Tag Archives: Gillian Flynn

Novelists take to TV

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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Where are they now?

Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias
Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias

Few people would be surprised to learn that Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and DB Weiss were nominated in last year’s Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. But how many of us would know who won without resorting to Google? Well, the answer is Moira Walley-Beckett, who became the first solo woman to win in this category since 1994. Ironically, perhaps, Walley-Beckett won for a Breaking Bad episode called Ozymandias, thus beating Gilligan.

Walley-Beckett started her career as an actress and dancer, which probably explains why her first post-Breaking Bad project, Flesh and Bone (which she created), tells the story of a young dancer who has just joined a New York ballet company. Scheduled to air on Starz from November 8, the series features Sarah Hay (Black Swan) as “an emotionally wounded but transcendent ballerina navigating the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.”

Part of the challenge with projects like Flesh and Bone is ensuring the dance sequences look real – a bit like trying to write a script about footballers or stand-up comedians. Recognising this, Walley-Beckett made heavy use of real-life accomplished dancers.

While this will undoubtedly provide Flesh and Bone with an air of authenticity, it does present logistical difficulties in terms of renewing the show – because it’s hard for professional dancers to juggle their day jobs with their acting commitments. This may explain why Starz has already decreed Flesh and Bone will come to an end after a run of eight one-hour episodes. Chris Albrecht, the channel’s CEO, told Deadline: “Moira is one of the most talented auteurs in television today, and the work she and her team have done on Flesh and Bone is nothing short of spectacular (but) after seeing all the film, we realised this is not serialised TV, but rather an eight-hour movie.”

The Flesh and Bone trailer suggests the show will further enhance Walley-Beckett’s credentials, so it will be interesting to see what direction she heads in next.

While the Writing for a Drama Series Emmy category was dominated by US talent last year, Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special resulted in a win for British scribe Steven Moffat. His work on Sherlock: His Last Vow trumped rivals on titles such as American Horror Story, Fargo, Luther, The Normal Heart and Treme.

Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era
Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era

Moffat has become something of a screenwriting icon thanks to his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock – and it is these projects that continue to occupy his time. His most recently finished Sherlock project is a special that will place the show’s central characters in the Victorian era, rather than the contemporary setting that has been used for the first three series. Commenting on this at a recent event, he said: “The special is its own thing. It’s not part of the run of three episodes… It’s Victorian. [Co-creator Mark Gatiss] and I wanted to do this, but it had to be a special, it had to be separate entity on its own. It’s in its own bubble.”

When not working on series four of Sherlock (due in 2016), Moffat’s remaining time is largely taken up with Doctor Who, which will return for series nine later this year. Although Moffat shares screenwriting duties on Doctor Who with a number of others, he has already confirmed that he is writing the first two episodes of the new series, a double-header. Titles for his episodes are The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

The other Emmy-winning writer last year was comedian Louis CK, whose sitcom Louie secured him the Writing for a Comedy Series award. That’s quite an achievement when you see that he was up against writers from Episodes, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley and Veep. However, it’s not the first time CK has picked up this award, having previously won it in 2012.

Louie, which airs on FX, is an unusual show that combines stand-up and scripted comedy, often involving special guest stars. Echoing the earlier observation about Flesh and Bone, it manages to pull this off because CK is a genuine stand-up, not an actor pretending to be one. This blurring of genres is exacerbated by the fact that the show doesn’t always feel like a comedy. Its slow pacing and lack of rapid-fire gags make it much more like an indie film than a traditional sitcom, with some comparing Louie to Woody Allen’s work. This was certainly the case with So did the Fat Lady, the episode that won CK his 2014 Emmy. The last section of that episode was a poignant insight into the psychology of dating that barely resorted to jokes.

Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie
Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie, which airs on FX

The recent fifth season of Louie finished on May 28, taking the total number of episodes to 61. There have been no announcements yet about the possibility of a sixth run. But alongside his commitment to this franchise, CK also has a deal to create new comedy series for FX. This has led to a greenlight for Baskets, a 10-part comedy that CK is co-writing with Zach Galifianakis. The series, which will also star Galifianakis, is scheduled to air on FX during 2016. It tells the story of Chip Baskets as he haphazardly pursues his dream of becoming a professional clown.

The Emmys, it should be noted, have a slightly less well-known sibling called The International Emmys which, as the name suggests, are for shows from outside the US. The International Emmys don’t have a specific award for writers, but 2014’s winner Utopia owed a lot to the unique voice of Dennis Kelly, who created and wrote the show. Kelly’s work to date has mostly been for theatre – with his best-known project being Matilda the Musical, co-written with musical comedian Tim Minchin. However, he also co-wrote sitcom Pulling for BBC3 with Sharon Horgan and, more recently, wrote Black Sea, a Kevin Macdonald film starring Jude Law.

Utopia is the story of five comic-book fans who become targets of a shadowy organisation called the ‘Network’ after they discover an unpublished manuscript for The Utopia Experiments, a sequel to a cult graphic novel that appears to predict a range of global catastrophes. It ran for two series on Channel 4 and was then cancelled, much to the irritation of its fans. C4’s response was that “it’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which is launching on the channel throughout 2015.”

There’s no word yet on what Kelly’s next screen project might be, but Utopia is set to get a new lease of life in the US. HBO, no less, has ordered a US version that will be directed by David Fincher (Se7en) and written by Gillian Flynn, who worked together on the film version of the latter’s novel Gone Girl. All it needs now is for Scarlett Johansson and Carey Mulligan to sign up as stars and it would be the coolest conspiracy drama in the history of Hollywood.

Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year's C21 Drama Summit
Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year’s C21 Drama Summit

And finally, C21’s Drama Summit has started revealing the identities of this year’s speakers. One standout session will see writer Stephen Poliakoff examine his present and past work and discuss the challenge of writing drama in the 21st century.

Poliakoff started his career as a playwright, coming to prominence in the 1970s. While he still writes the occasional work for the stage, the balance of his output has moved much more towards film and TV in recent years. Among his best-known works (all for the BBC in the UK) are Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and Dancing on the Edge, which was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning one. His latest project, which he will discuss at the Drama Summit, is Close to the Enemy.

A six-part series for BBC2, Close to the Enemy is a Cold War drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. It stars Jim Sturgess (One Day) as an intelligence officer trying to persuade a captured German scientist to work for the British RAF on developing a jet engine. The production is being shot in London and Liverpool with planned transmission in 2016 on BBC2. International rights are with All3Media International.

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