For decades, readers repeated the same phrase when Hollywood adapted a beloved novel for the screen: “The book is better than the movie.”
The line became a critical reflex in reaction to one mediocre screen version after the other. From old adaptations like Total Recall to more recent ones like I Am Legend, The Golden Compass, or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Hollywood kept making the same mistake. They trimmed locations to save money, cut characters to shave time, and often misunderstood the emotional core of the source material.
But use of that phrase has gradually faded, replaced by enthusiastic shouts on social media when Hollywood grabs the rights to a classic work of science fiction or a modern twist on fantasy. Book adaptations have simply, swiftly improved. Beginning with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, filmmakers have been paying more attention to their source material. Jackson’s trilogy, in particular, helped demonstrate that a sprawling, complicated novel could be filmed, and it helped lead to shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s The Expanse, Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, and Starz’s Outlander, which are earning critical acclaim and legions of fans.
We appear to be in the midst of a high-profile book-adaptation boom. This year, we will see shows and films based on Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (coming to Netflix), Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (coming to Starz), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (coming to Hulu), while Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is set to hit theaters at some point this year. Other books potentially coming to a screen near you? Frank Herbert’s Dune, V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, Allen M. Steele’s Coyote, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Robert Zelazny’s The Amber Chronicles, and many, many more.
Adapting a hit book isn’t a guarantee of success — just look at 2016’s The Shannara Chronicles on MTV — but Hollywood is, more than ever, perusing bookshelves for inspiration for the next big show or Oscar-friendly movie.
So what changed in the last decade? When did books become a foundation for popular film and television? And what does it mean for the future of Hollywood and book publishers alike?
Established popular books are a comparably faster and data-supported way for studios to develop film and TV plots. As more studios compete to have the next Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, it’s easier to turn to a completed work and fully envisioned (and beloved) world than to develop a story in-house.
“It’s all about managing risk for the studios,” Hawk Otsby, co-writer of Children of Men and producer on Syfy’s The Expanse, explained in an email to The Verge. “It’s extremely difficult to sell a blockbuster original script today if isn’t based on some popular or recognizable material… Audiences know the story, so they’re sort of pre-sold on it. In other words, it has a recognizable [intellectual property] and can rise above the noise [and] competition from the internet, video games, and Netflix.”
Michelle Lovretta, who created Syfy’s Killjoys and Lost Girl, agreed: as audiences demand more from films, costs climb for studios. They want more explosions and more realistic CGI, which makes for bigger budgets. “Adaptations can offer decision-makers the security of a presumed built-in audience.”
The important decision on the studio’s part is selecting the right book for the right medium. “Certain books lend themselves better to TV,” Otsby cautioned. “[The] Expanse as a movie would be terrible, because time constraints would force us to cut so much of the world and character development out. Shutter Island, to name another, would not be a great TV series. You wouldn’t want to live in that world for more than two hours.”
The advantages of on-demand
In a 2011 New York Times interview, George R.R. Martin explained why he decided to write his Song of Ice and Fire series. He was frustrated with the constraints being put on his screenplays — too big, too expensive — and wanted to write a story free of production limitations.
Yet A Song of Ice and Fire found a home at HBO in the form of Game of Thrones, one of the most popular (and sprawling, and expensive) television shows airing right now. The series — a relatively loyal adaptation of the source material — proves there is now a place on television for complicated, massive stories, and that adaptations don’t necessarily need to be dumbed down or simplified.
The way we watch, and the way studios distribute, television in 2017 makes it easier for producers and writers to transition a novel from the page to the screen. For decades, network television was virtually all episodic, so audiences could drop in on a show at any point, without knowing the story of prior episodes. This also allowed networks to syndicate shows like Law & Order, Seinfeld, or The Simpsons, which play on cable most evenings, hoping to nab channel-surfers.
With the advent of VCRs, DVD boxed sets, DVRs, and streaming services, there’s been a rise in more rigorously serialized stories, with shows like The Sopranos, Babylon 5, Lost, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica asking viewers to follow their long, complicated stories from beginning to end.
Novels also provide variety in a crowded television landscape. Shows such as The Man in the High Castle or Game of Thrones have introduced new types of stories to television. Working with the greater diversity of literary stories has allowed showrunners to differentiate themselves from an increasingly crowded field of prestige-television options, and to seek out specific sectors of a splintered viewing audience.
viewing habits have changed as technology has changed
As it’s become easier and more appealing for viewers to consume seasons of television at their convenience; storytellers have been given a larger canvas. The days of discrete 22- or 44-minute episodes have been replaced with episodes with a variety of lengths, often bleeding into each other.
These serialized shows create lived-in worlds, spend more developing characters, and plant dramatic clues that pay off episodes or even seasons later. This environment helps make television — and some films — an ideal medium for adapting book series, which have long benefited from a depth and length that film and TV couldn’t match.
These lived-in worlds are also attractive for another reason: viewers want to get to the end of the story, and when they succeed, these shows can have considerable staying power, running for years on end. Developing a loyal following can be a force-multiplying effect for a studio. An active, enthusiastic fan base helps audiences grow through word of mouth, even leading to spinoffs, as we’ve seen with The Walking Dead, and possibly even Game of Thrones.
All these factors — speed, risk-management, and fan appeal — are appealing to subscription services like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Starz, which hope a rich, ongoing story will lock in subscribers. But cable channels like Syfy, which have long had a relationship with science fiction, are also leveraging the strategy to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing market.
A bonus for books
There’s also a downstream effect. Publishing operates on thin margins: most books don’t turn much profit for their publishers, a problem balanced out by the sales of a few exceptionally successful authors. Every time a George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer sells a book that spends weeks on the best-seller list, that helps hundreds of other authors at the same publisher in a number of smaller ways.
“[Adaptations have] expanded our reach for our authors,” said Scott Shannon, the publisher of Penguin Random House’s Del Rey imprint. “We are selling more of the books that we now publish: we sell substantially more copies than we were five years ago. We’re publishing about the same [number of books], but we’re reaching more people.”
Having good adaptations matters in many ways to readers
Good adaptations become ambassadors to fiction and the genre as a whole. People who enjoyed Game of Thrones went out and picked up books by Brian Staveley or Patrick Rothfuss, while The Martian introduced people to authors like Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson.
The publisher of Hachette’s Orbit imprint, Tim Holman, said that there is “no doubt that a huge success can raise hopes and expectations for new books in the same category, and The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey is a great example of that.”
“There’s lots of really great stuff on the horizon, which is great for us and our authors,” said Shannon. “I think Hollywood in general has recognized that books are a great way to bring compelling content to a large audience, and the book experience, in a lot of cases, it really enriches watching the show.”
In the rush to find new stories, Hollywood has recognized what science fiction and fantasy fans have known for years: there’s plenty of beloved material ripe for adaptation, sitting on shelves. While grumbling about crummy adaptations can still be heard here and there, there’s more enthusiasm and excitement among fans for seeing their favorite book turned into a television show or blockbuster film. While not every book will be the next Game of Thrones-sized hit, it gets the novel out to a larger audience, who will hopefully turn out to their local bookstore to read it first.