So You Want to Be in Pictures?

cinema clapper and film tape

At some point in their careers, just about every novelist will yearn to see their books on the silver screen.

However, the number of authors who are fortunate enough to have movies made and actually like the final film version, are few and far between.  Movies have been found to be a proverbial “good news, bad news” experience for authors.

An illustration of this is Roald Dahl’s children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written in 1964.  The first movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 was not what Roald Dahl had in mind at all. In fact, the “darker” remake in 2005 starring Johnny Depp was actually closer to the intent of the author, but not revered nearly as much by viewer as the 1971 version with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

E.B White hated the “jolly songs” in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte’s Web. The 2005 live action remake was closer to the author intent.

Another interesting example was P.L. Travers who wrote the Mary Poppins books. She was so disgusted by the Disney movie that she placed a clause in her will that no American would ever work on future film versions of her books. This story is now depicted in a movie of its own which released last Friday called “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Tom Clancy widely disliked and distanced himself from the movies made from his books. Stephen King has had legendary battles with producers. Clive Cussler actually sued the film producers of the movie “Sahara” (see this link for some details as of January 2013).

So, what problems do authors have with movies made from their books?  Complaints tend to fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Plot elements left out, changed or added
  2. Characters left out, changed or added
  3. Creative vision

To be fair, the producers of movies have time and money constraints.  A 100,000-word novel might need a trilogy of two-hour movies to cover everything.  So, at the outset, they need to cut out about half the content.  Most likely a secondary plot line and numerous characters would be deleted. No doubt that writing a screenplay is different than writing a book.

A common battle is casting.  If you envision your protagonist as a six-foot five-inch John Wayne-type and the movie producer casts a short and sensitive leading man, you can begin the cycle of disappointment.  Even if the author is involved in the movie production is not a guarantee everything will run smoothly.

For Christian authors, the risks of working with Hollywood can be quite high.  Spiritual content will most likely be eliminated or sanitized beyond recognition.  Inclusion of violence, sexuality, profanity and general edgier content is almost assured. When you invite all your Christian friends to the premiere, they will most likely doubt your salvation after seeing a PG-13 adaptation of your Christian novel. Steve Laube tells me of a producer who wanted to add an opening scene to one of his client’s stories “to show the sinful depths to which someone could fall in order to show the arc of redemption.” And then the producer said, “I can’t get any funding unless we get the film rated at least PG-13.” (The client chose not to pursue the film option.)

Even for Christian filmmakers, where the Christian content is maintained and the edgier content is not added, authors will have disagreements over plot elements, characters and creative vision.

So, let’s assume everything goes to your liking with the production.  Enter the reviewers and viewers. The reviewers are an entirely different group than book reviewers and they are very hard to please. Your movie receives bad reviews, it spends two weeks in theaters and goes to on-demand TV. Having fun yet?

So, you want to be in pictures? Fasten your seat belt low and tight across your lap and hang on to the handrails; you are in for a ride.  A check of reality is that it can be a mixed bag for the millions of dollars spent.

Anyone with experiences with books to film?

16 Responses to So You Want to Be in Pictures?

  1. Pegg Thomas December 17, 2013 at 5:23 am #

    It’s very rare that I like a movie more than the book. As in, almost never. Probably why I rarely go to the movies. 🙂

  2. Carol Topp CPA December 17, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    Dan, I don’t have a book-to-film experience, but my nonfiction book, Starting a Micro Business, was made into a public television show and it was a great experience!

    The TV station let me create the script from my book and filmed me, as the host, speaking in front of a live audience. And they sent a crew to me for two days of filming “b-roll” (profiles of 6 teenagers with micro businesses).
    They named me as co-producer with full distribution rights to the DVD. I give the DVD away at speaking events and conferences when customers buy a set of my Micro Business for Teens books.
    As if that isn’t enough, the public TV station gathered all the funding and paid me a nice fee as the “talent.”
    I learned a lot about television production and found the entire experience was terrific.
    Of course, presenting the content of a nonfiction book on public TV is very different from a novel becoming a feature film.

    If anyone is interested here’s the TV show on YouTube:

  3. Heather Day Gilbert December 17, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    Wow, interesting thoughts today. I was quite convinced my first novel would be right up M. Night Shalmayan’s alley…years later, in hindsight, I see the spiritual themes would lock me out of a Hollywood future with that one (not to mention the book still isn’t published! Ha). I think TV series sometimes do more justice to books, possibly because the time restraints aren’t so rigid–for instance, the Anne of Green Gables series or classics, like Jane Austen, Dickens, Agatha Christie, etc. Still, subplots and side characters are often eliminated. I’m hoping the upcoming big-screen version of The Silver Chair stays true to Lewis’ book–there are such deep truths in it.

  4. Jeanne Takenaka December 17, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    I’ve never thought I would write something “good enough” to be rolled on the silver screen. After reading some of the frustrations very famous authors have dealt with, I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to go that route. The stretching of integrity, the tearing apart and possible re-building of my story, the politics….not sure I want that.

    I’ve enjoyed a few books-turned-to-movies, but others have left me cold, either because they veered FAR away from the story, or they added in elements I didn’t like. It’s truly a fine line to walk getting a book turned into a film. You would definitely need the right people in charge to do it well.

  5. Angela Breidenbach December 17, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    That’s a sad situation for Sahara. I loved the movie and have watched it a few times. But didn’t even know it was a book. I actually have a dream to learn the art of writing for screen. I’m curious how the novelization of movies works in reverse. Do people like them better?

    • Dan Balow December 17, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Movie novelizations are generally for those who have seen the film and want to experience the same thing in written form. Not sure people like them better than the film itself. They are similar to releasing a musical soundtrack.

  6. Thomas Allbaugh December 17, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Thanks for this shot of reality. To add to this list of books-to-movies you’ve given, I can guess how J.R.R. Tolkien might respond to the Peter Jackson, orc-infested Hobbit films were he here today to see them.

  7. Elizabeth Kitchens December 17, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    That is sad. I’d love to see my novel on the silver screen, but I guess I should be careful what I wish for. Are there similar problems with plays? One of my characters is described as being very hairy with bright blue eyes. I got quite a shock a few years ago when a college freshman matching that description walked into my Sunday school class. Ever since then I’ve wanted to see a play based on my book with him in it.

    • Dan Balow December 17, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Plays can often cause similar problems for authors as movies. Not the least of which is that the story needs to be contained in the limits of a stage and various things are “alluded to” rather than shown.

      About 10 years ago, I attended a stage play based on a Christian novel and the producer tried to portray too much…play lasted four hours.

      • Elizabeth Kitchens December 17, 2013 at 10:57 am #

        Four hours! Les Miserables isn’t even that long and the abridged version of that book is hefty!

    • Steve Laube December 17, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      This past weekend my wife and I attended the world premier of the stage play for THE GREAT DIVORCE. The adaptation was magnificent. But imagine trying to depict C.S. Lewis’ famous book into a one act stage play using only three actors.

      If you have the opportunity to see it as the play travels the country in 2014 it is a MUST SEE:

  8. Sharyn Kopf December 17, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    This is precisely why I wouldn’t want to see my novel optioned into a movie. I am curious about Saving Mr. Banks because I’ve read how much Travers hated what Disney did with her story. Which is sad because people LOVE that movie. I know it was my favorite when I was a child. But, on the other hand, I’ve never read the book.

    Actually, my interest would be in writing screenplays. One of my life dreams is to script a Christmas romance for Hallmark. 🙂

  9. Peter DeHaan December 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    This reminds me of the saying, “The only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity.” I wonder if there’s am a parallel theme with movies: The only thing worse than a bad screen adaptation is no movie deal at all?

  10. Fred Rudy February 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I’ve had the privilege of optioning several film projects. One was actually completed. The challenge is balancing the rights of the rights hold, the desires of the author, the integrity of the story and the work of the producer to complete a marketable film. It requires careful selection of the producer. One who wants to have the strong support of the publisher and the author. The challenge then is to hammer that out in the Option/Purchase agreement.

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