Novelists take to TV

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
September 9, 2015

The Writers Room
Game of Thrones is based on George RR Martin's books
Game of Thrones is based on George RR Martin’s series of fantasy books

There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.

Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.

There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.

American Gods was first published in 2001
Starz is developing an adaptation of American Gods, which was first published in 2001

But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.

The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.

An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.

Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.

The Five writer Harlan Coben
The Five writer Harlan Coben

Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.

Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.

The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.

There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.

Occupied was created by thriller writer Jo Nesbo
Occupied was created by thriller writer Jo Nesbo

Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.

There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.

Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.

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