Hollywood ate my novel: Novelists reveal what it’s like to have their book turned into a movie

Literary adaptations rule this year's Oscar nominations. But, for an author, having a book transformed by movie magic isn't always pleasant. Five writers tell Charlotte Philby what it's like to see your creation 'brought to life'.

Charlotte Philby
Saturday 18 February 2012 01:00 GMT


Released 2011


The Descendants was my first published novel. I wrote it aged 28, while living in San Francisco as a full-time mum. It was the second novel I'd attempted. The first never came together; there was a desperation after that, I needed to know if I could do it. I went back to a character I still had in my head from an earlier short story, writing for two hours a day while my one-year-old daughter was napping.

I had an agent in London who'd sent my manuscripts to various filmmakers, who could put in for an 'option' to buy the rights to make a movie; the option usually lasts for two years, at which point they can hold, renew, let go entirely, or buy. Just before my novel hit the stores, producer and screenwriter Alexander Payne [who produced Sideways and About Schmidt] 'optioned' it.

One day, Payne rang me and said, "I want this to be my next project". By then I and my family had moved out to Hawaii, and he flew out there the following week; we met at this restaurant in my neighbourhood in Kailua. Payne arrived with his set designer, and I was really intimidated at first but he had this very easy, casual way of talking, he put me at my ease. That night, my aunt was having a birthday party at her house, I invited them to that. The next day we drove around the island and I showed him the places I was thinking of when I wrote the book.

Payne met my whole family, and they all ended up being in the movie. I was on set all the time and even got to be in the film myself. Almost every line of dialogue was right out of the book, every sequence, the music I'd mentioned, the clothes they wore, the places they went to. It was a very inclusive process. I wasn't possessive of the story because I trusted Payne, but I knew in the wrong person's hands it could have been horribly melodramatic.

I still see myself as a struggling writer. The Descendants is something I've already done. Now I'm struggling with my next novel, in my own bubble at home, now with a second child. There have been benefits, mainly that now my book is being read, which it wasn't before. It was reviewed all over the place when it was first published but that didn't necessarily translate into readers. Now I have people e-mailing me saying, "I loved your book, I'd never heard of it until the movie". It's great that it's been given a second chance.


Released 2009


It's the author's madness to assume that what you've done should go to a wider audience. So even though I wrote The Boys are Back in Town [a memoir about the death of Carr's wife from cancer] in around six weeks, with no notion that there was anything remotely filmic about it, there was a moment when I had this fleeting, self-indulgent idea that the book might be transferred to screen.

At that point I phoned my friend Peter Bennett-Jones, who at the time owned Tiger Aspect [the production company that eventually made the film]. We had a drink at the Rose & Crown on North Parade in Oxford and I asked him, "So then, should my story be made into a TV series or a film?". He said, "Funnily enough my wife just read the book, and we're going to make a film of it". I said, "You'll never do it mate, films don't get made". Because that's the essential principle for a writer, most films get canned the day before photography starts.

In the end it took nearly 10 years to make The Boys are Back. At one point they had Clive Owen all lined up to play the lead, photography was about to start, and then he pulled out to do Duplicity with Julia Roberts. So then everything had to be put back together again, all the money put back in place, and that's no small thing because once the cash expires, it expires.

Finally, on signing day, after a decade of production, they had to get something like 200 signatures on a contract between 9am and midday, from financiers, producers, insurance companies, God knows who; and if any one of them wasn't there to sign, the whole thing would fall into disarray. At this moment the insurers realised that they hadn't got written evidence from my ex-wife in New Zealand stating that she wouldn't sue; so they were scrabbling around trying to get hold of her. These kind of problems are infinite, it's a wonder anything ever goes ahead.

Having a male personality disorder, I ignored the fact that I was handing my very personal story over to a team of screenplay writers to do with what they liked. When the film did come out there were some pretty strong emotional repercussions in my boys, which were the defects I hadn't predicted. Seeing your own story on screen wakes up all the trauma, and we'd presented it to them in a way that was very powerful. I'm afraid to say I didn't handle the whole thing terribly well.

The final film [with Clive Owen back on board] looked amazing. Although it was shot in Australia, the landscape was very similar to the particular part of Hawke's Bay in New Zealand, where we lived. The writers were impressive, they drew out of the ball of cotton that was my book a single thread, which is the story; and that is a difficult thing to do.

I'm not sure authors are particularly well-qualified for it. I couldn't have done it. When I saw the script, I didn't understand it at all; it was completely unintelligible, like algebra, everything was happening in the silences and not in what people were saying to each other.

Having your book adapted is not something you can really prepare for; indeed, I'm pretty certain it won't happen to me again. Now when I write I'm constantly searching for the authentic tone of voice I had in that book, but I can't seem to find it again. As it turns out, I have a limited imagination.


Released 1989


Three years after the brilliant BBC mini-series adaptation of my book, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, two American production companies approached us separately about making it into a movie. One of them was with Susan Seidelman as director; my agent said, "Do this one and not the other one," so we did. In this sort of situation, one doesn't have the faintest idea what will happen, so one simply says "thank you", takes the money and runs.

This was the Eighties, when you had to go to the US embassy and be presented with a contract, which you signed but not before holding up your hand and swearing allegiance: "I henceforth give up the film rights to my characters, throughout the universe and for all eternity", before answering the question, "Are you of right and sane mind?". I thought one couldn't answer "yes" to both, so I took away the contract and never did sign it, though no one noticed.

The Hollywood experience for a novelist is that they don't want to know that you're alive: they'd rather you were dead. I only watched filming of the movie once. They were shooting in the Twin Towers, a scene where Ruthie the heroine, played by Roseanne Barr, was coming in to steal something. There wasn't much cohesion. I could see they'd rather missed the point of the novel so I didn't have much faith in it after that.

But the film company had given me money and in return I had given my book to them. That was the deal. They kept the name and basic situation of the story but missed the point entirely; the characters in the film were all right, but what they did was so completely out of character.

My book was about feminism. Yet for the film, the studio bosses wanted Ruth, Roseanne Barr's character, to lose four stone and win her husband back, which I felt slightly undermined the plot. We ended up with her ex-husband Bob learning how difficult it is to bake, in prison, and Roseanne putting on a pretty dress and thus winning his affections.

Apparently the film went down very well in Peru. What I got from it was £35,000 – without having to do anything – which in those days was a lot of money. As a writer, you have to disassociate. If someone wanted to film another one of my books I'd say yes like a shot. It's not a definite science; because one doesn't work doesn't mean another one can't.


Released 2011

Lionel Shriver

When you sell a book it is a gamble; you take the risk that someone will take your work and turn it into something you're ashamed of.

But something happening is generally more interesting than something not happening, so it's a risk worth taking.

I'd had books optioned before and then nothing had come of it, so when Lynne Ramsay and the BBC got together to adapt We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2005, I had no expectation that the film would ever be made. It nearly didn't. Lynne originally raised $12 million for the project and then with the global financial crisis, funding from California disappeared as the film was suddenly felt to be "in the wrong mood", and she had to start all over again. She eventually raised $6 million, which meant rewriting the script to create a film that could be shot for half the original budget.

Lynne told me little bits as she went along, like when she got Tilda Swinton to play Eva, who was an excellent choice. But I wasn't involved in the screenplay or casting, I was kept at arm's length, which was just as well. For a director – particularly a writer-director – there is a process by which you need to make your material your own, which means wrestling away possession of your story from its author.

There was a long time when Lynne disappeared, but I'm emotionally sympathetic to that need. For a while I was the enemy, the person who thought the story was mine. Something like this is a co-operative project, but if you're too respectful of the original material you can't exercise a sense of ownership and therefore any sort of power over it. She needed to change and re-express it enough to make the story her own.

Now, when I read reviews of the film, I don't feel it's my work being appraised, which made the film's release fairly relaxing for me. I wish it well and I'm pleased when it's positively reviewed, but only in the way that you feel when you're happy for someone else.

I didn't have a vivid picture in my head of what the film was going to be. Of course it was totally different to the film I would have made. If it had been my movie, no one would ever have shut up because I tend to become quite enamoured with my own dialogue. I do think the film really shines when my dialogue meets the acting and Lynne's directing. The script was quite sparse – there wasn't a lot of talking – so I was especially satisfied when it did happen. It also would have been much more chronological, because that's the way I think.

Ramsay's film isn't what I would have made but that's what's rather wonderful about it. I regard it now as a separate entity, not a perfect recapitulation of my novel. It's Ramsay's interpretation. There are significant differences; the movie does lean towards Kevin being evil from birth, whereas that's more up for grabs in the novel. I don't think the film is as successful as the book in expressing the moral ambiguity, but I anticipated that from the beginning. A film-maker has only two hours, so there's a complexity you cannot impart; a movie has to be 'telescoped'.

I didn't mind being left out in the script-writing process. Thankfully it was done with passion and integrity and a real loyalty to the novel. I didn't want to get involved in the trappings as of movie-making. Besides, a little division of labour goes a long way, it's nice to be surprised by someone bringing something new to your material, rather than ploddingly putting your book on the screen. The nice thing, too, is that I have a plausible deniability; if the film sucked, it wouldn't have been my fault.


Released 2010


I've had several of my books made into films. Some were good, others were not. My first novel, Fatherland, was made into a very bad film, starring Anthony Hopkins. The novel was originally bought by Mike Nicholls – who made The Graduate – to be made into a feature film. But in the end he couldn't get a studio to back it so the project became a made-for-television movie for HBO instead.

By the time it was shot there'd been so many artistic compromises – in particular two fundamental changes in the story – that it ceased to have the feel of the novel. Some people like it but I have to say that I don't.

I wasn't put off by the experience. In 2001, my second novel, Enigma, was made into a much better film, with the screenplay written by Tom Stoppard. At that time I took the view that the screenplay was not my business: I had done my work having written the novel, and now someone else could take it on and turn it into something else. But my view on that has changed on that recently. Now I feel I know the story better than anyone else, and I know what I'm trying to do better than anyone else.

Accordingly, together with Roman Polanski, I wrote the screenplay for The Ghost [Polanski was in exile at the time]. I used to go over to Paris and Switzerland to write with him, he used to say that in writing a screenplay you're writing a cartoon of your novel. That's a helpful way of looking at it, because the change for a novelist is that you have to go for the visual element. It's no longer the case that you're describing what's going on inside a character's head. Rather, things have to be shown on screen; there are lots of technical issues and constraints when working in this medium that I'd never encountered before.

Roman and I worked together for three years on that project, and I think we did a wonderful job. The film was wonderfully acted; I was very pleased. Polanski and I had worked together before, on the screenplay for my historical novel Pompeii some years earlier, but that fell through.

Now, taking what I've learnt from these collaborations, I'm currently writing the screenplay for my book, The Fear Index, on my own. Paul Greengrass is directing. I'm still finishing the script at the moment, then it has to go to Fox and the producers to be read before we start any work on the film, but I've been talking to Paul a bit as I go along; I have some ideas about casting but first I have to complete the script. It's a very different process from a novel, though as my books tend to feature characters and stories, it's not as different as it might be.

Even when you're adapting your own story, a movie can only remain true to the spirit of the book; you have to change things because it's a different medium. On screen you have to show rather than tell the story, you also have to deal with the restrictions of time. As an author, there's no point complaining that the film version is not identical to the book because it can't be. But I try to get the essence of the original work conveyed to the screen. In the end it's a lottery.

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