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!