Reading Room

Steve Clarke reports on how the importance of known IP is driving intense competition for book rights. 

Adapting books for TV is as old as the medium itself. But in the age of peak TV, the imperative to option a title and maybe, just maybe, discover the next Game of Thrones—based of course on the fantasy novels of George R. R. Martin—has never been greater.

Crime novels by Agatha Christie or P. D. James; spy tales spun by John le Carré or Graham Greene; classic literature penned by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens; contemporary fiction like Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet; or a memoir such as Howard Marks’ Mr Nice. These stories offer potentially rich pickings for producers and distributors.

“In the old days, people used to read the whole Booker shortlist, pick a couple of titles they liked and see if the rights were available,” recalls Hilary Salmon, the head of drama London at BBC Studios. “Now the rights will not be available because the books have been optioned at the proof stage.”

Such is the hunger for content that it is not only successful novels that are being snapped up. “In the last couple of years, we’ve put in bids involving large sums of money for factual books that haven’t even been written yet, based on a 15-page proposal,” adds Salmon, who in July announced that BBC Studios is developing Mr Nice in tandem with Independent; a feature film based on Marks’ career as a cannabis smuggler was released in 2010.

Lars Blomgren, Endemol Shine Group’s head of scripted for EMEA, agrees, “Nowadays a lot of book rights disappear before the book is published.”

Some of the most garlanded television of the past two years owes its origins to the printed word. A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant in a career-defining performance as disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe, and Ben Whishaw as his lover, Norman Scott, was based on John Preston’s account of the same name. Few TV shows capture the zeitgeist more than Killing Eve, adapted from the Codename Villanelle series of novellas written by Luke Jennings. Margaret Atwood’s classic tome formed the basis for The Handmaid’s Tale; Big Little Lies was based on Liane Moriarty’s Australian bestseller.

And don’t forget the rave reviews for Hulu’s reboot of Catch-22, starring George Clooney, a novel considered impossible to successfully adapt for television. No one needs reminding that Amazon reportedly spent $250 million alone on securing the rights to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

So what exactly is driving the rash of book adaptations? “We find known IP raises a project significantly in the eyes of potential buyers,” says Dan Cohen, president of worldwide home entertainment and television distribution at Paramount Pictures Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution. Cohen and his team landed Channel 4 and Sky Italia as partners on Catch-22. “We have successfully licensed the series throughout the world and it has played to great success,” he adds.

“With book adaptations, you are able to build on the readers’ expectations and you already have a fan base,” says Françoise Guyonnet, the executive managing director for TV series at STUDIOCANAL. “Audiences will be familiar with the subject matter, and there is already an appetite for the story. A book adaptation will also significantly cut down the development time on a project. I think that the reality is that investors—broadcasters and platforms—are looking for security.”

“I am not sure that book adaptations are over-indexing against scripted shows based on original ideas,” suggests Richard Halliwell, the CEO of DRG. “Certainly shows based on books provide an element of security. A lot of the work is done already. If it’s a successful book, there is potentially a proven audience.”

BBC Studios’ Salmon agrees, noting, “In terms of the story working and audiences being interested in watching it, a book adaptation is as much of a guarantee as you could ask for.”

TV’s creative ambition in the age of high-end, box-set drama is another factor driving the spate of book adaptations. Splashing the cash on an event series derived from a novel offers producers the opportunity to make TV as visually accomplished as any feature film. The Ink Factory’s 2016 adaptation of le Carré’s The Night Manager, directed by Susanne Bier, “felt like we were being given a Bond movie every week for six weeks,” opines Salmon.

As DRG’s Halliwell says, “With budgets seeming to go only one way, the ability to more fully realize ambitious books through TV adaptations is becoming easier and easier.” He adds, “If you can short-cut the connection to an audience, book sales give you not just numbers but also demographics and geography as well.”

Paramount Television boasts an eclectic mix of book-based projects, Cohen notes, including Looking for Alaska, an eight-episode limited series based on the John Green novel of the same name, and The Devil in the White City, based on the nonfiction book about an architect and a serial killer in the run-up to the 1893 World’s Fair. Both are destined for Hulu.

It is one thing to re-adapt a proven winner like Lord of the Rings or Great Expectations. A far bigger challenge is discovering new titles that can translate into compelling TV, a task that requires producers and distributors to forge relationships with agents, publishers and other third parties.

“From a distributor’s point of view, there’s been a trend of getting close to the core content,” explains Halliwell. “Simply acquiring and selling doesn’t work anymore. Increasingly, distributors are looking for novel ways to move up the value chain.” His company has a relationship with The Development Partnership, part of The Artists Partnership, a talent agency that represents wordsmiths, several of whom work with DRG. He adds: “We have two or three long-standing relationships with the likes of Anthony Horowitz and Peter James [creator of fictional detective Roy Grace] who we’ve been collaborating with for some time.”

Sometimes there is a ready-made supply of new titles in house. Late last year, STUDIOCANAL’s parent company, Vivendi, entered a deal to acquire the second-largest French publisher, Editis, an umbrella firm for 50 publishing houses. Editis publishes 4,000 new titles a year and boasts a catalog spanning 45,000 books. “This gives us a huge opportunity to delve into the Editis library and find synergies,” Guyonnet explains.

One relatively new source of stories available to producers hunting down new books is the digital phenomenon Wattpad. Netflix and Hulu have both sourced stories from the hundreds of millions posted on Wattpad. The mobile reading app has launched Wattpad Studios and has alliances with Sony Pictures Television in the U.S., Bavaria Fiction in Germany, Mediacorp in Singapore, iflix in Indonesia, Mediaset in Italy, Lagardère Studios in France, NL Film in the Netherlands, CBC in Canada and Huayi Brothers in Korea, among others.

“We can tell the screenwriters and producers, Keep chapters one, five and seven,” Allen Lau, Wattpad’s CEO and co-founder, says of how data and analytics can be used in the adaptation process. “In chapter seven, only keep the first two paragraphs because they generated the most comments. By analyzing the 100,000 comments on a story, we can tell you, Cut out this character. We can provide data and insights that weren’t possible before. In the past, with so many movie adaptations of books, people would say, It sucks, the book is so much better! It was because the screenwriter had no idea what the audience would like and which chapters or paragraphs are the most important. It’s all based on guesswork. We take that out of the equation. We’re not replacing the job of the screenwriter; we’re not replacing the job of the editor. We’re turning humans into superheroes. We equip them with the right data and insights so they can make the best possible decisions.”

For platforms and channels that crave a younger audience, Wattpad looks like a potential gold mine. However, it seems that multiplatform players are yet to tap into its potential.

“We’re still gravitating to known authors, but it is an amazing source for new material,” says Tanya Lopez, executive VP for movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions at A+E Networks’ Lifetime and Lifetime Movies.

At Endemol Shine, Blomgren thinks Wattpad offers great potential. “It’s interesting the way they find their stories, and we’re always desperate for distinctive stories,” he says.

“It’s a valuable way of pre-testing the popularity of an unknown book,” remarks Ruth Berry, the managing director at ITV Studios Global Entertainment, highlighting Wattpad’s ability to track reader reaction to its titles.

At the other end of the literary world are classic stories that filmmakers keep returning to. ITV’s acclaimed 2018 seven-part reboot of Vanity Fair, co-produced with Amazon Studios, came 20 years after the BBC last serialized the book. Why return to William Thackeray’s magnum opus? “People love the story,” says Berry. “You know there is a ready-made audience and already a level of success.  Storytelling moves on; production values have grown. There are new actors and new writers. People always have a passion to reinvent or retell.”

As Blomgren points out, everybody knows that Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined for centuries. “One reason is that the audience wants to see these plays again,” he says. “A lot of it is down to timing. Certain stories are better at certain times.”

Russia Television and Radio/Sovtelexport distributes Karen Shakhnazarov’s eight-part version of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—a classic novel that has been adapted for film and television some 20 times.

Julia Matyash, the director of Sovtelexport, explains the attraction of adapting great literature. “Great books are usually telling great stories, with strong characters and universal problems,” she says. “They are also multi-dimensional. Reading the same book at different ages, you read it differently every time. The richness of the material gives the creator broad possibilities to reinvent and interpret a well-known story and to find new meanings in it. TV’s constant technological revolution provides new opportunities to enhance the production values and to create extraordinary and authentic worlds.”

Lifetime’s Lopez insists that the decision to make a new version of a book that’s already been produced for TV or film can be difficult. “We don’t do it that often,” she says. “It happens when we feel we can either make the production better or introduce it to a new audience with a more contemporary cast.”

STUDIOCANAL will launch a contemporary version of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds at MIPCOM, produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa and AGC Television. Starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern, the new version of the sci-fi classic is set in modern Europe. “We will look at the humanity in the story,” explains Guyonnet. “It examines how people react under an alien threat and how they try to survive it. The emphasis is on the characters, rather than the science fiction.”

One of the advantages of choosing classics is that the producers need not worry unduly over taking liberties with the author’s work. Adapting the work of a living author can pose challenges.

How involved in book adaptations are authors? “We take it case-by-case,” says DRG’s Halliwell. “Helen FitzGerald, who wrote The Cry, was very comfortable for Synchronicity Films and Jacquelin Perske to adapt it without too much influence.”

DRG will distribute an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novella The Body, reimagined as an eight-part, high-concept series and relocated from Europe to the U.S. “We want it to be a long-running, returning series,” says Halliwell. “Hanif is very comfortable with it, but he wants to be involved creatively.”

At STUDIOCANAL, authors are “very involved” in the firm’s TV adaptations. “Sabri Louatah, whose novels were adapted into Savages, wrote the scripts in collaboration with Rebecca Zlotowski, [Benjamin Charbit] and David Elkaïm,” says Guyonnet. “We believe it is very important to work closely with the original writer, even if the screen version is very different. The author will help retain the essence of the book and what made it a success originally. We never want to move too far away from that.”

At Russia Television and Radio, Matyash’s approach is different. “A popular author’s name is definitely a big marketing plus for the project. With contemporary authors, it can be a very delicate and complicated matter.

“A novel and a movie are different art objects. Starting from the script, the changes can be drastic. This can be very painful for any author. Besides, the director has his own vision, which is more important for the movie. In some cases, the novel can be used for creating a totally new story.”

Endemol Shine’s Blomgren observes, “As far as we can, we try to stick to the characters, and then if we want to do major changes, we discuss them with the novelist. Writing a script is very different from writing a novel. It’s quite rare that we would reach out to an author. We’d rather people did what they’re best at.”

Some prominent authors are working directly with platforms to develop content—of note, Neil Gaiman with Amazon Studios following the success of Good Omens, and Harlan Coben with Netflix.

Author recognition, a book’s sales figures and the continuity offered by a series of novels are all crucial to deciding which titles to adapt. Ultimately, though, for any successful book-to-TV project, a lot depends on the richness of the story’s central character. This is one reason why the BBC is developing Mr Nice. “Howard Marks is the classic eccentric British anti-hero—and that brings with it a lot of international appeal,” explains Salmon. “Marks is very appealing to young people.”

“Finding unique characters is the most important consideration when you’re considering which books to option,” emphasizes Blomgren. “It’s more important in TV than it is in feature films.”

Guyonnet agrees: “A good story requires strong characters. We look at location too. The story can be local, but it needs to have global appeal to attract an international audience.”

This hyper-competitive market for book adaptations has inevitably resulted in hefty price inflation for the right IP–and there is no sign of this cooling. “The cost of optioning books has gone up faster than house prices,” says BBC Studios’ Salmon. “In under five years, it’s increased tenfold.”

Inevitably, bidding wars occur and publishers, agents and in-demand writers are increasingly applying pressure on producers to put substantial development muscle behind projects based on their books. “Their mantra is, ‘You’ve got to be serious about our property,’” Salmon explains. “‘If you’re going to pick our title, we want to know something is going to happen and we’re going to charge you for the privilege.’”

“You’re investing a huge amount of money before a word of the script is written,” echoes Halliwell. In partnership with Synchronicity Films, DRG won the auction to develop Heather Morris’s bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz, for what is believed to be close to a six-figure sum. “The fact that it was number one on The Times’s best-sellers’ list gave us a degree of comfort that those inflated prices can be worth it,” he adds. Production is expected to start in early 2020.

“Optioning book rights has become something of an arms race,” Halliwell concludes. “People are spending vulgar sums of money on securing rights. If Wattpad could give access to stories at a more commercially beneficial rate, it’s going to be worth looking at.”