Finding book material to adapt for the screen is a subjective exercise with no fixed rules. For every ‘that’s a bit old hat, it won’t entice viewers’ there’s a ‘this feels pleasingly familiar, we can expect a big audience’. In 2018, we’re all about saying something new and exploring underrepresented points of view.
Different producers have different needs. I know an Asia-focused producer who is looking for stories grounded in Asia which can play to a global family audience, and resonate with viewers across North America, Europe, China and Japan – but this is a unique ‘steer’ (to use the industry jargon).
Most TV options are for multi-part returnable series, and some are for ‘reputational’ singles. Most feature films must justify much bigger multi-million-dollar budgets by appealing to a mass audience, and some producers happily make features as passion projects for a niche audience (with a shot of snowballing and becoming a runaway success).
So how to approach this impossible task?
My job is to find out what motivates individual producers, so I can put great books into the correct hands, rather than endlessly pitching producers with projects they won’t want. It might be easier to start with what most producers (generally) don’t want: tired concepts, inauthentic premises, copycat versions of existing trends, not enough plot, thinly-drawn characters, and no reason to make it now.
On a more positive note, with a good book a reader immediately has a sense of world, place, authenticity, depth of research and believability. The screen eats up plot and content, so usually there must be a lot. A producer might also engage the author as a consultant, particularly if they have access to a closed world or untold stories. The best adaptations help these qualities come across on screen.
Most option deals are much smaller than Hollywood auctions, where a hot book can sell for seven figures, but even a modest option is a significant investment for the production company or network, so it’s important to have a justification for the expense and a strategy for attaching a writer, director, possibly a star, and getting the project made (there’s no guarantee a producer will ever get a ‘greenlight’).
If the book is a bestseller or has just been snapped up by a publisher, it has a built-in audience and proof of concept (and a producer can say to potential commissioners: ‘actually, we don’t need to set it in space/underwater for it to work!’).
Many box office smashes in the Top Ten worldwide highest grossing films of 2016 were based on books: including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Jungle Book, Deadpool and Captain America — with a combined global gross of almost $3 billion.
But not all books need to be global smash hits for a producer to spot potential.
Book options are exclusive, so the producer has something on their slate that no one else has got, which can be useful in dealing with screenwriters, financiers and channels. Jane Featherstone of Sister Pictures (who has executive produced Spooks, Life On Mars, Broadchurch among others) said recently of screenwriters: ‘Imagine a world in which Sally Wainwright worked exclusively for Apple, Pete Bowker worked only for Netflix, or Mike Bartlett was Amazon-only. Exclusivity will be the next stage in this battle for talent.’ It’s the same principle with books.
Incidentally, this isn’t likely to change with new players in TV and film. Apple’s first drama series is based on a non-fiction book – journalist Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV – starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. There’s no reason a screenwriter couldn’t have been charged with writing a script on spec about that world, having done the research – but the writer has actually lived it. He brings credibility and depth of experience.
But don’t take my word for it. Look at what producers said about recent Northbank options. Steve November at Lionsgate (Mad Men, Orange is the New Black) which has optioned Dark Pines by Will Dean says the Swedish-set thriller ‘has it all – an original, gripping crime story, an evocative, cinematic setting and, most importantly, in Tuva Moodyson a vivid, complex and compelling character whom viewers will love.’
Damien Timmer from Mammoth Screen (producers of Poldark and Victoria) has optioned Strangeways: A Prison Officer’s Story by Neil Samworth, about the closed world of Manchester’s infamous lock-up, and says: ‘Now more than ever feels like the right time to tell this story. Sam’s unique and often totally hilarious voice is essential to the brilliance of the book. It is his total honesty and resilience that makes the book very appealing. We think this makes him the perfect route into Strangeways for television audiences.’
And in one final example, Kate Thompson’s Second World War factory drama Secrets of the Singer Girls has been optioned for television by Phillippa Giles of Bandit TV (who produced Luther and Rillington Place) – Phillipa says: ‘Singer Girls presents a real and raw version of how life really was beyond the city walls, built around relationships, secrets, strong families and memorable characters. Factory workers in crossover aprons and button-down boots were the beating heart of the East End. This is the real war, as experienced by a tribe of working-class women in the slums, teeming tenements and sweatshops of East London.’
There are some tricky corners in the ‘book to film’ industry such as the lack of traditional channel slots for true YA material (though there are exceptions among SVODs and elsewhere) and the need for local commissions to have a foothold in their home territory (for example, a British-Canadian co-production likely needs to appeal to the home audiences of both countries).
So whether it’s very intelligent drama, a period piece, crime with a new twist or unusual premise, a story featuring BAME participants, diverse points of view, access to closed institutions, a niche literary gem, uplifting books to counter the tide of doom and gloom, strong female characters with agency rather than victimhood as their main feature, ‘near-fi’ imagining a vision of the future which feels real now, true crime and memoir, or anything else at all – it must be a shockingly good story.