Turning books into TV is a well-trodden path, but as pressure for hits increases, development execs are reading more novels than ever before.
This may be the disruptive age of digital, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry mining the fusty old world of books for drama ideas. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, The Pillars of the Earth and The Walking Dead (a graphic novel) are just a few of the high-profile projects that have made stunningly successful transitions from paper to pixel.
Coming soon are adaptations of the likes of Russian classic War and Peace, fantasy series Shannara and Sharp Objects, based on an early novel by marriage-noir queen Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), while Fox is currently airing Wayward Pines, M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Blake Crouch novel Pines.
Ask drama producers why they are still so enthralled by books and they tend to cite similar reasons. One of the most obvious, says eOne TV senior VP of creative affairs Tecca Crosby, is that “you’re starting with something that has a built-in fanbase or name recognition. All of us are challenged by how to break through, so if you secure a well-known book, that’s an advantage when talking to networks or introducing the project to audiences.”
Just as significant, adds veteran producer Sally Woodward Gentle, is the fact that there is a ready-made story, world and characters to play with. Woodward Gentle, whose company Sid Gentle Films is adapting Len Deighton classic SS-GB for BBC1 in the UK, says: “It’s easier for the commissioning editor to visualise the end result when you have a book to show them. It’s also attractive to screenwriters. Many don’t want to start an idea from scratch. With strong source material, they can get straight into developing their interpretation of the story.”
Interestingly, though, this is about as scientific as it gets. Ask producers if they scrutinise international sales spreadsheets or conduct focus groups before making a decision and the general consensus is that this isn’t the priority. “We are in business, so you have to align your project to the needs of the marketplace,” says Paula Cuddy, partner at indie producer Eleventh Hour. “But you can’t embark on this process unless it’s a personal passion. Producing drama is such a long, arduous, treacherous process that you have to love what you’re doing.”
She cites the example of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which she worked on in her previous role as head of development at Hat Trick Productions: “The literary agent gave me a galley proof of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale on a Friday. I read it over the weekend and pitched it to the head of drama at Hat Trick on the Monday. He loved it. I then approached the film and TV agent representing the rights, and on this occasion was granted a limited window of exclusivity to pitch it to a broadcaster (ITV/Laura Mackie was the natural home) and get a writer on board. Upon me achieving this, the agent and Indie swiftly formalised the contract for the rights.”
As Cuddy’s comment indicates, enthusiasm is swiftly followed by the pursuit of rights to the book (assuming it is still in copyright – we’ll come to classic works later). Typically, this is handled by the producer, though sometimes they’ll come with the backing of a broadcaster or a programme distributor.
The exact process varies project by project, says Tally Garner, founder of Mam Tor Production, “but typically you’d be looking to get an 18-month to two-year option on the TV rights, with a holdback on film rights so that you don’t end up competing with a rival project. If you are successful in getting the project into production then usually you’ll acquire the rights on the first day of principal photography, working to a fee structure that you agreed when you took out the original option.”
Garner has been immersed in this process for years. Initially a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, she was then tasked with setting up the agency’s in-house production company Cuba Pictures. At Cuba, she adapted Boy A and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before leaving to form Mam Tor, which has a first-look deal with Endemol Worldwide Distribution (now under the new Endemol Shine International banner). In her experience, the course of options negotiations is inevitably affected by the level of competition for rights, though money is not the only consideration: “As an agent, you want there to be a market value to the rights – so you tend to have a rough figure in your head. But the final decision really hinges on a combination of cash, enthusiasm and vision. When I was an agent, I was always wary of selling rights where there wasn’t a creative producer involved in the pitch, someone who had a real sense of how the elements might come together.”
The issue of whether the proposed producer truly understands the book comes up a lot. Even when there isn’t a bidding war over option rights, most producers have to undergo a beauty parade to persuade the author and agent they are the right people for the job.
ITV Studios creative director Kieran Roberts says he engaged in a pretty thorough creative dialogue with author Phil Rickman when ITV decided it wanted to adapt his book series Midwinter of the Spirit (which features Merrily Watkins, a country vicar with exorcism skills who helps the police with crime cases). “It wasn’t too difficult for us to establish our commercial credentials. But, understandably, Phil wanted reassurances about how we would approach the project and whether we would be faithful to the world.”
A key issue was the fact that the books are based around the UK town of Hereford, which is not the easiest place to mount a major production. “He’d had offers to relocate to the Home Counties but wanted to keep the stories where they were set,” says Richardson. “We were happy to go along with him because that part of the country has a special, quite magical quality – even though it will present a few more practical challenges.”
Richardson stresses, however, that producers also need to come to projects with a clear vision of what they are trying to do – because ultimately they are responsible for producing a show that works: “I enjoyed the first book, but didn’t come away with a real sense of how it might develop as a returning series. However, I really felt that the second book delivered on the premise. So I had a conversation with Phil and we agreed that it made sense to begin the series with the second book.”
eOne’s Crosby says a proactive approach to projects can help win the author over. She cites the example of Canadian author Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, which is being adapted for CBC Canada. “We were trying to persuade her that we were the right people to adapt the book. She was keen on the fact that Alan Hawko (star of Republic Of Doyle) would be involved. But I also talked to her about the fact that one of the minor characters in the book had an interesting back-story that could be explored more in a TV series. She loved that idea.”
Wooing the author is critical when securing rights. But producers then need to make a judgement call about how much they should be involved in the adaptation. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Berna Levin, chief commercial officer at Swedish film and TV producer Yellowbird, because it depends on the character of the authors in question. “The writers we work with are very cool. All of them say, ‘The books are my children, but the film/TV productions are my grandchildren – someone else is responsible.’ They want to be convinced you know what you are doing, but then they will let you get on with your job.”
Yellowbird has established a global reputation for its adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, Liza Marklund’s Anneka Bengtzon and Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. In Levin’s opinion, having some distance between author and production is useful because it allows the screenwriter the time and space they need to establish their own vision: “But it isn’t like we want to exclude the authors from the process. They are brilliant writers of crime and sometimes they have 10, 20 or 30 ideas that never made it into their books, which makes them a great resource. For example, it was very exciting for us to work on Occupied, which was an original idea from Jo Nesbo, not from a novel.”
Yellowbird is unusual because of the impact it has made from its Swedish base. Aside from the quality of its shows, a couple of practical factors have underpinned that progress. “Firstly, we have focused almost entirely on crime novels, because that seemed to us to be the genre with the best potential to travel internationally,” says Levin. “And we also make sure we secure global rights when we option a novel. We need to do this to ensure we aren’t competing with international versions.”
For every author who doesn’t want to be involved in the adaptation process, there is another that does. “I think there is a generation of writers such as William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and Ben Richards who are equally comfortable in both forms,” says Cuddy. “We’re working with Sebastian Faulks on an adaptation of his novel On Green Dolphin Street. He is so bright and brilliant that he can manage the transition very well.”
Authors who write the screenplays to their own books tend to have two main challenges. The first, says eOne’s Crosby, is that “novels are often based around the interior world of characters, but screen storytelling is about action and dialogue. Writers who cross over have to be able to translate that.”
The other, says Cuddy, is the need to avoid over-attachment to the source material – since not all of the book’s content will work on TV. William Boyd and Gillian Flynn are both reputed to have this ability “and Sebastian Faulks is also demonstrating a real pragmatism with our project,” she adds.
This challenge is even more intense when dealing with book series. Jenna Glazier, senior VP of TV series at Sonar Entertainment, is currently overseeing an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy epic Shannara for MTV. Shannara consists of 14 books written between 1973 and 2013, “so there is a big challenge in knowing where to start and where to end; what to include and what to leave out,” she says. “We’ve decided on the second book, Elfstones of Shannara, as our starting point because it’s a fan favourite that has a love triangle at the centre of the story.”
On the author/screenwriter issue, Glazier says: “It’s always of value to have the author involved because they’ve spent years with the work. With Shannara, Terry is executive producer and Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) are on board as writers.”
One way of addressing the above issues is to have a team that combines the author and screenwriters, says Glazier, “We’re adapting Philipp Meyer’s 2013 best-seller The Son for AMC. Philipp is adapting it with the support of two screenwriters.”
Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne makes an interesting observation on this issue, which is that a lot of contemporary writers have grown up absorbing the grammar of film and TV in their daily lives. This has led to a growing number of novels that are written with a sparser style, punchier dialogue and a more visual sensibility. This in turn lends itself to screen adaptation.
As hinted at earlier, the nature of the book optioning process will depend to some extent on whether the book is a new title subject to an intense bidding war, an older title that has slipped slightly off the radar, or a work that’s no longer subject to copyright (i.e. anyone can adapt it without permission). Books that are subject to a bidding war tend to have strong in-built awareness, “but you have to be sure you’re bidding for something that will fit the requirements of broadcasters,” says Cuddy. “Not all books, no matter how good, fit the schedule.”
eOne senior VP of global production Carrie Stein, who worked at agency ICM earlier in her career, also advises caution. “There’s always a buzz around a new book and that can seem like a reason to go out and bid for it. But I urge my team to think about all the books that got optioned for $100,000 10 years ago and are still sitting on the shelf. When you chase best-sellers, you can lose focus on creativity and passion.”
As if to underline the point, Stein is currently shepherding a 1983 novel by Harry Crews called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (ranked 1,127,231st on Amazon US’s best-sellers list as this sentence was written). For Stein, the relative obscurity of the book is offset by the original, idiosyncratic nature of the story, Crews’s cult following and the fact that a rising screenwriting star is committed to the project. “Matt Venne (currently writing The Devil’s Advocate for NBC – which started as a book, then became a film and will now be a TV series) has read it and is on board the project.”
Rights-free classic novels are, of course, fair game – with BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point currently working on two prestigious projects, War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. At first sight, they seem like manna from heaven, but there are two potential problems. The first, raised by Cuddy, is that they can be creatively restrictive: “We’re interested in period stories but would probably want to take a more revisionist approach than a classic novel would allow. So instead of adapting Bleak House, for example, we’re currently working on an adaptation of Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. That is set in the 1700s but was published last year and has real contemporary resonance as well as being a great mystery story.”
Tally Garner, meanwhile, points out that classics are non-exclusive, which means you get to spend lots of time and effort developing a version, only to find that someone else has got there first. Exactly this happened a couple of years back when a Great Expectations miniseries and movie hit the market within a few months of each other. This rush to exploit IP is particularly common when copyrights initially expire.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the book business has not made its own changes as a result of digital media. So how does this impact on the book-to-TV transition? One way, says Garner, is that there is now a vibrant source of content available in the e-publishing market (EL James and Hugh Howey both started in this space): “We’re developing a property called Confessions of a GP, which started out as an ebook before going to traditional publishing. I still tend to see the agents/publishers as the key relationships but there is this growth of great content coming through on the internet.”
eOne’s Crosby says the new landscape also opens the producer up to a more real-time dialogue with the author’s fanbase, something that can be beneficial from a marketing perspective: “We developed fantasy TV series Bitten (pictured top) out of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld book series. She has a huge online fanbase and they really let us know what they think when we take decisions about who to cast in key roles.”
With TV in the ascendancy at the moment, another key question is whether the medium is starting to secure rights to books that might previously have been picked up for film. Payne is not convinced of this, arguing that the love affair between books and TV goes back decades. For her, one of the key points that has to be reiterated is that basing a story on a book can only take you so far, “because ultimately it has to work as TV. We have properties like Cider with Rosie on our slate. That’s pretty well known in the UK but not outside. When it goes into distribution it will be judged on its own merits.”
Books in development
Mam Tor’s Tally Garner has a few projects bubbling away, including an adaptation of The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and another of Mary S. Lovell’s Bess of Hardwick, about the creation of Chatsworth. The latter has Harriet Warner attached (Call the Midwife) as writer.
Sally Woodward Gentle, former creative director at Carnival Films and now CEO of Sid Gentle, is working with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall) on Len Deighton’s SS-GB for BBC1. Based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain, SS-GB takes place in Nazi-occupied London. Deighton is back in vogue at the moment, with Simon Beaufoy reported to be adapting novels featuring Cold War spy Bernard Samson.
Lookout Point is close to going into production on War and Peace with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. It’s also developing a mega-budget version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities with another screen heavyweight, Alan Bleasdale.
FremantleMedia is working with Corona Pictures on an adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s Bird of Prey, with the script written by JJ Connolly (Layer Cake). It’s also working on Ugly (based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) with Roland Joffe, while FMNA is adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with Starz.
Yellowbird’s upcoming productions include an adaptation of Johan Theorin’s novel Echoes from the Dead (with Fundament Film) and a third Swedish Wallander series. It is also developing an English version of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters with HBO.
Donna Wiffen, formerly of FremantleMedia, is now MD at indie producer Duchess Street Productions. Backed by investment firm Bob & Co, she is working on a saga about two families based on The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer.
Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott are behind an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle. The project has been linked to various channels, but is currently positioned as a pilot for SVoD platform Amazon. Amazon is also behind the adaptation of the Bosch novels.
Netflix, following its breakout success with House of Cards (the second adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ acclaimed series of novels), has announced plans to make a series based on Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Red Planet Pictures’s Tony Jordan is developing a major BBC drama called Dickensian which will bring Charles Dickens’ characters together into one world. Expect Tiny Tim with Miss Havisham and
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