We tend only to talk about the great books we know which were murdered by being made into terrible films, but we forget that there is another angle to this story.
Producers of film and TV are always looking for new ideas, and screenwriting veterans will tell you that it’s a hell of a lot easier for an unknown writer to sell a script if it’s based on a published book – presuming you have the permission and the rights to do so.
If the book is a New York Times bestseller (presuming also that by the time you’ve read to the end of this article, the concept of the NYT bestseller list has not been rendered meaningless by the endless scams going on right now) it’s a huge help, but sometimes, all you need is a good screenwriter.
You don’t even necessarily need a great story. The best screenwriters are able to identify the kernel of a good story, even if it is poorly written, and rescue it by turning it into a tight, shining screenplay.
But That’s Sacrilege, Tara. You Philistine
Even a weak book can still have a great story, or at the very least, a story which is made great, by virtue of its popularity.
After all, no novel would be popular, if it didn’t strike at least some chord with readers. In order to become a bestseller, there has to be some hook which lures all those thousands to millions of readers into its net. Of course, if it’s considered really bad for whatever reason, it may not become a bestseller at all, but let’s face it, we all know dozens of examples of books which, in our not-so-humble opinion, were an insult to the list.
And why argue with popularity? If readers find something to like, there’s no use in despairing over the opinions of the majority. Art is not solely about execution. It’s about what we like.
A great team can take a book which veers between repetition and blandness to poor plotting to downright awfulness, find the nugget of the story within it, extract that, tart it up, eliminate the silly peripheral stuff, augment the attractive insightful stuff, and make a bloody good film. It should be every novelist’s dream, because nothing else will make a person richer, than a popular movie or TV series based on your book.
And the holy grail, of course, these days, is the TV series, which will not even attempt to condense your 985-page epic adventure into 2 hours of passing shots. Instead, your story and characters can get the full exposition they deserve over 13-22 hours of battles, bravery, and breasts. (All the best TV has breasts in it. If more books had more breasts, there would be more people reading more books. Fact. This is why everything I write now has at least two in it.)
Even Tenuous Arguments Need At Least Some Examples
The Princess Bride was based on a book which was so full of literary devices it came with its own toolbox and utility belt. I got why William Goldman might have done what he did, but the film very wisely altered the overly clever framework and went straight to the heart of the story.
In more recent times, the Twilight series had prose so dodgy it could have offered to fix the guttering on your house for 800 quid: yet, the films had a disturbing kind of charm about them. And loads of terribly irritating chick-lit characters have made me want to punch them in the face, until brought to life on screen by talented actresses, who manage to turn them into acceptable humans (Bridget Jones, Shopaholic et al).
I haven’t read A Song Of Ice And Fire, but several avid fantasy readers have told me that reading the books was a labour, and not necessarily of love. They’d much rather skirt the 3,561,898 details and genealogies and watch Game Of Thrones instead.
It’s A Partnership, Not A Limited Company
Yet it’s not all down on the authors, either. Sometimes a book can be published that just didn’t go the authors’ way. Perhaps if they had just waited a while, or got it out earlier, or had a better editor, or a more forgiving deadline, or been subjected to less genre shoehorning, their book could have been better – or at the very least, the best they could have wanted it to be.
Enter the filmmakers. A movie can make it into what it should have been in the first place.
The Shock-Jock Ending
Books and movies are perfect bedfellows, and authors should be sleeping around. Authors, make eyes at screenwriters. And screenwriters, take an author out on a soppy date. When we’re all in the family way, we could be making beautiful art and literature together. And perhaps even a living.