When Literature Goes Hollywood

Karen Sosnoski

Adapting a book to film has always been a risky undertaking. Occasionally an adaptation is regarded as a critical success, such as the film version of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, which won an Oscar for best picture in 1996. Some are hits at the box office, like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, which made over $40 million on its opening weekend in 2000. Others are largely ignored, as was the film version of Denis Johnson's 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, which received favorable reviews but had limited distribution and earned only $1.3 million in 2000.

Three new films based on books of fiction are scheduled to be released in October: Ethan Canin's The Palace Thief, Michael Cunningham's The Hours (which features an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Claire Danes, and Ed Harris), and Janet Fitch's White Oleander. Whether the films make a lot of money, win awards, or ultimately fail depends on many different factors, the least of which is the writer of the book. After all, the signature on a film deal is sometimes the last bit of writing an author contributes to the adaptation.

The process of making a movie out of a book usually begins with a producer's paying an author a partial sum up front, a down payment of sorts, to "option" exclusive film rights to the story for a designated period of time. When this period ends, the producer either negotiates to renew the option or pays the author the complete, agreed-upon sum to purchase the film rights. Unless the author is hired as a screenwriter for the project, the resulting contract usually gives the producer carte blanche over the original story line.

Initially, money from the sale of film rights may compensate an author for lost creative control. Laurie Scheer, a Los Angeles–based script development consultant who has worked for numerous production companies, including Columbia Pictures, Showtime, and the Sundance Institute, says that film deals are "like snowflakes—no two are the same." An unknown author might get a percentage of the budget of the proposed film, but generally the optioning rights to a book sell in the low- to mid-six-figure range—anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000. A well-known author can pocket millions.

One month after the publication of White Oleander (Little, Brown, 1999) and its subsequent acclaim as an Oprah Book Club selection, "the Warner people" came to a reading Janet Fitch gave in Los Angeles and offered her a sum of money that the author and her literary agent could not refuse. "Any payment with more than two zeros is a shock to a freelance writer," Fitch says. White Oleander was directed by Peter Kosminsky—who also made Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in 1992—and stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Renee Zellweger.

Jonathan Franzen suggests that money was the only reason he sold the rights to his National Book Award—winning novel, The Corrections, to producer Scott Rudin even before its publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2001. "I know too much about Hollywood—about Hollywood adaptations of novels, about novelists interfacing with Hollywood—to have hopes of anything much besides getting paid," Franzen says. "My chief hope is that a movie of The Corrections gets made but not before the option has been lucratively renewed a few times."

Although Paramount expects to release The Corrections, slated to be directed by Stephen Daldry (whose debut film, Billy Elliot, won acclaim in 2000) next year, Franzen's literary agent, Peter Miller, says that Franzen may be correct to assume that the option will be renewed again before the film is finally made. "Ninety-nine percent of all films don't get made under contract," he says. But considering that The Corrections was a best-selling book last year, Miller says Paramount has strong incentive to get the film made quickly.

Chuck Palahniuk was able to quit his job at a Freightliner plant to write full-time when his first novel, Fight Club (Norton, 1996), became a major motion picture with a $63 million budget. (The 1999 movie starred Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Meat Loaf, and Helena Bonham Carter.) Palahniuk, whose fifth novel, Lullaby, will be published in September by Doubleday, thinks of selling the film rights to old books as a way of buying the freedom to write new ones. (The option to one of his titles sells for about $50,000 for a six-month period.) In March Palahniuk sold director Jesse Peyronel the option to make a film of his second novel, Invisible Monsters (Norton, 1999), which is expected in the spring of 2003.

Of course, the inevitable cuts and additions to an author's original creation can be humbling. Fitch had to steel herself to the fact that many of the characters and scenes in White Oleander would never make it to the screen. She sympathizes with spy novelist John Le Carr—, who said of his own film adaptations, "It's like taking a cow and boiling it down to a bouillon cube." Fitch says she loves Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of her protagonist but has had to accept that, on the whole, the actors in the film will not match the characters in her imagination.

A.M. Homes is curious to see how her fans will receive the very different film version of her short story collection The Safety of Objects (Norton, 1990), which is scheduled for release in 2003 and stars Glenn Close. Screenwriter and director Rose Troche has connected the independent stories into one narrative. "In mine the characters aren't linked," Homes says. "She has even added a character of her own." But Homes is impressed with Troche's adaptation. "It is something I could not have done," she says.

Ethan Canin has voiced his concern that plans for a popular, moneymaking movie can yield a bastardized, oversimplified script. "For now the film is slotted for a big advertising campaign and a big launch, which gives me big fears," Canin says. "You could make either a very fine film from this material or a very broad one. I wish I had any say in it."

"The rule for emotional survival here is to set your expectations at or below zero," says Franzen, who is already prepared for the changes that will no doubt be made to The Corrections. "The less like the novel the movie is, the more likely it is to have some life and structure of its own," he observes. "That way the book, too, can go on being itself, without interference from the screen."

Palahniuk, who cringed at what he saw as the too-simplified film adaptation of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, appreciates that director Peyronel is developing his own "imaginative format" for Invisible Monsters. Peyronel has rights to do what he pleases with the story, a contractual detail that suits Palahniuk. "[I want] as little control over the film as I can get away with," the author jokes. Nevertheless, Palahniuk occasionally reads the director's updates of the script.

After having their scenes chopped and their characters changed, authors often emerge from the experience all the more appreciative of their freedom. "As a fiction writer, you can be god of your own universe," Fitch explains. "You write a line and nobody says you can't afford it."

"I've learned to respect the passion and intelligence of filmmakers and to pity them for all the compromises they will have to make," Franzen says. "I'm learning, once again, to be glad I'm a novelist."

Karen Sosnoski works in Alexandria, Virginia, as a film director, freelance writer, and regular columnist for Grappling Magazine. Her first documentary feature film, Wedding Advice: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace, is currently on the festival circuit.