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Adaptation Nation: Movies Based on Books and Other Stories Reign Supreme

Photo by Flickr’s Scott Smith

Our guest today is John Robert Marlow [1], a novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation specialist. His book Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood [2](Macmillan) shares advice from authors, screenwriters, directors, and producers whose films have earned a combined total of over  $50 billion.

Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or computer screens—storytelling is in our blood. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to adaptations because movies are the global campfires of our time. They amplify the story’s impact and reach, and bring viewers back to the book—I’d be crazy not to do this!

Connect with John on Twitter [3] where he hosts #AdapChat, on Facebook [4], and on his blog [1].

Adaptation Nation: Movies Based on Books and Other Stories Reign Supreme

For more than a decade, Hollywood adaptations have claimed a steadily growing share of box office receipts and Academy Award nominations. This year marks a new high point in this long-trending dominance.

As of mid-February, 80% of the top 10 (and 74% of the top 50) highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations. Of this year’s 42 major-category Oscar nominations, 39—or 93%—are for adaptations or work on adaptations. Seven of the eight Best Picture nominees are based on books, true stories, or both—and no. 8 is a remake (or adaptation, if you will) of an earlier movie.

The five nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are of course adaptations—but so are 3 of the 5 Best Original Screenplay nominees (which are based on true-life stories). Add 5 of 5 Best Director nods and very nearly every acting nomination, and 2016 is already a near-total sweep at box office and Oscars. It’s quite possible that, come Oscar night, adaptations will score 100%.

2016 OSCAR UPDATE: 100% of this year’s major category wins (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress) were for adaptations, or work on adaptations. Spotlight won for best picture.

“Adaptations are super-hot right now,” says Christopher Lockhart, story editor at the world’s most powerful entertainment agency, WME. “It’s all about the underlying property. A script based on source material is good. One based on source material that’s been bought for some other medium—book, video game, and so on—is better, because it shows someone else has confidence in the work and thinks it will be successful. And if you’re fortunate enough to have something that already has an audience of some kind, even if self-published—that’s ideal because now you’ve got an existing fan base for a studio to build on.”

Screenwriter Ryan Condal, who recently sold his first script Galahad (based on the Arthurian legend) for $400,000, feels the same, saying, “Probably 99% of the active projects in Hollywood are adaptations of one kind or another.”

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at how this year’s Best Picture nominees—all of them adaptations—made it to the big screen.

The Martian tells the tale of an American astronaut stranded on Mars. The story began as a serialized novel in 2009, posted to author Andy Weir’s website as writing progressed over a three-year period. The chapters drew about 3,000 faithful readers, many of whom emailed technical corrections that were then incorporated into the science-heavy story. When the book was complete, Weir thought he was done. Until fans requested an ereader version, which he then offered as a free download. When readers asked for a Kindle version, he put the book on amazon for 99 cents—the lowest price allowed by the online bookseller.

41tz9f5T5xL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Three months later, in December of 2012, he’d sold 35,000 copies and was amazon’s #1 seller in the science fiction category. Weir was then approached by audiobook publisher Podium, a literary agent, print publisher Random House, and Fox Studios. With interest on one coast bumping up interest on the other, book and film deals were struck within four days of each other. Traditionally published and heavily promoted because of the upcoming movie (starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott), the book reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. With a strong boost from the film, it went on to sell over a million copies in some 30 languages. At $620 million (so far), the film is the 68th highest-grossing adaptation of all time, and the 102nd highest-grossing movie.

In addition to being nominated for Best Picture, The Martian also draws nods for Best Adapted Screenplay (by Drew Goddard) and Best Actor (Matt Damon). The film is up for a total of 7 Academy Awards.

The Revenant started as a 2002 revenge novel by Michael Punke (published by Carroll & Graff), which was in turn based on the life of American frontiersman Hugh Glass. Despite good reviews, the book soon went out of print.

In 2010, screenwriter Mark L. Smith wrote a spec script adaptation (“spec” meaning there was no Hollywood buyer at the time), which attracted director Alejandro G. Iñárritu in 2011. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy then signed on.

Picador bought the reprint rights and brought the book back to life, releasing hardcover, paperback, and paperback movie tie-in editions in January, September, and December of 2015. The movie came out on December 25th, making $382 million—and counting. Resurrected by and riding the success of the film, the book hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Twelve Academy Award nominations include Best Picture, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), and Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu).

The Big Short is based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 nonfiction book chronicling the moves of several Wall Street players who, realizing that rampant subprime mortgage fraud would inevitably crash the market, bet against the housing bubble—making over $1 billion off the biggest financial disaster in world history. The book was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2010, to much acclaim.

In 2013, Paramount bought the film rights for Brad Pitt to star and produce (as he did in the adaptation of Lewis’ previous nonfiction book Moneyball). The script was completed in 2014, and the film released in 2015—starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Total box office is $121 million (on a budget of $28 million)—and climbing. Predictably, the book became a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

The Big Short is up for 5 Oscars, among them Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay), Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), and Best Director (Adam McKay).

Brooklyn was adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín (published by Viking in 2009), which follows a young woman torn between families in Ireland and America. Tóibín (whose earlier novel The Blackwater Lightship also became a film) wanted the adaptation done by a screenwriter who was also a novelist, feeling this would result in a more insightful film. He got his wish with screenwriter/novelist Nick Hornby. The film was shot as a low-budget indie and shown at Sundance in 2015, where Fox Searchlight bought U.S. and other rights for $9 million. The book became a New York Times Bestseller.

Brooklyn has been nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby), and Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan). The book is also set to become a British TV series.

Bridge of Spies is based on real-life attorney James B. Donovan’s efforts to secure the release of U.S. Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in 1960. British playwright/screenwriter Matt Charman learned about Donovan from a footnote in a biography of John F. Kennedy, contacted the now-deceased attorney’s son, and sold the project to DreamWorks, where Steven Spielberg elected to direct. (Charman’s script was then revised by Joel and Ethan Coen.) Though the movie is not officially based on Donovan’s 1964 Strangers on a Bridge, the book was republished by Simon & Schuster in August, 2015, in anticipation of the movie’s release. It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Bridge of Spies is up for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen), and Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance).

Room is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, about a mother and son kept prisoner in a single room. The first step in this book’s journey to the screen came before the book was published—when Donoghue wrote the adapted screenplay herself. The next step came when indie director Lenny Abrahamson read the novel and wrote a ten-page letter to the author, explaining why he should be the one to direct. Though she’d passed on previous offers, Donoghue was impressed by the letter, and said yes—provided her screenplay was used for the movie. After reading it—and being impressed himself—the director agreed. The book became a New York Times Bestseller.

Room is nominated for 4 awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Emma Donoghue), Best Actress (Brie Larson) and Best Director (Lenny Abrahamson).

Spotlight is based on a Pulitzer Prizewinning series of stories in The Boston Globe newspaper, investigating child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests and its cover-up by the Church. After hearing about the story from a writer, film producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust decided to make a film about the Spotlight reporters who broke the story, and approached Globe reporters and editors.

Spotlight is up for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), and Best Director (Tom McCarthy).

Mad Max: Fury Road is a reboot (and therefore an adaptation) of the 1979 Australian independent film Mad Max, this time starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Co-written and shot by Mad Max co-writer and director George Miller, the film has thus far made $378 million. The film is up for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (George Miller).

When Hollywood studios find something that works, they stick with it—and for the foreseeable future, that means adaptations. For authors and other storytellers shooting for box office gold or little gold men, the odds of making the leap to film have never been better.

What’s your pick for Best Picture? What book (or other story) would you like to see adapted?