‘Don’t Open Your Eyes’
While I confess that I’ve been tempted to wear my #BirdBoxChallenge blindfold when editing other people’s copy, I was wide-eyed when Josh Malerman told me that he’d had absolutely no problem turning over Bird Box to the film’s producers and to Eric Heisserer who wrote the screenplay. (No spoilers here whatever, read forth in confidence.)
You may recall that we referred to Bird Box and Malerman in 2014–his debut novel from HarperCollins/Ecco that year is the book behind the new Netflix film. In 2014, he did an onstage interview with me at a Writers’ Digest conference in Los Angeles and was having meetings at 21st Century Fox, which is where the options trail for the show started. It would move to Universal and then on to Netflix before being released on the streaming platform on December 21.
As you may know, the film has become the most-watched of Netflix’s original film debuts to date, drawing 45 million households (Netflix is in 190 countries) in its first week. And to everyone’s alarm, it has spawned a lot of not-too-safe #BirdBoxChallenge Instagram walkings-into-walls by fans who blindfold themselves in funny (or not) situations.
It’s a big hit, in other words, a great success story for Malerman and his agent Kristin Nelson, and a really intense film by director Susanne Bier, if you haven’t seen it.
When Malerman and I reconnected to do an interview for Publishing Perspectives, though, one of the things that struck me was that Malerman said he’d been perfectly happy to let go of the book, and hand it over to the studio people. “Basically, I had no say,” he told me, and he was flown just once to the set to see things underway. No one asked for his input, although he felt comfortable in what he found was an extremely efficient, businesslike, hysteria-free set run by Bier, a Copenhagen native. He was warmly welcomed, he said, but not … needed.
And while every part of a nearly six-year march from option to release (it was first optioned in 2013, a year before Harper published it) was probably excruciating, Malerman maintains that the letting go part–”Here, take my book, do anything you want with it”–was something he was surprisingly okay with.
He did take one precaution, which sounds really wise. He asked Netflix in New York (Malerman is based in Michigan) to let him see the film by himself in one of their screening rooms before the LA and New York premieres. “I’d prepared myself,” he told me, “to be conflicted. I understand how wonderful it is” to have the film made, “and if it’s true to the book, that’s gravy. But I was too nervous to see it for the first time at a premiere with Sandra Bullock sitting two seats from me.”
This time, it’s “the author’s happy ending,” as it turns out: Malerman loves the film, even admits to wishing that one scare you see on screen was in his book.
But, as we all know, the business is full of tales of books going sideways and authors going pretty much around the bend trying to keep some scrap of storytelling integrity in place on screen.
And that’s my provocation for you today: How good are you at letting go of your work? Can it enter the public sphere and be understood–or misunderstood–without you coming out of your skin?