Fiction to Screen: Is What We’re Reading Determining What We’re Watching?

Fiction publishers have accessed a brand new model of monetary success for both themselves and their authors in recent years. On the other end, television and film producers have also seemed to access a similar new model of financial surplus that has a greater blockbuster effect. Book to screen adaptations continue to proliferate in tandem with each other as producers are continuously pulling plots from literary pages.

How producers can profit from already existing fan bases?

Contemporary producers turn to the publishing world for stories. It is even better when novels themselves hit the bestseller list pre-production. Arguably, this initial success functions as an ideal long-term promotional marketing plan by setting the interest for mass audiences from the get-go. The appeal lies in having beloved characters transformed to the physicality the screen provides. It’s best seen in the crossover young adult/adult Harry Potter world, where, in 1998, author J.K. Rowling sold the film rights for her first four Harry Potter books to Warner Bros, for a reported $1,982,900.

Often enough, authors and publishers comfortably generate income from the popularity of the texts themselves, which suggests the turn to film begets profit for an even greater profit. Such can similarly be seen with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. It’s incumbent HBO adaptation Game of Thrones ran for eight seasons between 2010 and 2016, while the original text source itself has yet to reach its conclusion (George R.R. Martin is still working on the sixth novel). As at April 2019, the books had sold 90 million copies worldwide—a number surely increased by the fandom of its on-screen adaptation.

This works in reverse as well. Video streaming giant Netflix licensed its original series Stranger Things to Random House Children’s Books for a line of children’s books and reached a multi-year deal with Dark Horse Comics to release a comic book series also set in the world of Stranger Things. Here the success of the screen story has opened up a venue for success in companion fields like publishing. Forbes’ author Adam Rowe makes the following claim: “Books, graphic novels and magazine articles might seem like underdogs in today’s media environment, but they’re the only mediums that can generate effects-packed drama and action at the speed their authors can type.”

The correlation then is the power of story in both mediums. An on-screen series, be it in the form of a Netflix contract or a theatre-wide film, is inherently finite. This limits the profit to be made from the allure of a powerful story. Books, graphic novels and young adult literature, however, have a longer lifespan. The stories can live on to the delight of their audiences, producing more and more content that keeps in demand.

Do film adaptations of books earn more at the box office?

Film adaptations of books gross 44% more at the U.K. box office and a full 53% more worldwide than films from original screenplays, according to research commissioned by the Publishers Association and conducted by Frontier Economics.

With respect to the draw of pulling from fiction to screen, one emerging local Canadian producer says this: “The allure for us was honestly just that we loved the stories so much and thought they deserved to be realized on-screen [and wanted desperately to, purely because of our deep love for them]. They were relevant and timely and we knew that there was an audience for them. I think the increase might be because there’s already a built-in audience for the project and the rise in popularity of book clubs––especially if the book is a literary hit—the success of the film is almost [hopefully] guaranteed.“

A contemporary trend looks to traditional texts

Though this moment shines in particular as a modern approach to cinematic production, it also pulls traditional texts to modernity. Consider the success of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood originally published in 1985. The television adaptation of this iconic novel was ordered by streaming service Hulu as a straight-to-series order of 10 episodes of which production began near the end of 2016. The series is currently in its fourth season and the plot has now surpassed the novel’s original conclusion. The Handmaid’s Tale has sold eight million copies in English since it was first published in 1985. As a result of the success of the Hulu series, author Atwood is in fact set to release a sequel in 2019.

Actress and director Greta Gerwig received a particularly bright critical spotlight with her Academy-Award nominated film Lady Bird. Thus, fans and audiences tittered with excitement at her follow-up project. It was soon announced to be a modern film adaptation of Little Women, a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott, which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Unsurprisingly, given the renowned success of the classic book, Gerwig’s interpretation marks the eighth film adaptation of Alcott’s iconic work. What is unique, and what has sparked a current reprint and focus on book sales to this class work, is Gerwig’s contemporary role as a millennial creative as well as the simultaneous pull of the film’s all-star cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.

How do authors turn into television consultants?

Both forms of storytelling require an origin source from writers. When this looks like a writers’ room, these same writers are consulted with regard to the actual translation from script to screen. However, when a script is sourced from fiction, an extended step is added to the process. The author first consults in the actual translation of novel to script and continues playing the role of a consultant as the script is adapted to screen. This is integral as the task at hand becomes translating the intimate view the author had for the setting, story and—most importantly—characters in such a way that speaks true to the novel’s original pull to its original readers. All is done to ensure an equal pull to its potential new viewers. In this way, the author’s work and pay for the text itself becomes extended in the consultant role.

Recently, Mona Awad, author of 12 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, released Bunny, a novel which explores the literary elite while crossing over into a fantastical and horror genre. Bunny is now in production for its on-screen adaptation for AMC, where Awad serves as a consultant and takes up this very task.

Modern fiction is a much needed source for complex female characters

Arguably, this rise of fiction to screen has given visibility to an abundance of complex female characters in an industry that often privileges the male point of view. Consider the success of HBO’s Big Little Lies pulled from author Liane Moriarty. The female celebrity of this cast—composed of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Meryl Streep—further highlighted the characters off Moriarty’s original title. The women in this story very obviously exist outside the boundaries of their male counterparts and, as a result of Moriarty’s specified character construction, the film was able to take up that same unique spotlight.

In 2014, David Fincher received critical acclaim for Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel. Again, the stars that were cast to play the character roles (Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike etc) helped further shine a spotlight on an already buzzworthy novel. Interestingly, Fincher utilized exact text from Flynn’s novel in the film, which circulated widely online in popularity after the release of the film. It featured an excerpt of Flynn’s meditation on the myth of the ‘cool girl’ and serves as an example of how the screen can, in turn, further publicize the original text.

This year marks the release of the long-anticipated film adaptation of Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. The film was adapted by director Richard Linklater and stars Academy Award-winning Cate Blanchett. This celebrity coupling is sure to entice audiences and, interestingly, the popularity of the book was such that its cover featuring a woman with a bob haircut and big round glasses has been reproduced for the film posters as well. Therefore, the film is reliant on the novel’s visibility and recognition in order to attract existing audiences and, hopefully, new ones.

Of HBO’s adaptation of the immensely popular Neapolitan series by Europa Editions and Elena Ferrante, Forbes states: “This is the show women want and need to see now: it’s a show about women’s rage.”

Canadian progress shines on American screens

Because publishers, producers and networks vary internationally, their potential crossovers offer up an exchange of international access. In 2017, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis— Groundwood publisher’s bestselling book with 4 million copies sold in 30 languages—was adapted as an animated film by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon.

As Publishers Weekly noted, Second Story Press’ marketing and promotions manager, Emma Rodgers, says that “the more thoughtful, educated buyer” is attracted to some of the more challenging material coming out of Canada. “It’s our agenda over the next year to reach those readers. We’re both a feminist press and a social justice press, so that is part of our mandate.”

In this way, stories are extended internationally as well as from print to screen.

We are in a moment of thrilling interplay between both the publishing and screen world, with an abundance of rich stories to pull from. Much more will be revealed in this relationship as it progresses and much is to be enjoyed in the meanwhile.

Sruti Islam
Sruti Islam is a voracious consumer of all things literary. She is currently a consultant for Librairie St-Henri, art book publisher Anteism, as well as a publicist for Metatron Press. She served as a judge for the 2019 Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize Project, while also freelancing in literary and cultural coverage.
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