So, You Want to Adapt Your Book

Books have been adapted in to new mediums since theatre needed some new ideas. Films, television shows, even musicals today are adaptations of either other films, television shows, or theatre productions due to the lack of originality in today’s society. With this, production companies are often making bank when bringing a popular book or book series to the stage, small screen, or big screen. Iconic stories such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games grossed millions of dollars at the box office, motivating various production companies to adapt screenplays rather than hire original screenwriters. For years, film has been the main way to adapt a book into a visual medium, but in recent history, television shows like A Series of Unfortunate Events or Game of Thrones are proving the success of adapting a well-known story for television instead. I am studying the topic of book adaptations because I believe through my research that the future of adaptations will benefit greatly from making written work into television series over films. Ready?

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As an Interdisciplinary student at Plymouth State University, my major is a combination of the Communication, English, and Theatre, as is this focus topic. The process of adapting a book to a visual medium includes transferring the source material into a screenplay (English), casting and working with actors to produce the desired product (Theatre), and using video production to bring the concept to screen (Communications). This article will delve in to how making a television show and a movie work differently and what there is to gain and lose from both mediums. This will give readers media producers insight on how they benefit.

Firstly, One of the biggest aspects about turning a well known book into either a film or television series is the creative freedom allowed from the author themselves. Studios often choose to purchase the license of the property to adapt it into whatever they want, leaving little for the author to do. Authors can be kept on the production set as consultants, but depending on the contract they sign give them a certain amount of power over the creative decisions. Looking at the Harry Potter film series, J.K. Rowling was a prominent consultant as production had begun before her fifth book was published, and the studio wanted to make sure the movies were consistent with the books she had yet to write. This greatlty helped Alan Rickman with his character of Professor Snape, as “Alan Rickman has said in some interviews how he wasn’t sure of the way to approach Professor Snape until Rowling took him into a little secret – it being all that we learn about him in books 5, 6 and 7.” Contributions like this resulted in a thriving series that became the third-highest grossing film series ever.

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With the Percy Jackson movies however, Rick Riordan has discussed in multiple interviews how he fought the studio on so many creative liberties that they took. He had almost no say in what happened and the decisions made by the studio, saying they would “alienate the expected audience” by turning a story aimed at children into a teen film with bland main actors. With this, two mediocre movies were produced, with the second fixing some of the issues with the first, but ultimately killing the franchise.

This brings up the major risk of putting so much time, money, and effort into a movie and have it being a flop. If the movie is a flop, then there isn’t much room for improvement unless a sequel is released or a new adaptation is made. With television, there is room to improve based on the feedback given by audiences as the series goes on. If the first season doesn’t do very well, writers and producers can take the constructive criticism and build off of that and improve as the show goes along. There’s a reason a number of Netflix series such as BoJack Horseman and Grace and Frankie both had rough first seasons but later rose to critical acclaim. With films, there are some focus test groups to get a feel about how people are going to react to it before it comes out and possibly make a few changes. But that’s nothing like the mass audience feedback of a few episodes being released for mass consumption.

The left half are the main duo as depicted in the television series, while the right is the main duo as depicted in the film version.
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An example of this can be found in Freeform’s Shadowhunters, which barely got a passing grade by critics in it’s first season, with it’s main saving grace being its representation of LGBT+ characters. After this, with some firing and hiring of writers and producers, the following season became popular with teen viewers and found some of it’s footing. It became popular enough to make money off of merchandising for the show and not just from its literary source material, The Mortal Instruments.

A few years before this show came out, a film adaptation was released to theaters, and was critically panned. This absolutely killed the chances or even the opportunity to branch out into sequel movies and build upon what they had started. A television show was created based off of the same source material, the creators ran into similar issues, but because of the difference in medium, the show was more of a success than the film series. “As our reboot-heavy era has shown, what fails in one medium can be reborn in another.

The final comparison I want to make is with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. In 2004, a film version was made of the first three books of the well-known children’s series. Starring Jim Carrey and produced by Nickelodeon films, it featured a star studded cast while doing great justice to the source material. Jim Carrey was excited about a possible film series as he stated in an interview “I don’t have a deal [for a sequel], but it’s one that I wouldn’t mind doing again because there are so many characters.” It received positive reviews and made 209 million dollars at the box office with a budget of 142 million. Not the best numbers, and its sequel was ultimately swept under the rug.

The left is Count Olaf as he is portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris in the TV series. The right is Jim Carrey as Olaf in the film version.
Image Source: https://www.insider.com/barry-sonnenfeld-left-series-unfortunate-events-movie-jim-carrey-2018-4

In 2014, Netflix attained the rights to turn the beloved series into a television series, to great success. Given a high production budget with the talent of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, the series thrived through three seasons on Netflix to critical acclaim and obtained numerous accolades. Instead of cramming the information of three books into two hours, there are two hours dedicated to each book at two episodes a piece. The show was amazingly consistent to the books and is hailed as “outshining” the film version in many ways. This is a prime example that even though the movie wasn’t a failure, the platform of television allowed for the same story to be told in a more successful manner.

Even when a television show fails to be picked up with a produced pilot, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a feature length film bombing. There are pros and cons of each, with movies having one major payout while a television series makes money over time. Plus, the longer a television show is relevant, the more money it makes in merchandise over time. A television series is a lower risk as they are in general more low budget. More changes can be made over time with television series while in a movie, the decision is final. Ultimately, an author choosing to adapt their piece of work into a television series over a movie would leave a lasting impression in people’s homes and hearts, be a lower risk, and overall be beneficial to the producers of media.

References:

Katz, Brandon. “Why Neil Patrick Harris Is ‘Gobsmacked’ by ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’.” Observer, Observer, 12 Feb. 2018, observer.com/2018/02/neil-patrick-harris-talks-serious-unfortunate-events-season-2-netflix-budget/.

Leadbeater, Alex. “Is Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events Better Than The Movie?” Screen Rant, Screen Rant, 19 Jan. 2017, screenrant.com/series-unfortunate-events-movie-vs-tv/.

Martin, Emmie. “Here’s How Much It Costs HBO to Produce One Episode of ‘Game of Thrones’.” CNBC, CNBC, 6 Aug. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/08/04/it-costs-millions-to-produce-one-episode-of-hbos-game-of-thrones.html.

Shamsian, Jacob. “A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Movie and TV Versions of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Reveals One Huge Difference.” INSIDER, INSIDER, 25 Jan. 2017, www.thisisinsider.com/a-series-of-unfortunate-events-movie-tv-comparison-2017-1.

Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “How Netflix Made A Series of Unfortunate Events, Its First Great TV for Families.” The Verge, The Verge, 13 Jan. 2017, www.theverge.com/2017/1/13/14266208/netflix-a-series-of-unfortunate-events-interview-daniel-handler.

“J.K. Rowling.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm0746830/.

Jane Friedman. “How a Book Becomes a Movie.” Jane Friedman, 15 Mar. 2017, www.janefriedman.com/how-a-book-becomes-a-movie/.

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Jackson_%26_the_Olympians:_The_Lightning_Thief.

Rought, Karen. “’Percy Jackson’ Movies Despised by Author Rick Riordan.” Hypable, 21 Mar. 2019, www.hypable.com/percy-jackson-movies-reboot/.

Staff, Marketplace. “Let’s Do the Numbers on ‘Game of Thrones.’” Marketplace, Marketplace, www.marketplace.org/2017/07/21/business/lets-do-numbers-game-thrones.

Uhlich, Keith. “’Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments’: TV Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, 12 Jan. 2016, www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/shadowhunters-mortal-instruments-tv-review-853956.

Lawler, Kelly. “How Netflix’s ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ Outshines the 2004 Film.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 13 Jan. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2017/01/13/a-series-of-unfortunate-events-netflix-2004-film-comparison/96533010/.

Otto, Jeff. “Jim Carrey Interview 2004.” IGN: Interview: Jim Carrey, web.archive.org/web/20061029211755/http://movies.ign.com/articles/573/573820p1.html.

One thought on “So, You Want to Adapt Your Book”

  1. As you keep working on this, think about focus and purpose. Aside from being about adaptations, I’m not sure I yet understand what this paper is trying to claim, or what kind of paper it should be. Finding more academic sources will be helpful to you in getting more of a grip on this. For instance, there’s a whole journal called Adaptation, which could have valuable material for you. This is a highly studied topic, so it’s important to figure out what your own individual angle is on it, and what you can contribute. Your perspective is unique because you are you, you’ve seen and done and studied things in ways nobody else has. Bringing that into the article will make it meaningful for readers.

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