It’s all about numbers. Studios need their films to sell cinema tickets to help them fund their next projects. Film producers need ticket sales to persuade studios – or smaller investors – to back their next production. Broadcasters need viewers to attract advertisers – streaming services need subscribers to buy-in or produce their own material. And what better way to increase the odds of success than offering audiences stories and characters that they already know and love? And the flip-side of that is what better way to increase book sales than to tie in the publication to the release of a film or TV series?
With the Oscars and BAFTAs both offering prizes for the Best Adapted Screenplay, there’s even kudos – as well as money – when you get it right. But how does a book end up on screen? And with streaming services – such as Netflix and Amazon Prime – becoming increasingly influential in production as well as exhibition, producers, agents and authors are having to decide which kind of screen to go for.
“I think it’s just a matter of who has the best vision for telling the story,” novelist Karin Slaughter told me at the London Book Fair. She was there to promote her 18th novel, Pieces of Her, a psychological thriller that has been picked up by Netflix to be turned into a TV series. The show will be made by Homeland’s Lesli Linka Glatter and Bruna Papandrea, who produced the Oscar-nominated Gone Girl and Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon’s TV hit Big Little Lies. “For Pieces of Her, Bruna had the best vision.”
She didn’t have any say herself in whether the book was destined for the big or small screen, but she’s satisfied with the outcome. “I’m just the author – just the content provider – they decide but I’m really happy with it. I think there is a lot of story in Pieces of Her that would get lost if it was a feature, because you only have about two hours to tell the story and it’s just a different way of relaying the characters and the information.”
The first-time novelist Lara Prescott has ended up in a very different place with her soon-to-be-released The Secrets We Kept, which is to be turned into a feature film by Marc Platt, one of the producers behind La La Land. Her story about the story behind Dr Zhivago was a publishing sensation that was subject to a bidding war, resulting in a seven figure deal, and was doing the rounds of Hollywood at the same time as America’s publishing houses. “Quickly, I started getting calls from different producers who were interested in possibly adapting it, which was thrilling and completely unexpected,” she enthused.
But she wasn’t prepared just to let go. “I really wanted to trust the people that I was placing my story in the hands of so when I was talking to producers, I would ask questions about ‘are they thinking film, are they thinking limited series, are they thinking regular series?’ It was a consideration because they all said they wanted to stick as closely to the novel as possible. Some people said I would have more input, having a consulting credit or a producing credit, and all of that, but when it came down to the final choice, I think I was more comfortable going with the people I did, because they were thinking about film and then a limited series if the film didn’t work out, because if you go for a regular series, it’s going to go way beyond your story.”
At the time she was considering how best to take her words to a wider audience, she was watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV – Season Two. Season One had been based, quite faithfully, on Margaret Attwood’s novel, but the second series came not from the original author, but from the creators of the TV adaptation. “I did think about that and how much I loved the first season and how I would feel if it deviated drastically,” she explained. “I couldn’t see the characters living on after the story was over.”
But many authors have a differing view. The Illustrator of the Fair at this year’s London Book Fair, David McKee, has created characters including Mr Benn, King Rolo and Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. As long ago as 1969, Mr Benn was turned from a single picture book into a whole BBC series. He told me he was perfectly happy for his characters to come off the page, whether that’s on TV, stage, a pair of socks or fancy dress costumes in primary school classrooms on World Book Day. “They live their lives. They’re like your children. You try to guide them and you hope they’ll have a good, successful, correct life but in the end, they do things that surprise you or annoy you but there’s a point where you have to let them go. It’s the same with the characters. You can be over-protective. They can come off the page and live their lives. It’s fine if people are going to get enjoyment out of it.” And after a thoughtful pause, he added, with a smile, “Also, it does publicise the books.”
So authors and illustrators are generally open to the idea of their work reaching that wider audience through TV, film or even stage, and while thousands of book professionals meet each spring at the London Book Fair, pitching to publishers or attending seminars, there’s a separate hall where dramatic rights agents are selling books to producers.
Marc Simonsson, from SoloSon Media, does just that, working with literary agents, small publishers and even some of the bigger names whose in-house teams are more interested in the written word. “They’ll come to me with a book, saying ‘We think this has potential for the screen.’ I’ll then take it to my contacts in production companies to try to sell it to them to make into TV or film,” he told me, during a day of back-to-back meetings with producers from around the world who come to London for the Fair.
It’s often at this early stage that decisions are already being made about whether a novel is best suited to the big or small screen. “After reading a book, I’ll have to work out which producers to send it to,” he explained. “Some producers deal specifically in TV, some in film and some in both. So I’ll have to work out what I think it works best for. But I never close a door on either. I never say ‘I’m never going to sell it to a film company.’ If a film company comes to me and says they want it, I’ll think, ‘That’ll be great.’ But you definitely need to tailor your submission. For instance, I wouldn’t send a kid’s novel to See-Saw who made The King’s Speech because they make dark material and drama for adults, so it’s just knowing your buyer, basically.”
In publishing as much as in production, things aren’t always clear-cut, as Lara Prescott’s novel neatly illustrates. Many works – including hers – could be suitable for both the big or small screen, depending on the vision of the producers and screenwriters; her producers are aiming for the big screen, but keeping TV as a back-up if they can’t make that work.
But there’s another aspect of her story that particularly appeals to Simonsson. “The dream, really, is to manage to sell something before it’s published because that helps buzz for when the book gets published. It helps sales, it’s an ideal situation where you almost have everything sorted before the book even comes to our shelves, and that’s really exciting for the author because it means their book, which maybe might not be read by everyone, will be seen on a different platform, and I think that’s probably what I love most about what I do – that people who ordinarily wouldn’t read the books might get to see it in a different medium.”
It’s all about numbers.