Please join me in welcoming WU’s newest contributor, Julie Carrick Dalton! Julie holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School and has won several literary awards, including the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition. Her agent, Stacy Testa at Writers House, is currently seeking a home for her first novel. Learn more about Julie here at WU or on her website.
Do you ever get a feeling when you read a novel or memoir that this story is destined for the big screen? Maybe it’s a sweeping landscape like in Unforgiven, or an untold slice of history as in Unbroken. Or something…undefinable. You just feel it.
Like many novelists, I secretly dream about my words becoming a movie. (Don’t pretend you don’t do it too.) There’s no check list, no rule, for what kind of books successfully translate to film, but I’ve often wondered if there was some elusive quality that catapults a story from the page to the screen.
I set out on a quest to answer a single question: What makes a book a great candidate for film adaptation?
I started my search at the place where story meets its audience: The Sundance Film Festival. For ten days every January, storytellers swarm Park City, UT, with fresh movies, many of which started out as books. The film adaptations of The Virgin Suicides, last year’s acclaimed Mudbound, and 2018’s breakout The Miseducation of Cameron Post, all came out of Sundance, along with countless other book-to-film adaptations.
After a Sundance screening of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I talked with producer Michael Clark about his movie, adapted from the novel by Emily Danforth about a teenage girl forced to go to Christian conversion therapy camp after being caught kissing another girl.
I needed to know. Why this book?
He didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know.” He paused again, then said he was moved by the characters. He appreciated the way the author treated even the antagonists with compassion and complexity. And he was drawn to the ambiguous, and somewhat unsettling, ending, which felt right for this cultural moment.
He didn’t mention anything about visuals or scenery. It was all character, story, and timing for him.
I needed more information.
I staked out a table in the Sundance Filmmakers Lodge and chatted with as many industry folks as I could. Someone must have the answer to my question, after all, this was Sundance, right?
That’s where I met Jacquill Moss, a young, up-and-coming filmmaker. When we started talking about movies, Jacquill’s eyes lit up. This is a guy who loves film. He will definitely have the answer, I thought.
When I asked him what makes a book a good candidate for adaptation, he said, “If I’m reading a good book and I can see it, if I can visualize it. But it’s about more than just visualization. You have to feel something.”
Jacquill pointed to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel that was adapted into Blade Runner, as his favorite book-to-film project because it delivered on the world created in the book.
“Writers should think cinematically if it helps them write, if it helps them find the ‘realness’ they are looking for,” Moss said. But, he added, it’s hard to describe what makes a novel cinematic. “You know it when you see it.”
These conversations with filmmakers fascinated me. But, I still didn’t have a clear answer to my question. I packed up, and left the Filmmakers Lodge to rethink my approach.
If anyone could help me, it was going to be Lane Shefter Bishop, CEO of Vast Entertainment. A producer and director, she has built her business on finding books and adapting them for film.
“I think, for me anyway, it’s more about a novel’s concept, idea, or story being really unique, than about whether or not it’s visually cinematic,” Lane said. “I think good candidates for adaptation deal with universal themes that a wide audience can relate to, but are very unique in some way.”
Regardless of the genre, Lane said she looks for books that can be described in succinct terms. She offered advice for novelists trying to attract the attention of producers. “Authors should remember to create a strong logline for their material, because folks in Hollywood have short attention spans,” she said. Lane is so passionate about that one-line pitch that she wrote an entire book on the subject. (Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence: Advice from the Front Lines of Hollywood.)
By this point in my investigation, I was quite confused. Michael Clark looked for characterization. Jacquill Moss wanted something he could visualize. Lane Shefter Bishop searched for succinct universal themes.
I made one more phone call. This time, I went straight to the source: a novelist whose book is currently being adapted. I spoke with Kathleen Barber, whose debut Are You Sleeping came out in 2017 and is already being adapted by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine. Octavia Spencer is attached to the project as well.
Kathleen told me she thinks visually when she writes. She often draws her scenes before writing them, but she did not write her novel with film in mind. I asked her if she thought the fact that she is such a visual person made her book more accessible or more appealing as a potential film project. She laughed and said no.
Yet another theory dashed.
Are You Sleeping is a psychological thriller about a women whose father’s ten-year-old murder case is revisited by a true crime podcast, threatening to derail her life. Kathleen thinks her novel attracted the attention of producers because she tapped into a cultural moment—the popularity of true crime podcasts. And—I’ll add—it’s a great story.
The producers said they were also drawn to Kathleen’s characters, particularly the quirky, memorable antagonist who I can’t wait to see on screen.
I asked Kathleen, who is deep into writing her second novel, if she thinks about film potential as she works on her new project. “It’s definitely on my mind. But it’s not in the forefront,” she said. “I’m just writing the story.”
That felt right to me. Story always comes first. But I still didn’t understand what exactly makes a book a contender for a film deal.
Maybe, I thought, that indefinable magic quality is supposed to remain a mystery.
Almost every person I spoke with gave me a different answer when I asked what made a novel a good prospect for film adaptation. But I did identify a few factors that came up over and over: original story, compelling characters, an intriguing X-factor, a vivid setting or world, a cultural moment, and, most importantly, a gut feeling.
I had been hoping for a more precise definition, something quantifiable. I may have failed in my quest, but I feel quite satisfied in my failure. In this age of listicles, How-To articles, and prescriptive bullet points, I’m glad there’s still room in the writing world for a dusting of je ne sais quoi.
There are so many exciting book-to-film projects in the pipeline right now. Personally, I’m excited for upcoming adaptations of The Mothers, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Are You Sleeping, The Bookseller, The Hate U Give, Boy Erased (memoir), Everything I Never Told You, and Little Fires Everywhere.
What books do I hope to see on screen in the future? Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Last Policeman by Ben Winters, and The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark (release date, May 8, 2018).
Why these books? I’m not really sure.
Call it a gut feeling.
What are your favorite book-to-screen adaptations? Are there any novels you are dying to see on the big or small screen? When you write, do you imagine how a scene might look through a camera lens? Does it ever effect how or what you write? Have you already cast the lead roles in an imagined adaptation of your own book? Do tell—but I call dibs on Jessica Chastain for my novel.