John Updike reportedly hated the 1987 film version of The Witches of Eastwick while Harper Lee liked Robert Mulligan's To Kill A Mockingbird enough to give Gregory Peck her father's pocket watch. Despite how writers feel about seeing their work come to life on the silver screen, film adaptations of novels have historically made up about one-third of Hollywood productions, and titles in the works suggest this number will increase.
Film critic Garen Daly joined Margery Eagan and Jim Braude today to discuss Hollywood's predilection for turning books into movies, and why some adaptations work better than others.
What matters is not necessarily what material is adapted but how, according to Daly. "You can't take 400 pages of book and convert it into two hours of movie without coming up with a different approach."
Tom Wolfe's novels, for instance, have run the gamut of good and bad reception. Commercially and critically the 1990 film The Bonfire of the Vanities based on Wolfe's novel of the same name suffered from a jumbled mess of a script, lackluster performances from its lead actors and a completely "miscast" Tom Hanks as the bad guy character. As Daly described it, "It brought all the bad things of the 1980s into it."
On the other hand, the 1983 film version of Wolfe's The Right Stuff was better suited to presenting Wolfe's careful research in thrilling visuals, and eventually Robert Ebert named it one of the best films of that year.
If what's to come this summer is a sign of the times, the results are telling — among the most anticipated titles are film adaptations of novels that include Lois Lowry's The Giver, John Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man and Elmore Leonard's Life of Crime. John Green's The Fault In Our Stars literary base made the film a sure-fire hit when fans turned to YouTube by the thousands to watch the trailer.
Some film scholars like Andrew S. Allen of Short Of the Week have interpreted the rise of books-into-films as a sign of Hollywood's waning creativity, by using data to show that there were about half as many original filmsin the 2000s as there were in the 1980s. But the real answer is likely more simple according to Daly: film adaptations of books make more money at the box office.
Just look at the numbers. For the past three years, at least half of the top 10 highest grossing films each year have been adaptations of the written word, with the most titles belonging to genres like young adult fiction and graphic novels, according to the MPAA's annual Theatrical Market Statistics reports. When adjusted for ticket price inflation, the 1939 film Gone With the Wind — based on the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — would have made more than $1.6 billion by now.
Film industry executives tend to conceptualize popular books as "brands" to take advantage of the pre-existing fan base. This ensures the production becomes a hit. "It becomes a book re-sold as a movie," Daly said.
Bibliophiles need not be too concerned, however. The history of film includes many examples of movie adaptations that catapulted the original written material to a level of success it might not have otherwise reached. Charles Webb's 1963 novel The Graduate is one such narrative.
"The movie changed the country but no one knew about the book," Daly said. Following the film's legendary success, Webb wrote a sequel and it was even adapted for the stage.
To hear Daly's take on the art of adaptation, listen below: