This is exactly what I went into graduate school to learn to do! Proudly, I can say that I am on the cusp of signing an option. For my final project, I adapted my second novel into a script. During that time, I pursued representation to the studios. Let my experience in higher education and the industry teach you…
The business aspect of turning novels into films is a very in depth process that can seem unnavigable to a writer of fiction. When an author pens a novel in today’s visually overstimulated culture, they’re most definitely contemplating the transformation into film, but without knowing how to make that ultimate end come into being. In fact, most of today’s writing is geared so that it more easily adapts into film (no longer are the days of prose heavy Dickens novels—cut all those adjectives and adverbs now, and get away from describing every move—Hemingway’s skeletal format is all the rage in the industry—this shift can make those who study and adore prose for its beauty and versatility a little sick at heart). An author, however, shouldn’t take it personally. Easier said than done. The process is arduous—not for the faint of heart, definitely not for the uncommitted artist.
Whether you’ve penned the greatest and tightest narrative to grace the shelves in decades, or a sweeping historical epic—you’re going to strip everything out of that book that has made it what it is. It will be the barest bones version. Most authors find that undo-able—an affront to the art, or simply not at all to their taste. Hence, many authors do not pen their own adaptations. I am different in that case, as I was intent upon learning to write screenplays, specifically to adapt novels and other material into them. Even if you get to this point, where you are comfortable working in the alternative, emaciated format, there is another obstacle in your path to the screen. Terrence Rafferty believes, “these days Hollywood—even independent Hollywood—doesn’t frequently come calling on novelists of any literary stature…it’s a short list. Producers care less about prestige than about marketable stories” (Rafferty 8). If the companies aren’t interested in books, then how do I even get my work in front of those who decide these things? Let’s learn about the industry first…
Both George Bluestone and Richard Hulseberg have written about the adaptation extensively. These gentlemen remind the reader that film is largely a commodity (Bluestone 35-40; Hulseberg 59). Censorship, investors, audience consideration, marketing, history/current events (mood of the times), all of these promote ‘infidelity’ from the original text, but more importantly, it dictates what will be transitioned into film from the sea of novels available to choose from (Bluestone 38). Timely works, and who can predict them, will be first in line. Hulseberg adds to these considerations with the price of actors and directors, even screenwriters (58). “Movies are too expensive to permit the kind of variety which the novel allows” (Bluestone 41). Most authors can publish their book for a few weeks’ wages, and have it available overnight to readers. The profit loss is minimal. The traditional means of publishing takes far longer (years—ask me, I was picked up recently by Booktrope and the process of re-editing, proofing, designing and marketing the book is a months long endeavor).
Bluestone, of course, is speaking to the required supervision and defined parameters of a multi-million dollar industry (verging on billions, if they haven’t already) that has its preservation in mind. Adaptations can be limited by a number of constraints surrounding it, such as how popular the novel is, actors willing to work on the project as well as directors and other staff, investors willing to put up money for basics (cameras, lighting, electrical, costuming, makeup, food, etc.) (117-119). Hutcheon calls this consideration the “commodification” of film (118). One shouldn’t regard this as a negative thing, though. Commodification of intellectual property is a normal and necessary aspect of the publishing and film industries. Any author who says they’re not interested in making a spectacle of their work is being disingenuous at best. Why else did they bother to sell the manuscript production rights to a publishing house? When you publish, you and your work become commodities. A truth that needs to be embraced for an author to be successful (embracing it doesn’t require an unconditional love).
Many writers are reluctant to extend a hand toward film because of the legal issues they’ve heard, read or rarely experienced personally. Elizabeth Lesly Stevens speaks about the legal ramifications of adapting in her article, “A Big Hollywood Movie is Coming, and a Novelist Cries Foul,” the adaption to film of Premium Rush staring Joseph Gordon Levitt. A professor was congratulated about his work being released on the big screen by a colleague who saw the preview, but the man had never even heard back from the studio that optioned him. This meant he wasn’t paid according to his contract. I have not read about the settlement from the case. These issues can take years to sort out and a lonely author has a hard battle against the juggernaut industry studios. Even when facing an independent film studio, they have decent connections to great legal teams, and probably have written some binding text that will keep an author from collecting on their intellectual property. Seller beware! It can be very overwhelming and nerve wracking. Authors are rightly paranoid, but letting this stand in the way of a goal will be your stopping point. An author who wants to see an adaptation of their work will have to work with a studio to produce it, even if they don’t actively seek such an arrangement until the studios come calling—an unlikely thing to happen if the author isn’t JK Rowling or Stephen King.
A natural and much more positive off shoot of film adaptations of written works is the escalation of sales of the book, as the audience range increases for both (117,120). In some rare cases, it can destroy the success of a book. Lee Clark Mitchell is quoted in the article Adapting Americas in Novels Adapted for Films: “although a novel is not physically destroyed when it is adapted, it is possible that its reputation as a novel…may suffer” (53). Obviously this is something an author is constantly worried over, and a source for great dithering over signing that release. Hulseberg asks, who is to blame if the adaptation is not well received or that the film is considered bad by critics or moviegoers? That’s problematic as multiple hands worked on the film (59). Not to mention that Hollywood is a big business who has customers to please and sometimes a heavy yoke of regulation around its neck, and how they gauged the potential audience is from previous records on similar material. The public mood swiftly changes—so a film might not be well-received tomorrow like the similar one was yesterday. It’s a gamble. In most cases, the screenwriter, director, and/or novelist will be blamed for the material that is produced. In few cases, the actor who stood center stage will take the brunt of criticism. The greater likelihood, however, is that sales of the book will increase exponentially and the author will make a very good number that year in income, possibly for many years to come. My advice, don’t sweat this. Your book isn’t changed. There’s just a movie now that refers back to it, in a very very expensive PR move.
The author, again, shouldn’t take it personally if their work is panned by a critic or turned down by a studio. Art is subjective. Film, novels, screenplays are very much works of art. Some writers on the topic might say that Hollywood “hates writers anyway, be they novelists or screenwriters” (Phillips 133). So you’d be in a broad company of greats and not so greats and have no idea where you really stand.
In most cases, a book that is optioned for a film is already popular with readers, or gaining obvious momentum. It has buzz! That market of readers is indispensable to the author and the studio looking at their work. Those numbers equate to ticket sales. Hollywood as a commodifier, banks on the popularity of a novel (xx). You can never have too great buzz around your book. However, you can market poorly by only hounding people with the book. Start a blog, join Pinterest—do something that shows you to the world and coyly place your book at your elbow. People are looking to the author for a cue on what they can expect from their work.
So how does an author get in front of the studios when they’d like to have their work adapted to the screen? In certain cases, the publishing house will have already worked out a deal with a film production company as part of the signing agreement with the author. These cases are mostly hammered out in the power house publishers. This gives the film industry a narrow pool to choose from, but guaranteed marketability—something they can sell to the public with moderate to good success. These are the bankable scripts. Independent sellers don’t often have this same avenue. Some of the hybrid publishers have someone who does focus on this very thing for their authors—low risk scripts. Their success is more determined by proof of sales than the all but guaranteed clout of a big name publisher. An independent author does have options, but they’re high risk.
The sea of choices for an independent author is endless. They’re free to put their material behind whatever decision they make, and they’re not bound by contracts or responsibility to a group who rely on the material to pay their rent at the end of the day. There’s no one else to involve in the decision, except maybe a lawyer. (If the contract isn’t clear, definitely get a lawyer to look it over.) The indie-author would need to reach out to managers/agents to represent their work to the studios, just as if they were going to publish the book traditionally. (insert collective groan here.) That’s no easy feat. Your reader reach has to be substantial already (nominal?) You must have a product, and know what you’re talking about, learn a bit about marketing and the industry as if you were going for an interview, because you are. Most of the listings you find will have numerous defunct agencies. The agencies will return to sender any letter of introduction you spent your stamp money on to get to them (don’t send the work, just an intro letter). Some are online, and you can save money, supplies and time. What will be most valuable to the author at this point is their pitch. That’s why your numbers and marketing knowledge is so valuable.
Pitchcraft is an art unto itself, but it comes from a marketing angle. Any author would be wise to learn how to weave words via pitchcraft—it’s not the same as penning the next great novel—not at all, but it will be needed to sell it, and convince the audience or investors of its worth. You can take courses on this in business colleges, and online for pretty cheap. There are books (what a marketing ploy that is) to teach you as well.
The other way to find an agent/manager is through networking. (Another collective groan?) Most authors will cringe at this, because most authors are introverts. Talking to breathing humans in the same plane of existence is exhausting and not always as rewarding as we hope. Networking, connecting with other people in the field, taking courses that apply to what stage you’re in in the writing process, and listening to the experience of others in unrelated business can provide you with very valuable information. Just because Joe is selling pools doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to teach you about selling books. Listen to Joe and imagine how his strategy can benefit your book or screenplay. Product marketing is universal at its core.
In the end, getting your book adapted to the screen is about the will to do so. You have to be in it to win it, so to speak. If you’re undecided, then your work will never be in front of a studio. Even if it does get in front of a studio, an option doesn’t guarantee a film. Until day-1 of shooting—you’re in that gray zone of uncertainty holding your breath. It’s exciting, frustrating and everything you imagine and don’t imagine. (Hollywood doesn’t hate writers, btw—they need them.)
K. Williams is the author of the World War II Spy Thriller OP-DEC: Operation Deceit, which is currently under consideration by film studies for an adaption. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany in English and a Master’s degree in Film Studies and Screenwriting from SUNY Empire State College. An advocate for education and equality, K writes about current events on her blog, keeping readers apprised of Native American Rights, Feminist issues, Domestic Violence, Environmental Causes and the Publishing and Film Industry.
Ayan, Meryem, and Feryal Cubukcu. “Adapting Americas in Novels Adapted for Films.” Petroleum-Gas University of Ploiesti Bulletin (Dec 2009).
Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957.
Hulseberg, Richard A. “Novels and Films: A Limited Inquiry.” Literature Film Quarterly 6.1: 57-66.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge; Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.
Phillips, Gene D. “Graham Greene: Novelist on Film.” Literature Film Quarterly 1.2: 176-9.
—. Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1974.
Rafferty, Terrence. “Fiction Writer’s Hollywood Detour.” New York Times: 8.
Stevens, Elizabeth L. “A Big Hollywood Movie is Coming, and a Novelist Cries Foul.” New York Times August 21, 2011 2011, sec. A: 21.
Tibbetts, John C., and James M. Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film. 2nd ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2005.