Screen test: Look what they've done to my book!

Book-writing is a very different art from writing screenplays. So what happens when an author's cherished creation finds itself in Hollywood's tender embrace? Charlotte Cripps asked nine novelists how they cope
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The Independent Culture

A bestselling or award-winning novel does not necessarily make a good blockbuster movie – The French Lieutenant's Woman, anyone? – but how do novelists feel when their books are being turned into films?

This is a good time to pose that question, with Toby Young's How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, directed by Robert B Weide, coming out on 3 October, followed by Chris Cleave's Incendiary, directed by Sharon Maguire (24 October) and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, directed by Clark Gregg (21 November).

The novelist Rose Tremain, for whom the film version of her 1990 Booker-nominated novel Restoration (out in 1995, starring Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant and Robert Downey Jr), was "a huge disappointment", says that she couldn't sit through the film again. But other adapted writers often find themselves basking in the glory of rampant book sales. These include Ian McEwan, whose 2001 Booker-nominated novel Atonement was last year transformed into the Keira Knightley/James McAvoy box-office hit, directed by Joe Wright. According to Nielsen BookScan, Atonement sold 661,827 copies before the movie came out last year. After the film's release, sales of the tie-in book total 642,595 so far – so the film has doubled sales of the book.

Soon to be released as movies are Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife, directed by Robert Schwentke and due out in the United States in November. Richard Yates's classic Revolutionary Road, due for American release in December and directed by Sam Mendes, reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since Titanic. And the sixth instalment of JK Rowling's Harry Potter saga, The Half-Blood Prince, is now scheduled for release next summer.

Other books in the movie pipeline include next year's version of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson. Tim Winton's Dirt Music, directed by Phillip Noyce, is due out in 2010. And firmly on the movie "to do" list are Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.

The film tie-in editions produced by the publishing houses for the big movie adaptations can sell in enormous numbers, as well as boosting sales of the regular editions. According to Random House, the tie-in edition of Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) sold more than 330,000 copies, and sales of the standard edition picked up by 50 per cent at the same time. The tie-in of Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) sold more than 300,000 copies, and the standard edition sold more than 250,000 copies that year.

Hannah Ross, a senior press officer at Random House, says: "If the film rights have been acquired for a novel, I don't go any further down the line in mentioning it, with any confidence, unless a name has been attached to the movie. Once you hear that Peter Jackson is directing The Lovely Bones, you know it is going to happen."

Successful recent adaptations of novels include Atonement, The Golden Compass, There Will Be Blood (aka Oil!) and No Country for Old Men. The flops include Love in the Time of Cholera. Classic films such as the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany's, A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient, Schindler's List (aka Schindler's Ark) and Lord of the Flies have stood the test of time.

A total of 39 short-listed Booker novels have been, or are currently being, turned into movies since the inaugural Booker in 1969. The first Booker winner to be turned into a film was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975), whose film version, directed by James Ivory, was released in 1983.

Some novelists prefer not to turn their attention to the movie business and decide firmly to stick to the day job, such as Michael Ondaatje – even after his life-changing experience on set with The English Patient's director Anthony Minghella, who worked closely with the author in adapting his book. But others have warmly embraced the film industry, as Irvine Welsh has done since Danny Boyle's film adaptation of Trainspotting was released in February 1996. Welsh, now a partner in two film production companies, is making his television directorial debut with Good Arrows on ITV4. He is also doing the screenplay for his book The Meat Trade, directed by Antonia Bird and starring Colin Firth and Robert Carlyle. Both projects are due out next year.

Welsh says: "The development of independent feature-film projects is invariably a long, arduous and frustrating process. I have learnt never to talk about them at least until the first day of principal photography, and preferably not until after the wrap."

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club (1999), Choke (out in November)

"By the time your book becomes a movie, you have distanced yourself from it and you have a much thicker skin. You know people are going to perceive it badly, misinterpret it, attack it. I told the screenwriter-director of Choke, Clark Gregg, 'Don't be too faithful, don't stick to the book.' It had to be Clark's story too. We talked back and forth for about eight years. I think it surprised both of us when production actually started.

Both Fight Club and Choke had public deceptions in them. In Fight Club, it was a man who led dying people to believe he was also dying. In Choke, it is the man pretending to choke who lets people think they have saved his life. In both books, the person is publicly revealed as a faker. In both Fight Club and Choke, that scene doesn't make it into the movie. Maybe it would just exhaust the audience to try to include every plot point.

In 1999, Fight Club opened against The Story of Us with Bruce Willis and Double Indemnity with Sandra Bullock. It came in third with $11m. One of the producers called me, ranting and screaming, 'It's tanking! It's going to ruin all of us.' It was a dark, horrible feeling. Only with the DVD did the movie reach people and achieve popularity.

Fight Club has given people an introduction to the aesthetic, so they have an idea what to expect. Sam Rockwell, who plays Victor, a sex addict con-man, in Choke fits into the character, who has to be a failed adult but also young.

Every once in a while there would be a draft of the screenplay. I'd read it and like it, or there would be changes. There was also periodic news about casting. For a long time, Brian Gosling – even Heath Ledger – was pencilled in to play Victor. Susan Sarandon was going to play the mother, then Helen Mirren, but her price went up because of The Queen and the Academy Award.

It could have been more fun to watch Choke. My mother was in hospital this spring; we thought she might die. It was so painful to see those scenes where Victor is with his mother in hospital.

What did I think of Choke the movie? The romantic shift from low comedy to desperate vulnerable tragedy in the movie is a huge success."

Toby Young
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (out on 3 October)

"Several authors advised me to have nothing to do with the film because their experience of seeing their books turned into films was so soul-destroying. Naturally, I ignored this and tried to shoehorn myself into the process at every juncture. This wasn't an effort to protect my work. My main concern was that the resulting film should be good, irrespective of how far it departed from the source material, and I was arrogant enough to think I had a contribution to make. By the time Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlson, the producers, came on board I had managed to attach myself as screenwriter, but they detached me in short order. They brought on Peter Straughan, a veteran screenwriter, but kept me in the loop, sending me drafts, patiently going through my 'notes'. Peter exercised superhuman restraint. I was very happy with the final draft, and persuaded Peter to stick in a few of my gags.

When the film went into production in summer 2007, the director, Bob Weide, didn't want me on set, which is fair enough. I was a little more involved in post-production. My credit got bumped up from associate producer to co-producer. I've done promotion – I went to Cannes – but the producers haven't made up their minds whether my presence will help or hinder.

I'm very pleased by how the film's turned out. It's different from the book in all kinds of ways, but the spirit of it has been faithfully preserved."

Chris Cleave
Incendiary (out on 24 October)

"As a writer, I'm absolutely committed to my text and fairly laid-back about everything else – all the stuff I don't control just has to look after itself. I hope nothing will ever teach me this harder than my first novel, Incendiary. It's a sad but defiantly funny story of a mother's love in a time of terror, and its opening event, a terrorist attack on London, sank it on publication day. This was – horrifically – 7 July 2005.

But, before publication, another uncontrollable event happened that was uniquely positive – Archer Street Productions came to see me for the movie rights to the novel, and I liked them enough to say yes straight away. It happened so quickly that I hadn't finished the final edit of the book.

Now, with equal dispatch, the movie of Incendiary is about to be released – a beautiful film starring Michelle Williams, Ewan McGregor and Matthew Macfadyen.

I think you get to make exactly one decision about the movie of your novel, and that is who you allow to make it. You look into their eyes and decide whether they are committed to the spirit of the work. That done, you let everything else be their decision, otherwise you're neither respecting them as artists, nor committing to your own next project.

Sharon Maguire, the director, wrote an amazing screenplay for Incendiary. She consulted me often, she was fun to work with, and her ideas were smarter than mine – so in the end I decided that my job was simply not to be a dick about the whole thing. My guess is that there's nothing worse for a director than a possessive novelist.

Filming was fun. I was shocked not to have a folding chair with 'NOVELIST' stencilled on the backrest, but I did get to go for a drink with Michelle Williams, which was magical.

And the greatest, most humbling thing was watching the actors' performances. You figure out pretty quickly why these people get paid so much. To witness them creating a depth and meaning beyond what I had imagined from my dialogue left me in awe.

I feel very lucky to have lived through this, and Michelle's life-changing performance is something I will treasure all my days."

Beryl Bainbridge
The Dressmaker (1988), An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), Sweet William (1980)

"The film version of An Awfully Big Adventure – directed by Mike Newell, with a wonderful cast; Alan Rickman, Prunella Scales and Hugh Grant – was very close to my book. The characters came out as I meant them to be.

Hugh Grant was unknown when he played the main character. By the time the film came out, he was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, so I'm afraid my film was lost because he's gay in it and is not a romantic lead. Personally, I think it is the best performance he has ever given.

I remember feeling quite jarred watching Jenny Agutter playing Ann in the screen version of my book Sweet William, because that character is based on myself. The chief character William McClusky, who was meant to be Scottish, was played by an American chap, Sam Waterston, who played a lawyer on the television series Law and Order.

I have never really been consulted about the films of my books – but obviously, I am always delighted when my books are turned into films. I don't take my work all that seriously, and I'm not bothered about things remaining faithful. The Dressmaker – starring Billie Whitelaw and Joan Plowright playing my aunts Margo and Nellie in Liverpool – was a red-carpet event in Leicester Square. Although the actors were very good and the words were the same, the essence was not. I was writing about my childhood in the 1940s, and obviously it didn't match the picture in my head.

A film version of my novel The Bottle Factory Outing was made in Canada, but it was completely unrecognisable as my novel. In my book, the characters came from down the road at a bottle factory where I worked in Camden Town. I wrote about a works outing to Windsor Park and I stuck a death in the story. But the film version was about Americans going off into the desert, based roughly on my idea of a works outing going horribly wrong."

Rose Tremain
Restoration (1995)

"I watched the film of Restoration. It had a beautiful surface texture and two performances of great power, but the storytelling let it down. The script should have been reworked before they ever started shooting. As a piece of cinema it had no coherence, no emotional logic. That depressed me a good deal.

Producers are right to be wary of authors adapting their own work, because they generally want to hang on to too much. To turn a book into a movie, I think you have to be prepared to set out all the 'ingredients' that went into the novel and chuck half of them away and reshape the rest into an alternative dish. This dish will have the 'taste' of the book, but it will have a spare, astringent, movie purity to it. And the result is not always worse than the book. It can be a beautiful thing."

Fay Weldon
Puffball (2008)

"I remember writing the last line of Puffball, the novel. The new baby welcomes its parents into a new world. They are the bit-part players in his drama, I claim, dancers in his dance, singers to his tune. 'Come in Richard. Come in Liffey,' I wrote, and then in triumph, 'The End'. Only of course it wasn't the end. Seldom is. Here it is again, 30 years later, on film, directed by Nicholas Roeg, screenplay by my film-maker son Dan, more true to the book that the book itself, which is what one hopes will happen.

Reassuringly, the film has the same reception as the novel did all those years ago: provoking anger as well as praise. At the time, it bemused the kind of men (most men, then) female fecundity embarrassed, and hardline feminists were appalled by the portrait of pregnant women as creatures of flesh, hormones and unreasonable belief. The film, like the book, still batters away at one of our favourite denials: that when we it comes to procreation, the beginning of life, we have our lives under control. We don't, and probably never will. Roeg, famously, 'understands' women. Dan, my son, God help me, understands me.

In the screenings, I have not heard a woman with a thing to say against it. Perhaps they're less in denial than they were? 'That's me,' they say, 'that's me.' Who in the fecund world has never worried about who the father is? Or had to face the ambivalence of love and hate that surrounds pregnancy? Male critics, on the other hand – and they're mostly male – still seem baffled by the processes of childbirth, all that sexual impulse and messiness. Well, I'm sorry – it's how we all began. And it's still a lucky child knows its own father."

Michael Ondaatje
The English Patient (1996)

"The film sort of nestled alongside the book. It is so different in so many small ways that it is a different creature. So it is not an improvement or a detraction. Anthony Minghella had to reinvent how to tell the story, but it is still the same story. It has the same tone and spirit, just a different narrative stance. A film script cannot really work as just an illustration of a book.

I had no idea what to expect, but meeting Saul Zaentz and Anthony Minghella, I saw they were dedicated to the book. Both were great readers and Anthony was also a writer who had written plays I had been to. And I had seen their other films, so it was not a case of giving it to strangers. We spent quite a bit of time together agreeing what kind of film it should not be. We met each time there was a new draft of the script. I think by the time they were on the third draft, barely anyone but a few close friends had seen it. That was important, I think, because the script and the eventual film they made was what they wanted to do, not what a studio or an actor demanded.

Maybe it is still too soon to tell how it changed my life, but as a writer, I learnt a great deal about the craft of film – from what Anthony taught me about scripts, and what Walter Murch taught me about editing. The experience convinced me most of all, though, that I wanted to continue as a writer of books. I still have no interest in writing screenplays where so much, too much, depends on the interference of producers, backers etc. There is a great freedom in the writing of a book that I would not want to give up."

Tracy Chevalier
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

"I was lucky to have a good book-to-film experience with Girl with a Pearl Earring. It took just four years from publication to film; I was happy with the result; and the book and I emerged with enhanced reputations. If it means that I am now asked almost as many questions about the film as the book, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

It went smoothly for me because, from the start, I opted out of having anything to do with the making of the film. Most writers I've talked to who get actively involved with film adaptations of their work get their fingers burnt. The fact is, it's not your story any longer, and your vision and knowledge don't help make a better film. You have to shed your ego and let go.

The relief on the producers' faces when I told them I didn't want to work on the script said it all. We then had a great relationship. They sent me a draft script out of courtesy, and I courteously made few suggestions. They kept me selectively informed, holding back bad news till they could counter it with good. I visited the set for fun and was treated with respect.

The film is not exactly the same as the book, nor should it be. I see them as sisters, clearly of the same family but with their own personalities. In fact, Girl with a Pearl Earring is now going to be a play, opening in the West End at the end of the month. I'm watching with fascination as another sister is born into the family."

James Hawes
Rancid Aluminium (2000)

"Many people have horror stories about trying to get a film made in Britain. But it's even worse when it happens too easily. Rancid Aluminium, on record in Halliwell's as "the worst film ever made in the UK" (imagine the competition!) was cursed by an inexplicable ability to fly under everybody's radar right up to the ghastly moment it pancake-landed on 135 screens in January 2000.

I began the adaptation in July 1997, scarcely knowing how to lay out a screenplay. By Easter 1998 it was fully financed – by a major distributor – and cast with a string of hot Britpackers. A university Kafka scholar from a comp west of Severn, I was a co-producer, allowed to sit with Sadie and Tara and Sienna, with James Nesbitt furiously telling me that we should have cast him, not Joseph Fiennes – rewriting was the last thing on my mind. Only Rhys Ifans sounded a warning, but no one listened. Almost up to the day of the release, the producers were arguing with each other over top billing. Then our London W1 bubble was exposed to the paying public, and plopped.

Which explains why, nine years on, I sit quietly in my shed, reading Kafka – and why, asked what influence I have on Andrew Davies's adaptation of my book Speak for England, I blink and reply, 'Influence? Me? Over Andrew Davies? None whatever – thank God!'"