A Week In Books: The quest for a new Booker sponsor

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The Independent Culture

The new year arrives with the latest and - sadly - the last crop of category winners for the Whitbread Book of the Year competition. And a sumptuous valedictory spread it turns out to be. Ali Smith and Tash Aw (for novels and first novels), Christopher Logue (for poetry), Hilary Spurling (for biography) and Kate Thompson (for children's books) collectively write a footnote into literary history as the final contenders for the overall Whitbread title, due to be announced on 24 January. As for the health clubs-to-chain restaurants giant, it seems that a well-managed and universally admired package of book prizes no longer fits the profile of the group that now boasts of its "strategic investment in Pizza Hut". Beneath the thin crust of artistic altruism there lurks the deep, deep pan of corporate strategy.

So the hunt continues for fresh sponsorship: a necessary evil of cultural jamborees, although individual patrons always determine whether the accent falls on the necessity - or on the evil. At present, elite banking and investment firms seem to have decided that the upmarket stardust that (sometimes) showers the literary scene may dazzle wealthy clients. This snobbish alignment rather undermines the work dedicated book-biz people do to promote reading as a classless pursuit. If we must have big-name sponsors, I'd even feel happier with the Tesco Booker Prize.

There is, however, one vast sector of the consumer economy that takes an enormous amount out of literature, past and present, and puts relatively little back. More than ever before, the big and small screens both depend on books for much of their most popular - and prestigious - raw material. For millions of contented viewers, the autumn and Christmas seasons will have passed in a long, luxurious banquet of quality adaptations, as cinema and television feasted on the creative flesh of Charles Dickens, J K Rowling, Jane Austen, John le Carré, C S Lewis, Ian Rankin and so, indefinitely, on. If you fancy a promising new movie this month, then Brokeback Mountain (from Annie Proulx) opens today; Memoirs of a Geisha and Jarhead (respectively, Arthur Golden and Anthony Swofford) next week; even, remarkably, A Cock and Bull Story (from Sterne's Tristram Shandy) in a fortnight's time.

No moment in recent cinema revealed the near-abject devotion of screen storytelling to its literary antecedents better than Peter Jackson's earnest shoehorning of motifs from Conrad's Heart of Darkness into his King Kong. After all, the gigantic ape caper could otherwise only cite a storyline by the downmarket Edgar Wallace as its literary source. Hollywood high-mindedness now decrees that a beyond-lavish $207m.-epic buffs up its pedigree with solemn allusions to an early-modernist masterwork by a writer who fretted constantly about making ends meet.

The screen takes; but the screen gives little back. With out-of-copyright texts (such as Bleak House), resounding successes may cost not a single penny. With copyright-protected material, producers will often pay handsomely to authors or their heirs and legatees. Still, these one-off rights deals, however generous, seldom help re-stock the storehouse of literature. They reward the work, not the wider culture that shaped it.

To its credit, the endlessly book-dependent Beeb does try to nourish one branch of writing via BBC Four's support for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Yet the movie studios that raid the ark of EngLit - to incredibly lucrative effect - currently do next to nothing to replenish this precious treasure-trove. So perhaps the quest for a successor sponsor to Whitbread should look further afield than the usual suited suspects in the City. To begin with, does anyone have a direct line to Steven Spielberg?

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