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As far back as “Gone With the Wind” and the “Wizard of Oz,” Hollywood has made a habit out of adapting popular books into stories for the screen. (Fun fact: The first book ever brought to screen goes all the way back to 1899, when French director Georges Méliès made a version of “Cinderella.”)
But in recent years, Hollywood’s book habit has amped up.
“With so many channels out there in need of scripted programming, Hollywood increasingly looks to books as a breeding ground for material that can be adapted into a series or film,” observes Marc Berman, TV critic at Programming Insider.
Why stories from books? “The immediate advantage is a concept often familiar to the audience.”
But successfully reinterpreting printed material into an audio/visual medium takes nuance.
“The biggest challenge for us was figuring out how to take a book that had a clear beginning, middle and end and expanding it so that we could accommodate an ongoing storyline week to week,” explains David Windsor, who along with Casey Johnson, co-create and co-executive produce ABC’s new series, “Not Dead Yet.”
The duo adapted the comedy from the book “Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up,” written by UK author Alexandra Potter.
“Another challenge was allowing ourselves to veer from the characters and storylines in the book if we felt it was necessary,” says Johnson. “At first you almost feel obligated to stay as true to the original piece of material. But at some point, you allow yourself the freedom to take what’s come before and shape it into what will work for the show.”
With the advent of streaming services, there are more opportunities to cater to a greater variety of audiences, says author Melissa Hill, whose book, “Something From Tiffany’s,” was turned into an Amazon Studios movie.
“Also, there’s a huge appetite for book-to-screen projects that might not necessarily have worked as theatrical adaptations, which is a huge plus for authors,” she says.
Hill has had multiple books adapted and tends to be very hands-off about the process.
“Television and film writing is a completely different beast that comes with its own challenges and constraints, so I’m very happy to hand those off to someone else,” Hill acknowledges. “Besides, I’ve already told my story exactly how I wanted to, and am always intrigued to see someone else’s interpretation of it.”
Enter screenwriter Tamara Chestna, who worked on “Tiffany’s,” her third book adaptation to be produced in the last few years.
“Books are such a great source of stories. People and executives really get excited about bringing them to life. There’s something that’s very intoxicating about reading books and living with those characters for so long – we don’t have the luxury to do that in screenplays.”
Chestna gives kudos to actress Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, for putting female-driven books “in the forefront” in recent years, like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens, among others.
“Reese’s Book Club has really done in this era what Oprah’s Book Club did for reading in the ’90s. That has been a real boom in terms of the business … providing a lot of bonafide research and results for studios to say, ‘Look how many women are reading these books because of her. They’re going to show up and see these films and these TV series.’”
Other female stars are supporting the book industry as well: Chestna credits Natalie Portman, who posts frequently on social media about the books she reads, and Emma Roberts, who has a deal with Hulu via her production company, Belletrist TV.
“I like that female stars are pushing the adaptations as well,” Chestna says.
Emma Roberts is developing book adaptations with her Belletrist Book Club. Her first project: Carola Lovering’s “Tell Me Lies” for Hulu.
Lovering says she appreciates how “Lies” has reached a much wider audience via Hulu and has boosted book sales.
“I see it as expanding the story in a way that works better onscreen and ultimately gives new dimensions. The process has been incredibly exciting for me as an author – truly a career and life highlight,” she says. “The earlier episodes feel closer to the book, but as the season continues, it gets pretty different and becomes its own thing.”
Lovering, who was brought on as a consulting producer, says that the main challenge “was creating more plot for the series, and making everything more external and cinematic, because the book is very internal and character-driven.”
During the depressing days of the pandemic, audiences craved escapist, lighthearted fare, but now, according to Duffy, there’s an opening for material with darker themes.
“The development period is so long from [development] to the screen that something ‘not on trend’ now could be the hot thing once it is ready to be released,” she says. “It’s our job to give each creative element or party what they want, but we have such fantastic relationships across genre, and marketplaces in different countries, that we find ourselves being able to find the right home for a commercial romcom and a sci-fi novel all in the same week.”
Book-to-screen adaptations continue to be a big priority at Netflix, given the success of releases like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “From Scratch,” and the films “Enola Holmes 2” and “The Gray Man.”
The market is more competitive than ever. That’s why Jinny Howe, Netflix’s vice president of drama series, has been staying focused on the stories and authors that she sees having the most impact for Netflix members – the ones where viewers see elements of their own lives reflected onscreen.
“The benefit of this is that we are seeing a boom in so many incredible stories and fresh perspectives emerge, expanding the range in the stories we share and experience,” Howe says.
That means more opportunities for authors to write stories that represent their individual lived experiences, and then “to amplify those stories around the world as television series and films,” says Howe.
She pointed to the success of Molly Smith Metzler’s Netflix adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid.”
“It has been incredible to witness how audiences have connected with the themes of motherhood, poverty, and survival from the book all the way through the series.”
It also works in reverse: Audiences seek out the books their favorite series are based on or inspired by.
“We saw a huge new audience turn to the ‘Bridgerton’ books after the series initially launched. It was great to see them back on all of the bestseller lists, and for author Julia Quinn to further expand upon that universe for new fans,” Howe says.
At one point, five books from the series were on the New York Times Bestsellers list, with “The Duke and I” holding steady at #1 for four weeks.
Howe partners with authors and publishers to support titles with “Now a Netflix Series” book seals and bursts.
“This is a virtuous cycle and ultimately audiences win by having multiple outlets to experience some of their favorite stories.”
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