Taking it literary

Taking it literary

By Michael Pickard
January 3, 2023


As books become increasingly popular as source material for TV drama, five producers share their thoughts on adapting literature for the screen and discuss why retaining the spirit of a novel is more important than slavish loyalty to plot.

The paradoxical challenge of bringing books to the screen is summed up succinctly by The Imaginarium Studios’ Jonathan Cavendish. “All my career, I have done adaptations like Bridget Jones’s Diary,” says the producer, “reinventing a very well-known book by totally transforming it but keeping it the same.”

Yet in a world of ‘too much TV,’ when broadcasters look for name recognition to bring eyeballs to a new series, it’s no surprise adaptations remain a key source of small-screen storytelling. And though there are now more sources of inspiration than ever – graphic novels and magazine articles as well as real-life stories – books undoubtedly remain the biggest draw.

“When you read a book that instantly presents itself to you as something that would translate to the screen, it’s just too great a temptation not to do it,” says Claire Mundell, creative director of Synchronicity Films (The Cry). “Some books just absolutely get inside your heart and your head, and you feel inspired by them and inspired to tell that story on a different canvas, on a screen, whether it’s the small screen or the big screen.”

Claire Mundell

With an adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies in post-production for the BBC, Synchronicity is also dramatising Heather Morris novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz for Sky, while Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God is getting the TV treatment too. “First and foremost, it’s always about the material and how it moves you, how you connect with it and how it motivates you to want to tell the story in a different form,” Mundell continues. “Undoubtedly, having a book – and particularly an acclaimed book that so many other people have responded to emotionally – is a great endorsement for a project because it gives a commissioner a certain amount of comfort that there is a readership out there for the story.”

The Imaginarium Studios, run by co-founders Cavendish and actor/director Andy Serkis, has previously adapted Irish writer Eugene McCabe’s novel Death & Nightingales for the BBC, and this year saw the release on Netflix of The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself (pictured top) – a take on Sally Green novel Half Bad. Set in a world of witches, it follows Nathan, the illegitimate son of a dangerous blood witch who is struggling to step out of his father’s shadow.

Cavendish describes the eight-part series, created by Joe Barton (Giri/Haji), as a “loose” take on Green’s YA novel. The drama follows the spirit of the story but “we changed a lot,” he says. “We’ve succeeded in reinventing it and keeping the spirit of it, but keeping all the original fans very much on board and loving the changes and the adjustments we’ve made.”

When it comes to adaptations, “the idea of taking something in one world [a book] and taking it into another world [a TV series] can be a disaster, but it can also be something that people love,” Cavendish says. “People have much more excitement and enthusiasm for new things than lots of streamers and distributors think, but it is unquestionably now more difficult to publicise and get out something that’s completely new, for reasons I don’t fully understand. But if something has a brand, that immediately gets your attention. We as filmmakers, as story creators on screen, just have to be very, very wary of that.”

The Ink Factory is best known for television adaptations of John le Carré novels The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl. Both faithful and more expansive adaptations of le Carré’s catalogue are now in development at the company, as are other projects such as The Plotters, a Korean-language television adaptation of Un Su Kim’s novel, with Soo Hugh (Pachinko) attached as creator; and a series based on the debut novel by Ghanian-American author Yasmin Angoe, thriller Her Name is Knight.

The Ink Factory’s adaptations include The Little Drummer Girl

“I don’t think there is a right or wrong approach. There are lots of ways to approach adaptation,” says The Ink Factory creative director Michele Wolkoff. “The key is to find and capture the essence of the book, what we think of as the ‘essential why.’ Why are we telling this story? Who are the characters we care about and what are themes that resonate for us and for our audience? And making sure the answers to those questions come at least as much from the heart as the mind. Successfully translating a book for the screen shouldn’t just be adaptive; it needs to be additive.”

Miriam Brent, head of development at production company 42 (The Girl Before), agrees that the best adaptations stay true to the essence of their source material. “That doesn’t necessarily mean slavishly adhering to the plot,” she observes, “but there’s something about the heart and soul of the books that you can still capture when you’re translating something from book to screen, which is more important, in a way.”

By thinking of the author’s intentions when they originally wrote the book, Brent believes an adaptation can also satisfy fans of the novel – perhaps the toughest critics of any adaptation. “But ultimately it’s not the same media,” the exec adds. “It has to work episodically. It’s a completely different structural undertaking. That’s why it’s far more important to remain true to the essence of the characters than it is to be making wholesale changes to the plot.”

Brent is an executive producer on The Flatshare, the 42-produced series for Paramount+ based on Beth O’Leary’s novel about two 20-somethings who agree to share a flat without meeting each other, communicating only by Post-it notes. “It broadly stays true to the structure of the book and the character arcs,” she says. “The great thing about Beth’s writing is she has this wonderful almost [Jane] Austen-esque technique whereby she’ll sow lots of seeds of social commentary that are really fun to then explore on the wider canvas of TV.

“On the surface, The Flatshare is this delightfully fun romcom, essentially. But look a little deeper and there are actually some quite challenging subjects around power dynamics and romance and relationships, so it allowed us to subvert those expectations of romcoms while still having fun.”

The Flatshare was adapted from Beth O’Leary’s novel

Mundell jokes that while she would like to make a romcom, Sychronicity projects often have a social conscience and something to say about the state of the world and what’s happening in it. “With Song of the Sun God, there hasn’t been an exploration on the small screen in drama of the atrocities of the Sri Lankan Civil War. That book really spoke to us on an emotional level as a way to tell a family saga set against that backdrop that could bring that conflict to life,” she says.

“With The Tattooist, that book is a phenomenon. It’s a timeless piece in many ways, because of the story it tells, but the unique thing about it is that it’s a love story set in a concentration camp. It’s a massive challenge to pull off. Unfortunately, the rise of anti-Semitism continues unabated. Although it was a period piece, it has a lot to say about the contemporary world we live in.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Kenley-Letts has been overseeing adaptations of the Strike crime novels, written by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling (as Robert Galbraith), since The Cuckoo’s Calling first aired in 2017. This year will see an adaptation of the fifth book in the series, Troubled Blood, debut on the BBC and HBO, with the story following private detective Comoran Strike (Tom Burke) and his partner Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) as they delve into a missing persons case that brings them together with a psychotic serial killer.

Ruth Kenley-Letts

Kenley-Letts would likely have felt immense pressure to get that first adaptation right. But after more than five years working on the series, “I know what feels right and what feels wrong for that show,” she says.

The exec has certainly worked on her fair share of adaptations in her role as CEO of both Brontë Film & TV, the company set up to produce projects based on Rowling’s novels, and Snowed-In Productions, which is responsible for series such as The Midwich Cuckoos, You Don’t Know Me and Too Close. Its latest adaptation will see Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) star in Joan, the story of notorious jewel thief Joan Hannington, based on Hannington’s memoirs.

“I wouldn’t like to be a commissioner because you must have great things pitched to you every day, and you can only do so many,” she says. “But I do believe that if a story is good and strong, and if it makes me sit up, then it’s going to make somebody else sit up because I’m just like everybody else. I go home at night and say, ‘What’s on telly tonight?’ I watch what interests me and I think I’m the same as everybody else. I just always feel if I’m interested in this story, the chances are lots of other people will be.”

With Rowling as an executive producer on the Strike adaptations, Kenley-Letts has fostered a close relationship with the author, who reads all the scripts and provides notes – and also ensures the dramatisations don’t diverge too far from her own plots and the seeds she has sown for later instalments of the planned 10-book series.

“If we added something or changed something that didn’t seem like a big deal to us, she’d say, ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that because I’m actually going to be doing that in book eight.’ It’s that kind of detail,” Kenley-Letts explains. “She really is a fabulous collaborator. She gives us the freedom [we need] unless it’s stepping on her toes with future books, because she doesn’t ever want to have to write books with the TV shows in mind. She never wants us to be jumping ahead in any way.”

JK Rowling is heavily involved in the series based on her Strike books

At Sychronicity, Andrew O’Hagan is an exec producer on the two-part adaptation of his novel Mayflies, while The Tattooist of Auschwitz author Heather Morris is a consultant on the Sky series based on her book. Creative director Mundell believes the landscape for authors has changed since she first started adapting books for the screen and is continuing to evolve.

“More authors are jumping into screenwriting and adapting their own material, while some authors prefer to have a bit of distance from it. But we’re always very respectful with authors. It’s important to us that the authors go on the journey with us,” she says. “With The Cry, [author] Helen FitzGerald was across the whole process, but she didn’t want to read any scripts. She wanted to see it come to life on screen. Andrew’s been different. He’s read all of the drafts of the scripts and he’s given his thoughts and his input, which has been really valuable. It just depends on the nature of the author and what’s important to them.”

The Flatshare author O’Leary has been “incredibly generous and trusting,” says Brent of 42’s take on the 2019 novel. “We kept her informed. But she was happy to let us do our side of it, which was great.”

Meanwhile, working for an author-based company means The Ink Factory is always very respectful of novelists’ work and their interest in the process. “It’s often exciting for an author to see their book adapted for the screen, but it can also be scary,” Wolkoff notes. “Writing a book is an intensely individual process, while making a feature film or TV series is inherently collective. You go from one person writing alone in a room to hundreds of people working together on a set. We want to be partners with the authors as we go on that journey together, while also taking their lead on how much, or how little, they want to be part of the process.”

The exec advises against being “overly precious,” however. “While you need to honour the source material and the expectation of fans, the adapter needs to have their own vision to be able to translate the story to screen. Adaptations rarely work when they are literal translations. We love being surprised by new and fresh takes on our IP and are excited by new perspectives.”

Snowed-In Productions’ novel adaptations include You Don’t Know Me

According to Cavendish, before taking on an adaptation, everyone involved should understand that not everything that works on the page is going to work on screen. “The people who are doing it have to be very clear about what is in the material that they love and why that is relevant and interesting and fun, and they should be prepared to reinvent other bits of it,” he says. “I don’t think there are any rules, other than to look at the source material from a completely different perspective, because that’s what the viewer is doing.”

While storylines can be played with, improved or changed, Kenley-Letts says strong characters are the key to adaptations. “I don’t mind if things are changed, but if you lose the spirit of the book then I wonder why you pick something in the first place. Each project has its own challenges and you have to work through those.”

Though readers may welcome with trepidation the news that their favourite book is getting the small-screen treatment, adaptations won’t be going out of fashion any time soon as compelling stories, together with an in-built audience and name-recognition, help turn commissioners’ heads.

“That allows for so much potential on the marketing side of things but, primarily, a good story will always win out,” Brent says. “If it’s a great book, people are going to want to come to it, for better or worse.”

Mundell adds: “I always say to authors that they can’t lose, really, because if the show is a big success, everyone will generally attribute a lot of that to the underlying source material and say, ‘It was a great book, of course it’s a great show.’ And if it’s not a great success, they can blame us. They can’t lose.”

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