Movies/TV

The Rise of the Literary Miniseries

17 May 2019

From The Week:

If you’re a voracious reader — or even a casual one — you’ll probably recognize the names of three of the big TV miniseries debuting on cable and subscription streaming services within the next two weeks. On May 17, Hulu will be making available all six episodes of its new adaptation of novelist Joseph Heller’s antiwar satire Catch-22. On May 23rd, Sundance TV will air the first two parts of its eight-episode version of Umberto Eco’s historical mystery The Name of the Rose. On May 27, NatGeo will launch a six-part, three night miniseries based on Richard Preston’s nonfiction medical thriller The Hot Zone.

Forget books on tape. These are all books you can watch.

If you’re a film buff, though — or even just an occasional moviegoer with a long memory — you might recognize these titles for a different reason. All three of these books have been adapted to the big screen before. Mike Nichols directed a flop version of Catch-22, released in 1970. The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater, was a solid international hit in 1986. And a star-studded — and super-unofficial — Hot Zone adaptation drew huge crowds in the spring of 1995, under the title Outbreak.

None of the movies are classics. The Name of the Rose is the best of the bunch, even though director Jean-Jacques Annaud ditches a lot of Eco’s literary/historical criticism in favor of emphasizing the book’s pulpier murder-mystery elements. Catch-22 is visually striking, but too lumbering to be as funky and funny as Heller. And Outbreak is pretty much a total botch, replacing Preston’s scientific precision and slow-mounting terror with silly disaster picture cliches.

Are TV producers taking a second crack at these books to try getting them “right,” taking advantage of the extra running-time and more adventurous audiences that television allows? Probably — at least in part. I can’t speak to NatGeo’s Hot Zone, because I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve watched both The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, and both are very full adaptations of their source material.

. . . .

As for The Name of the Rose, this Italian-German co-production restores Umberto Eco’s more philosophical musings about the true nature of Christ and Christianity, and about whether the early 14th century Catholic Church was conspiring with their wealthy benefactors to obscure it. As an inquisitive friar (played by John Turturro) investigates the strange goings-on at a monastery renowned for its extensive library and skilled scribes, he finds himself thrust into the middle of ancient debates about poverty and public service as fiercely contentious as any modern university faculty meeting — and all of that’s before monks start turning up dead.

. . . .

The first trend is simple to explain: Success breeds imitators. In the wake of Hulu’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale (itself previously adapted into a movie) and HBO’s Big Little Lies, production companies and network executives may just be scouring bookstores now for any beloved bestseller they can option.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies though are ongoing series. The miniseries boom represented by the likes of Catch-22 and The Name of the Rose speaks more to the ongoing influence of Netflix on the way that people package and consume mass media.

. . . .

All these trends — from the re-selling of already-popular stories to the repositioning of every form of audio-visual narrative into binge-able chunks — has to do with catering to what audiences seem to want.

Link to the rest at The Week

If PG remembers mini-series history correctly, the first giant hit was The Winds of War, released in 1983 and shown on network television (remember that?) for seven nights in a row.

PBS had been (and, to the best of PG’s knowledge still is) making book on a variety of mini-series that were typically shown once per week over several weeks. British productions have dominated this domain since almost forever, but The Winds of War reached about ten zillion more people than anything that PBS showed.

PG has hazy recollections of The Pallisers in black and white (actually sort of gray and gray) on a television that had a smaller screen than he’s using to write this post as the first of goes-on-forever-don’t-miss-it-on-Sunday-night-because-they’ve-only-barely-invented-VCR’s British hits that seemed to always be shown on your local PBS station’s Pledge Week (“We’ll get back to spunky Susan Hampshire and chilly Plantagenet Palliser in just a minute, but, first, we’ll beg for money. Again.”)

As he double-checked his hazy recollections, PG remembered an even earlier British series that he first saw as a PBS re-run during a later Pledge Week (“We know you like quality television, unlike the down-market guy upstairs who keeps you awake by watching Gilligan’s Island at 3:00 AM, but quality television costs money and we don’t get all the money we want from the rich people and rich people’s tax-exempt foundations who are tastefully named at the end of this broadcast so their cheapskate rich friends can feel diminished. Our volunteers are waiting to accept your pledge . . . .”)

The earlier series that PG watched later was about a repressed and grumpy guy named Soames who could never get Irene (or maybe it was Fleur) to marry him. Soames seemed to be at the center of The Forsyte Saga , but a grumpy British guy was more interesting than whatever was running on the other two channels on Sunday nights.

Speaking of PBS:

 

Memories from my TV/Movie Experience

19 November 2018

From Rick Riordan:

Recently I asked you guys what kind of team you’d like to see in charge if a Disney-led Percy Jackson reboot were to happen. Again, I have to warn you this is completely HYPOTHETICAL, just wishful thinking, not based on any concrete plans in the pipeline. Even if some reboot happened someday, I would have ZERO control over it, because those rights were signed away before the first PJO book was even published and, like most authors, my contract was very standard in that Hollywood controls all things and all decisions about the movie. The author may or may not be consulted, but the movie folks have final say on everything. There is a widespread myth (ha!) that authors have much more control over movie decisions than we actually do. Even the most powerful authors (yes, the ones you are thinking of right now) have WAY less influence and control than you think they do. Nobody talks about that though, because when a movie is just coming out it is in the studio’s interest for it to SOUND like everybody was very involved and pleased with the final product. In reality, the best we authors can hope for is a good team effort, where everyone gets along, has the same vision, and works together well. Sometimes, that happens . . .

Thinking about reboots even hypothetically made me remember the process I went through with those Percy Jackson movies. I was indeed consulted at some points, about some things. I did my best to give feedback that would help. At the time, obviously, I couldn’t really share any behind-the-scenes information with you guys, the readers, but since these conversations are now almost ten years old (yikes!), I thought you might like to take a look at some of the correspondence and suggestions I sent to the producers while they were planning THE LIGHTNING THIEF movie. I hope this will give you a sense of what I was trying to do behind the scenes. Whether/how much the producers listened to my ideas, I will let you be the judge. As I’ve said many times, once I saw the final script and saw what they were doing on the set, I realized I had to step away for my own peace of mind. I never saw either of the movies in their final form. What I know of them, and how I judge them, is based entirely on my experiences with the producers and on the final scripts. The SEA OF MONSTERS movie is a whole ‘nother story, but it followed basically the same process.

. . . .

Should a reboot happen some day, in some fashion, I would hope, like you, that it would be a great adaptation that is faithful to the books and fun to watch. The fact that Disney has now acquired the rights from Fox may be hopeful news, but it doesn’t change my contractual powers (which are zilch). Still, I’ve let it be known that I would be happy to consult and advise IF they want me and IF the new project was undertaken by a completely different team than the one which made the movies. I think that would be important. Fresh eyes. Fresh ideas. Hopefully people who know and are passionate about the books. I have no desire to go through my first experience again and see the same results. If I felt like that was going to be the case, I would have to stay away from the project completely. In the future, if some project actually does get underway, I may not be able to comment on it for contractual reasons, but you can tell how I’m feeling about it by what I do or don’t say. Am I talking about it? Promoting it? Sharing cool things? I am probably happy. Am I completely ignoring it and never mentioning it on social media? Yeah . . . that’s probably not a good sign. For instance, check out my website, rickriordan.com. Do you see any indication there that the Percy Jackson movies ever existed? No. No, you do not.

. . . .

From January 2009 note to producers

Hi XXXXX,

I understand that a decision has been made to age the main characters in the film to seventeen. As no one wants to see this film succeed more than I do, I hope you’ll let me share a couple of reasons why this is a bad idea from a money-making point of view.

First, it kills any possibility of a movie franchise. I don’t know if you or your staff have had the chance to read farther than The Lightning Thief in the Percy Jackson series, but there are four other volumes. The series is grounded on the premise that Percy must progress from age twelve to age sixteen, when according to a prophecy he must make a decision that saves or destroys the world. I assume that XXXX would at least like to keep open the option of sequels assuming the first movie does well. Starting Percy at seventeen makes this undoable. I’m also sure that XXXXX (for) the first Harry Potter movie, some in the studio argued for making the characters older to appeal to a teen audience. Fortunately, they took the long view and stayed true to the source material, which allowed them to grow a lucrative franchise. This would’ve been impossible if they’d started Harry at seventeen. The same principle applies here.

Second, it alienates the core audience. I’m guessing those book sale numbers are important to XXXX because you’re hoping all those kids show up at the theater. The core readership for Percy Jackson is age 9-12. There are roughly a million kids that age, plus their families, who are dying to see this film because they want to see the pictures in their imagination brought to life. Many of these kids have read the books multiple times and know every detail. They are keenly aware that Percy is twelve in the first book. By making the characters seventeen, you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer. You signal that this is a teen film, when the core audience is families. I understand that you want to appeal to teens because they are a powerful demographic, and conventional wisdom says that teens will not see movies about kids younger than themselves. Harry Potter proved this wrong, but aside from that, deviating so significantly from the source material risks pleasing no one – teens, who know the books are meant for younger kids, and the younger kids, who will be angry and disappointed that the books they love have been distorted into a teen movie. I haven’t even seen the script yet, so I don’t know how much the story has changed, but I fear the movie will be dead on arrival with a seventeen-year-old lead. (At this time I had no idea who might be cast)

I’ve spent the last four years touring the country, talking about the movie. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of kids. They are all excited about the movie, but they are also anxious. Most of these kids have no idea which studio produces which film, but everywhere I go, they say the same thing: Please don’t let them do to the Lightning Thief what they did to XXXX(another movie from the same producers) Don’t let them change the story. These kids are the seed audience for the movie. They are the ones who will show up first with their families, then tell their friends to go, or not go, depending on how they liked it. They are looking for one thing: How faithful was the movie to the book? Make Percy seventeen, and that battle is lost before filming even begins.

Thanks for letting me say my piece. I care too much about the project to see it fail.

Link to the rest at Rick Riordan

Murder, She Wrote

7 November 2018

From CrimeReads:

Jon Land is the prolific, award-winning, and USA Today bestselling author of 45 books, including the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong series, among others. In addition to suspense / thriller fiction, he’s written a number of non-fiction books. After the death of Donald Bain, Jon took over the reins of the worldwide bestselling Murder She Wrote books, based on the long-running television series starring Angela Lansbury.

. . . .

Mark Rubinstein: What was it like working with Donald Bain when you began collaborating on this series co-writing A Date with Murder?

Jon Land: The expectation was that I would work with Donald on a number of books, but his health deteriorated after our initial collaboration. Our brief contact revealed his passion for the series and the importance to him that the series continue. Both Don Bain and Berkley Books gave me the freedom to make the series my own. They didn’t micromanage me. They recognized that I brought something different to the series. Don understood that the Murder She Wrote books belong to millions of people, and I share that sentiment.

Before taking over the series, I’d never penned a mystery, or written in the first person or from the viewpoint of a non-action character. It’s given me the opportunity to explore new realms as a writer.

Speaking of mysteries, what are the differences between mysteries and thrillers?

The best way to encapsulate the differences is to say this: a mystery is about figuring out what happened. A thriller is about figuring out what’s going to happen and stopping it because the protagonist’s own life is often in jeopardy.

Although these are cozy mysteries about the familiar environs of Cabot Cove and have a lighter touch than most thrillers, I think I’ve brought a thriller element to Manuscript For Murder. In this third installment, Jessica’s life is in jeopardy. While Jessica is still doing what she always has—solving a mystery—I’ve lent a bit of a harder edge to the series. It now leans a bit more toward Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series.

. . . .

I know you’ve written about a female protagonist in the Caitlin Strong series. What is it like writing from a first-person woman’s perspective in the Murder She Wrote series?

You just highlighted the one thing that scared me when I took over the series. I’d never written in the first-person. I’ve written thrillers which tend to jump around between different points of view. But writing from Jessica’s first-person viewpoint presents a different challenge: I’m limited to what Jessica Fletcher knows and thinks.

At first, it was a bit intimidating, but to get a better handle on it, I read a few of the older books in the series and managed to find Jessica’s voice. I also got a good feel for Jessica’s character from watching the Murder She Wrote mysteries on Hallmark Mysteries. I watched one episode a day to capture some of the ambiance of the series and to gain some insight about Jessica Fletcher.

For the first time in my writing career, I had to ask myself what the protagonist was thinking in a specific moment. What is she holding back? What has she noticed?

Readers are going to see an evolution in the treatment of Jessica whereby I start to show more of her back story and to use more characters and plot points from the TV show. My version of Jessica Fletcher envisions the character as if the series was being made in 2018, rather than between 1984 and 1996.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Why ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Is the Book for Our Social Media Age

12 May 2018

From The New York Times:

No books were harmed in the making of this motion picture. There will be no such disclaimer at the end of my new film, because we burned a lot of books. We designed powerful, kerosene-spitting flamethrowers and torched books — en masse. This was not easy for me to do. I was taught at a very young age to read and respect books. Even setting a teacup on a book was considered a sin. In my parents’ household, Hafez’s book of Persian poetry, “The Divan,” was revered like a religious text.

But now I was making a film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” which presents a future America where books are outlawed and firemen burn them. The protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, begins to doubt his actions and turns against his mentor, Captain Beatty. When I set out to adapt the novel early in 2016, I was faced with a big question: Do people still care about physical books?

I asked an 82-year-old friend for advice. “Go ahead and burn books,” he said. “They mean nothing to me. I can read anything on my tablet, from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ to Jo Nesbo, and I can read them in bed, on a plane or next to the ocean, because it’s all in the cloud, safe from your firemen’s torches.”

If he felt this way, what would teenagers think? Bradbury’s novel is a classic taught in high schools across America. But the more I thought about it, the more relevant the novel seemed. For Bradbury, books were repositories of knowledge and ideas. He feared a future in which those things would be endangered, and now that future was here: The internet and new social-media platforms — and their potential threat to serious thought — would be at the heart of my adaptation.

. . . .

Bradbury’s key inspiration was the invasion of seven-inch black-and-white televisions into people’s homes. Bradbury was no Luddite. He wrote screenplays, including one for an adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” He also wrote 65 episodes of a television series, “The Ray Bradbury Theater.” But in “Fahrenheit 451” Bradbury was warning us about the threat of mass media to reading, about the bombardment of digital sensations that could substitute for critical thinking.

In the novel, he imagined a world where people are entertained day and night by staring at giant wall screens in their homes. They interact with their “friends” through these screens, listening to them via “Seashells” — Bradbury’s version of Apple’s wireless AirPods — inserted in their ears. In this world, people would be crammed “full of noncombustible data” — words to popular songs, the names of state capitals, the amount of “corn Iowa grew last year.” They will “feel they’re thinking,” Bradbury wrote, “and they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Bradbury was worried about the advent of Reader’s Digest. Today we have Wikipedia and tweets. He worried that people would read only headlines. Today it seems that half the words online have been replaced with emojis. The more we erode language, the more we erode complex thought and the easier we are to control.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Where Can Hollywood’s Reboot Obsession Go From Here?

28 December 2017

From The Literary Hub:

If 2017 is remembered for anything in entertainment, it might be the year everyone gave up on trying to stop reboots. Hollywood’s output this year included Kong: Skull IslandPower RangersThe Mummy (ostensibly kicking off Universal’s Dark Universe), Beauty and the BeastItSawGhost in the ShellJumanjiBaywatch, and even Murder on the Orient Express, which is somehow also getting a sequel. Several of these properties originally began life as books, while Power Rangers was a recut version of a Japanese TV show. This was also the year we got Spider-Man: Homecoming, the third attempt to start a filmed Spider-Man franchise in 15 years. Though some of these films have stumbled at the box office, there has been little to suggest an ebb in the commercial forces that squeeze them out like imitation diamonds.

At best, these entertainment products use an established brand as a sort of artistic Trojan horse to smuggle a new set of ideas and characters past the foreboding gates that prevent so much work from getting funded.

. . . .

For the most part, the rebooted films range from “excruciating” to “tolerable,” with even the better ones benefiting enormously from low expectations.

. . . .

Blazing Transfer Students is a Netflix-backed, live-action adaptation of Blazing Transfer Student, a cult classic manga and anime from the 1980s about Takizawa Noboru, a transfer student who discovers that students at his new high school resolve all conflicts through boxing matches. This new version stars the seven members of Japanese boy band Johnny’s West as transfer students, each named Kakeru, who are all pressed into service as Blazing Transfer Students—in this iteration of the series, “agents who infiltrate troubled schools and stamp out the evil that affects them.”

. . . .

Each frame of Blazing Transfer Students is carefully composed, contrasting the loud colors of a boy band and an anime and highlighting the exaggerated features of the Kakerus to create the moving equivalent of comic book panels. It helps that the series liberally applies action text—practically the first shot of the series captures one of the Kakerus skidding on the pavement toward his first day at the school, caption “SLIDING.” Other shots are punctuated with words like “SWOOSH,” “CRACKLE,” and “RHINO.”

. . . .

The show’s rubbery grip on reality—and its willingness to explicitly address its existence as a reboot—reaches its apex in the season’s penultimate episode, “Blazing Sports Festival!!” The Kakerus are confronted by Kazuhiko Shimamoto, the creator of the original Blazing Transfer Student manga, who has assembled his own group of older, frumpier, off-brand Blazing Transfer Students. They go only by their numbers and are intended to challenge the Kakerus’ appropriation of Shimamoto’s work. In their view, the Kakerus are “much too lukewarm,” and lack the passion to be true Blazing Transfer Students. During the scene, Shimamoto clutches his heart, threatening to tip over at any moment, and bemoans his presence: “So this is the fate of an artist who gave away his copyright.”

. . . .

This has to be a joke, right? It is, though not a very funny one to the scores of artists who have seen their work transformed again and again into someone else’s cash cow.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

New media arrives at LBF with ‘huge sums’

14 March 2017

From The Bookseller:

An unprecedented wave of new-media players are descending on the London Book Fair, triggering a “dramatic explosion” in book-to-film/TV and audio deals.

Hannah Griffiths, head of literary acquisitions at production company All3Media, said the “exponential growth” in hours of airtime, owing to the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, marked an “optimistic moment” for the trade. She added: “It’s like if five major dedicated book chains opened up in Britain tomorrow, each needing to fill the shelves… and with loads of money to spend on stock.”

. . . .

Katie McCalmont, Netflix’s literary scout in the UK at Maria B Campbell Associates, said the number of new-media buyers had gone up “big time”, in tandem with “a blurring of boundaries” between different media. She said the climate was “a huge opportunity” for publishers and agents.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Is literature better at coming up with complex women protagonists than Hollywood?

19 September 2016

From The Atlantic:

Last year, I was working as a publicity associate at Simon & Schuster when Jessica Knoll’s debut thriller Luckiest Girl Alive was optioned for film. The novel, which would go on to sell over 450,000 copies, was still months from publication, but the option was a solid indicator that it would be the commercial success everyone at the publishing house was hoping for. While movie deals always bring some financial security to authors and perpetually-in-the-red book publishers, this one had the added benefit of being with Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard, a production company with a record of turning would-be bestsellers into high-grossing, Oscar-nominated films—as it did with Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wildand Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl. A Pacific Standard deal is the kind of thing that could extend the buying life and cultural relevance of a new book tenfold.

It’s no coincidence that most of Pacific Standard’s current projects are book adaptations. As Witherspoon told the Wall Street Journal in April, she founded the company in part so that she could bring her favorite novels and memoirs to life. These books, she said, featured complex women in ways the scripts that landed on her desk did not. Witherspoon’s comments, and her decision to turn to books as material for the majority of the films she produces, illuminate an interesting parallel between two industries for which “strong female lead” has become a heated topic of discussion. In the world of commercial publishing, books written by and about women receive few prestigious literary awards, and reviewers are mostly men. Meanwhile, the film industry has been widely criticized for its lack of substantial roles for women, both onscreen and behind the camera, as well as a huge gender wage gap.

But the publishing industry is 78 percent female and, accolades or no, recent books from commercial publishers have offered up a bevy of leading women who are complex, unconventional, wholly human, and even triumphantly “unlikeable,” as Koa Beck wrote for The Atlantic last year. Many of them are  getting a second life in film, and not just at the hands of Witherspoon. Rachel from Paula Hawkins’ thriller Girl On The Train, Ifemelu from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and the two sisters from Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale will all soon grace the silver screen.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Will for the tip.

Diana Gabaldon on Writing

2 July 2016

Bestselling author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon reveals her personal writing habits and how she came to be a novelist.

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