A few words on film adaptations

Before I became a book agent, I worked in film and tv development for 7 years in New York, first for PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and then for Hearst Entertainment. My job was to be the middle man (or woman, in this case) between the film companies in LA and London (when I worked for PolyGram, they had international companies like Working Title on board) and the book publishers. The idea was to scout for book projects that could be adapted into film or television properties. It was fun work back then because Hollywood was still paying big dollars for the right project, and there existed a cottage industry in New York of film scouts like myself who were funded by the studios and whose job was to get their hands on as much material as possible. Perks included expense accounts, movie screenings, and first looks at books in manuscript form. The hope was that a book wouldn’t be missed and snatched up by someone else, even one that might not ever become a blockbuster franchise, which is mostly what Hollywood looks for today. Thinking back, it makes me wonder if a book like The English Patient would have even been made as a film today. I like to think yes, and I suppose it’s possible, especially since the book won The Booker Prize, but I’m really not so sure.

One of my most memorable book-to-film projects back then was Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers. It was a big deal book that had been kept secret until the film agent was ready to submit it wide to producers. When they did, it was literally a race to get to the agent’s east and west coast offices to read the book immediately. All of us wildly locked ourselves in our offices and read into the night. The next day there was a heated auction, and at the end of it, one of our producers at PolyGram nabbed the rights. There was controversy later about the believability of the book (this was long before A Million Little Pieces, but a lot of the same questions applied), the movie wound up being good but not great, and from what I remember, a commercial disappointment compared to the book’s success, but the process to get it to screen was exciting.   I’ve been thinking about this lately because of the recent success of Captain America, not based on a book, but 70 years worth of comics. This piece from the Writer’s Guild of America about the writers who adapted the film version is worth reading if you’re into this stuff. It’s amazing to think these two talented guys, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were able to extract the elements from so many years of history and turn them into a modern day commercial blockbuster film. Good writing is good writing, and it’s impressive when it’s done in book form, or for film.   The general consensus is that the book is always better than the movie, and I think that’s usually true. But there are some wonderful screen adaptations that stand on their own, like The Wizard of Oz, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (based on Road Dah’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or Gone With the Wind. I’m curious to know what your favorite book-to-film adaptations are. Please share!

11 Responses to A few words on film adaptations

  1. Stephen says:

    Though fantasy isn’t really my thing, you have to respect what Peter Jackson did for the Lord of the Rings. The love he shows for the original material I think makes the films the success that they are.

    Let’s hope The Hobbit is more of the same!

  2. Jenene Scott says:

    I love The Lord of the Rings movies. Of coarse, they can’t hold a candle to the books, however I loved seeing the characters come to life on the big screen and I’m looking forward to seeing The Hobbit birth into realty!
    Being a novice writer myself, I wonder what would keep a book from being a prospect for a movie? People that have read my work often say they can see the scenes play out like a movie. That’s comforting because that’s how I write. I see it in my minds eye and describe what I see. So is it the way one write’s a book, is it what’s in demand by the general public, or maybe it’s that the story won’t hold up well visually, that would cause you to eliminate a book form the movie making industry?
    Warm in AZ, Jenene

  3. That was an informative read! Sounds like a dream job (still work but sounds like interesting work, at least).

    My favorite book adaptations are the Harry Potter franchise. Any disappointments I’ve had have been minor. It’s amazing how each film improved upon the last, and the visual imagery and cast were so spot on. I read the first 3 books without having seen any of the movies, but now I can’t imagine anyone other than Daniel Radcliff as Harry. Plus all the awesome British actors they got throughout the series. WOW.

    I’m struggling to think if another adaptation I enjoyed w/out much criticism. I was hoping The DaVinci code would be better than the book since I thought the book was pretty bad, but even Tom Hanks couldn’t totally save that one.

    Looking forward to The Help, I think it looks promising.

  4. Kerry Gans says:

    One of my favorite films is Empire of the Sun – starring a young Christian Bale. I absolutely loved the film before I even knew it was an adaptation of the novel by the same name by JG Ballard. I read the book and was happy to find that the essence of the novel had been respected, allowing me to like them both!

    It’s even more amazing because the novel is a fictionalized version of Ballard’s own life, spending several years of his childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China during WWII.

    Empire of the Sun had haunting cinematography, masterful direction by Steven Spielberg, and a mezmerizing performance by young Bale.


  5. My favorite is Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (from Russell Bank’s book). It’s one of the few book to film adaptations where the film is almost better than the book. Others I can think of are Rumble Fish and the recent Winter’s Bone.

  6. Kim says:

    Without a doubt, Like Water for Chocolate was the closest adaptation of a book to movie that I’ve ever seen. I also thought it was a beautifully visual movie, as well.

  7. Kurt Hartwig says:

    I felt that the Swedish adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was a decided improvement over the novel. Larssen weighs down his prose with excessive detail that doesn’t drive the narrative. He also weaves a more complicated web than he needs for his story. While most films end up having to cut too much, Larssen provided for a fairly easy edit.

    It’s still all middle-aged man wish-fulfillment, but the movie is a better-told story all the same.

  8. Anonymous says:

    L.A. Confidential was a fine adaptation of a James Ellroy novel.

  9. Stacey says:

    Thanks for all the great posts! I think there are a lot of good examples of successful book-to-film adaptations. It’s a fun thing to think about, especially in a market where so many films are being adapted from previously published work. Now if only I had time to actually watch some of these movies…

  10. Greg Machlin says:

    Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” is a classic of the genre; its basis, Whit Masterson’s “Badge of Evil,” is not, so you’ve got at least one example of a book that’s better than the movie. Psycho, Jaws, and The Godfather come to mind.

    GoodFellas was a great adaptation, and Jurassic Park is way more fun than its source material–the book has a bleak, drab air about it that I was glad didn’t translate onto the screen. (The book ends with Ian Malcolm definitively dead, and everyone else on lockdown in Mexico, with a guard telling them no one’s going anywhere for a long time. Glad David Koepp decided to change that.()

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