe into a romantic hero in Gladiator. Unless a writer has enough cachet to pull in the crowds in backwoods America, it doesn’t matter who they are or how marvellous their work, their book is mere source material, inspiration for a bigger, more expensive product. “Once a book is adapted there is usually complete silence that it was ever a book,” Nicholson says. “Schindler’s Ark is a totally remarkable book, but when the film came out there was nothing about the book, everything was about Spielberg’s film… the book was written out of history.”
He adds: “There is no malice in the treatment of authors. It’s just that it doesn’t help sell the movie knowing who wrote it – unless, that is, you are J K Rowling.”
Authors-turned-screenwriters are in for a shock. It can seem like everyone including the tea boy has more input into the adaptation. Harder still, for the author precious about their work, is the slash and burn aspect of adaptation. Screenplays are a third of the size of novels, and adapting books means wielding the axe: out go timescales, characters and sub-plots. What films want is not the novel, but according to Deborah Moggach, “the short story in the book”.
The cuts can be very deep, and more than one author has been left choking with rage at the bowdlerisation of their work. The producer Edward Saxon warned Susan Orlean that the adaptation of her non-fiction book The Orchid Thief was “not exactly like your book. There are some characters in it who aren’t in it.” He wasn’t kidding. By the end of the film, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had turned the New Yorker journalist into a drug-snorting sex addict and hijacked the story of illegal plant hunters to write a discourse on chronic writers’ block. Orlean was savvy enough to realise that the script for the film Adaptation was a work of brilliance. “I think my book is a character in the movie, which to me is far more thrilling than if the book simply dissolved and became source material,” she told the website About Movies.
Hilary Mantel is equally relaxed about the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Beyond Black, her bestselling story of psychics in suburbia. “I am sure the BBC will show me the scripts as a matter of courtesy, but I have great faith in the scriptwriter and don’t want any further input, because I need the time for my own projects; I’d rather write a new novel than adapt one,” she says.
These writers are among the lucky few. The harsh truth is that few film or television deals come to fruition, as the horror and crime author Christopher Fowler points out: “Options are like roulette. I may sell an option for £2,000, but if it goes to principal photography I will get eight times that amount. It is just rare that it gets that far.”
Less than two per cent of optioned films make it to the screen, and those that do usually have long gestation processes – Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The English Patient took more than 10 years to finance. Only a handful of UK production companies have enough clout to guarantee that a film gets made. These include Working Title, Ecosse Films, FilmFour, Slate Films and DNA Films (the latter two were responsible for The Last King of Scotland and Notes on a Scandal, while Ecosse is behind the cinema release of Brideshead Revisited out next year).
Douglas Kennedy’s experience of the film world has veered from the sublime (Luc Besson’s support of the adaptation of The Pursuit of Happiness has been “fabulous”) to the ridiculous (his bleakly comic debut novel The Dead Heart morphed into a show-stopping musical called Welcome to Woop Woop). “The producer of The Dead Heart, called up five days before filming and said, ‘If you don’t reduce your fee by 50 per cent, we won’t make the movie.’ I said no and the film still got made. There are people out there who will screw you and you have to be tough.”
Mil Millington was less than happy when his contract with Working Title for his novel Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About claimed absolute rights to his blog as well as the novel. Though a spin-off from the blog, the novel was fictional. “When the contract came back I found they wanted rights to everything on the web page as well as in the book,” he recalls. What incensed him most was a clause claiming rights to the names of all characters, real and imaginary. “They wanted to own rights to Mil and Margret, as well as Pel and Ursula in the book. It’s one thing selling myself, but I can just imagine the trouble I would have been in if I had sold my girlfriend.” Millington responded by closing down the website and transferring its content elsewhere. “They own an empty website now,” he says gleefully.
Studios put such draconian clauses in their contracts to protect their investment, says Stuart Kemp, the UK bureau chief of the Hollywood Reporter: “Film companies that option books and blogs need to buy as much as possible because they have to insure themselves against someone else coming along, buying rights for say the real life blog of the same name and doing a completely different film.”
To a studio, the money spent on options is small change. Sometimes books are optioned to protect an existing film being developed by a studio. Or, because there is nothing on the slate for next season, the suits scoop up as many options as possible to cover their backs with the senior execs.
Even when options are bought with the intention of being exercised, films are fragile babies and many die in their first few years. They can be scuppered by personal relationships – Brayfield’s Heartswap fell through after Tom and Nicole divorced. More often a bigger project comes along, as happened to Christopher Fowler after screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, who was to adapt Fowler’s novel Spanky, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse to write Hellboy.
Jenny Colgan found herself in a similar situation with her first novel Amanda’s Wedding. She recalls: “Warner Bros bought Amanda’s Wedding in conjunction with a then little-known production company called Heyday Films. ‘We’ll definitely make your movie,’ said the producer. ‘We’ve just got this little project in front of yours.’ The project in front of mine was only bloody Harry Potter. Hey, maybe after they have made the seventh they will give me a call.” I wouldn’t hold my breath.
This is an edited extract from ‘From Page to Screen’ by Danuta Kean, published in the April/May issue of ‘Mslexia’. Subscriptions are £21.75 a year from Mslexia, PO Box 656, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1PZ. For details of their ‘try before you buy’ offer, visit the website www.mslexia.co.uk
FIVE BEST ADAPTATIONS
1. The Third Man:
Graham Greene adapted his own novel, and director Carol Reed turned it into cinematic gold with more than a little help from a sublime Orson Welles.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman turned Susan Orlean’s ‘unfilmable’ book The Orchid Thief into a jaw dropping satire about writer’s block.
3. Lawrence of Arabia:
T E Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ was transformed into an unbeatable epic by screenwriter Robert Bolt and director David Lean.
4. The Go-Between:
Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey wax lyrical with L P Hartley’s psychological romance.
5. The English Patient:
Anthony Minghella turned Michael Ondaatje’s Booker winner upside down to form a romantic epic that improved on the original.
…AND FIVE TURKEYS
1. The Bonfire of the Vanities:
Tom Wolfe’s sprawling satire on 1980s America became an unwatchable dogs’ dinner in Brian De Palma’s hands.
2. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:
Whoever thought the unsubtle Nicolas Cage would be a good choice for lead role needs to up their medication.
3. War of the Worlds:
Tom Cruise brings new meaning to the phrase ‘disaster movie’.
4. The Black Dahlia:
Brian De Palma proves once more that great books can make terrible films… or is it just him?
5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula:
So bad it’s good. Memorable for Gary Oldman’s bad hair day and Keanu Reeves’ hilarious English accent. laughing. As revenge goes, it beats the naughty step.