The Rise of Must-Read TV

From The Atlantic:

If you want a preview of next year’s Emmy Awards, just take a walk past your local bookstore. According to data drawn from Publishers Marketplace, the industry’s clearinghouse for news and self-reported book deals, literary adaptations to television have been on a steady climb. The site has listed nearly 4,000 film and television deals since it launched in 2000, and both the number and proportion of TV deals have increased dramatically in that same period. Last year, reported TV adaptations exceeded film adaptations for the first time ever.

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Literary adaptations are big business. For streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, they provide a reliable source of content for limited or multiseason series; Publisher’s Weekly reported in 2019 that Netflix was on a “book-buying spree,” and the company has shown no sign of slowing. Rotten Tomatoes cites 125 literary adaptations in development right now.

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All of this has had a profound effect on the literary world. As you might expect, becoming a TV show increases a novel’s popularity enormously. Adaptations can drive book sales, as in the case of this winter’s breakout hit Bridgerton. The Regency-era bodice-ripper is not alone: A number of backlist titles, such as The Queen’s Gambit, have enjoyed a late-in-life revival thanks to Netflix’s attention.

We see evidence of the adaptation effect in other measures of literary success as well. We compiled a list of about 400 21st-century novels that met certain criteria—inclusion in top-10 best-seller lists, critics’ picks, publishers’ comp titles, and so on. Within this group, a novel that becomes a show will receive about four times as many ratings on as a novel that has never been adapted to TV or film. (Film still has a bigger effect, boosting a novel’s Goodreads ratings more than 1000 percent; TV nonetheless dramatically improves the fortunes of a novel.

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Television adaptations are influencing every stage of a book’s life, including how it’s acquired in the first place. Scouts from networks and streaming services are talking more and more with publishers about big- and small-screen options at earlier stages of negotiations, in many cases before the ink on a book deal is even dry. Production companies such as Anonymous Content are bringing publishing-industry veterans on staff, and agencies and scouting firms are hiring specialists in literary development. Clare Richardson, a senior scout for film and TV at Maria B. Campbell Associates, one of the firms that works with Netflix, told us, “An important part of my job is having long-standing connections with literary agents and editors—what they’re reading, what they’re liking, what’s working. I’m trying to dive deep and find things as early as possible.” Richardson adds that simultaneous submission—that is, when a book deal and a screen option are negotiated at the same time—is common. Writers, agents, and editors have more incentive than ever to craft novels with TV in mind. The system rewards the adaptable.

So we wondered what kinds of novels were most likely to end up on screen. What qualities—of genre, structure, or style—make a novel seem most adaptable? We coded our sample of contemporary fiction not only for what has been successfully brought to TV, but also for what producers and scouts have optioned in the belief that it could be.

Reviewing that larger sample, we noticed several common features that unite texts as seemingly disparate as A Visit from the Goon Squad (which Jennifer Egan herself said she modeled on The Sopranos),N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (all of which have been optioned for television). Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby

From Electric Lit:

I’m watching Jessica in her red silks and ruffled neckline, and she’s getting to the bottom of it. She’s in Jamaica, where her friend’s violent, racist brother has been killed. Jessica is retrieving clues like she’s descending a staircase, one by one, she’s sliding doilies under doors and picking locks, she’s looking at blueprints, she’s noting the stain on the Frenchman’s handkerchief, she’s getting closer.

Each night, I’m lulled to sleep by this: asphyxiation, drownings, fatal blows and gunshot wounds. It wasn’t always this way. It started on a stormy and sleepless night, as the wind rattled the windows and shook icicles from the eaves.

. . . .

Insomnia introduced itself three months after the first lockdown, when the initial surface panic seeped into the deeper parts like snow into dirt. In May, I fought it in lopsided, hours-long battles. With sleeplessness came more uncertainty—which, for me as well as everyone, had already been in ample supply—and the dissolution of prior certainties like the division of night and day.  

A few months ago, my partner Alec and I were between houses. We packed all of our possessions into a storage unit and rented an Airbnb, to buy ourselves some time. On one of those first nights in the Airbnb, after a day spent scrolling real estate feeds, we sat down to watch Murder, She Wrote. For the first time since May—since ever, maybe—I started to drift off while sitting up, with my head on Alec’s lap, with the cat perched on the back of the couch behind me, chewing my hair. 

After a few episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I knew what to expect from the rest. There are two requirements for the plot of every episode: the first is that there’s a murder, and the second is that it’s solved. In the pilot episode, Jessica Fletcher is a widowed, retired schoolteacher in the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, where she writes murder mysteries in her kitchen, for fun. The whirlwind commences when her nephew, of his own accord, takes one of Jessica’s novels to a publisher. It is published. It is a hit. Over the course of her press tour, Jessica encounters a cast of characters (after a few episodes, there will be no more characters, only suspects) and a murder. Calling upon the forensic expertise she’s absorbed from researching her novel, which invariably surpasses the competencies of the detective assigned to the case, Jessica solves the murder. Repeat. 

The comfort in Murder, She Wrote is in what is known. We know that there will be a murder, a motive, and a confession. Jessica uncovers the truth as if she’s brushing dust off a fossil. All it takes is time. 

But the comfort in Murder, She Wrote is also in what is not known, or in what is forgotten. After the pilot episode, the show proceeds with a gauzy amnesia that preserves its levity. Throughout the show’s twelve seasons, Cabot Cove’s population steadily succumbs to murder and incarceration: we watch the bookstore owner, the pawn shop owner, the pharmacist, the fisherman, the cop, the nurse, the accountant, the car salesman, the firefighter, and hundreds of other townspeople murder and get murdered, with such frequency that, if it were real, the town would have been the deadliest on earth. And yet, nothing appears to be lost. The town continues to function with no apparent closures; the shops remain open and bustling with customers. Cabot Cove’s small-town charm seems to supersede its homicide rates. I use the word charm literally: it’s as if the townspeople—friendly, trusting, quaint—have been spelled into forgetting that they could be next.  

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

9 Great John le Carré Adaptations to Stream

From The New York Times:

Few authors have had a better shake at the movies than John le Carré, whose sophisticated novels of Cold War atmosphere, moral ambiguities and wryly observed backroom machinations have long attracted talented filmmakers and leading actors.

While Alec Guinness’s definitive performance as George Smiley in the BBC mini-series versions of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1979) and “Smiley’s People” (1982) are currently not available to stream in the U.S., there’s still a range of quality le Carré adaptations to sample over a half-century stretch. Some go inside the not-so-fashionable lives of British agents while others follow outsiders — a bureaucrat, a hotel manager, an actress — as they’re brought into new worlds of intrigue and danger. These seven films and two mini-series give the flavor of le Carré’s uniquely jaundiced take on the spy thriller genre.

The first le Carré adaptation in any medium set the tone for the others that followed, establishing the spy game not as a life of glamour and adventure, but as a world blanketed by paranoia and suspicion, populated by world-weary men with inscrutable motives. Photographed in a perpetually gloomy black-and-white, the film casts Richard Burton as a British agent who works an elaborate ruse in the wake of an operative’s shooting death by East German troops. Showing outward appearances of displeasure with his station, including a fake demotion to desk duty in London, he makes himself the target of East German agents, who believe, falsely, they have a defector to turn.

Stream it on Amazon Prime. Rent it on AmazonApple TVGoogle PlayVudu and YouTube.

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In the role of George Smiley, the le Carré protagonist immortalized onscreen by Alec Guinness, Gary Oldman gives a performance so thoroughly internalized that he nearly disappears into the film’s beige, smoky backdrops. As the film opens in the early 1970s, Smiley has spent a lifetime in British intelligence, but the death of a mentor (John Hurt) in the early 1970s leads him into semiretirement. He soon re-emerges as part of an effort to uncover a Soviet mole within MI6, which offers him a shot at redemption and a chance to summon his expertise at stamping out subtle threats in his midst. This version of “Tinker, Tailor” has some trouble condensing its labyrinthine plot, but as a mood piece, it captures le Carré’s essence perfectly.

Stream it on Netflix. Rent it on AmazonApple TVGoogle PlayVudu and YouTube.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

For PG, the OP suggested a number of different ways of passing the time while under quarantine.

The Golden Age of Book Adaptations for TV

From Publishers Weekly:

Though many novelists yearn for film adaptations of their books, they quite often wind up dissatisfied with the results, and the same holds true for those novelists’ devoted fans. Movie adaptations tend to be unsatisfying. Not every author’s work gets the runtime Margaret Mitchell got for Gone with the Wind, and even that movie had readers disappointed over scenes from the book that hadn’t been included.

The truth is that a movie cannot hope to capture everything in a novel that readers enjoyed. There is simply not enough time, nor is there enough production money. Basic things like locations, supporting characters, and so-called big money shots will be radically modified or even eliminated from film versions of novels. And films are subject to scriptwriters’ and directors’ interpretations of their source material, not to mention the input of some very hands-on producers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

In the movie business, a screenwriter is not in charge of much of anything. The producer hires the screenwriter, sometimes in consultation with the director, and can fire him/her at any time and bring someone else in to do or finish the job.

The author of a book being adapted for television or motion picture purposes has even less control over what happens unless her name is JK Rowling and maybe not even then.

If the author is traditionally-published, the standard industry publishing agreement gives the publisher the sole right to decide how to exploit/sell movie or TV rights. (Regardless of whether the publisher has ever sold movie/TV/performance rights before.)

The author is just along for the ride. PG is familiar with a couple of cases in which the publisher forgot to notify the author or the publisher notified the author’s agent who forgot to contact the author and the author learned about a movie being made based on the author’s book about the same time as the rest of the world did.

Everyone Wants to Be the Next ‘Game of Thrones’

From The Wall Street Journal:

Who will survive the Game of Clones?

The hunt is on for the next epic fantasy to fill the void left by the end of “Game of Thrones,”the HBO hit that averaged 45 million viewers per episode in its last season. In television, film and books, series that build elaborate worlds the same way the medieval-supernatural saga did are in high demand.

“There’s a little bit of a gold-rush mentality coming off the success of ‘Game of Thrones,’” says Marc Guggenheim, an executive producer of “Carnival Row,” a series with mythological creatures that arrives on Amazon Prime Video in August. “Everyone wants to tap into that audience.”

There’s no guarantee anyone will be able to replicate the success of “Thrones.” Entertainment is littered with copycats of other hits that fell flat. But the market is potentially large and lucrative. So studios are pouring millions into new shows, agents are brokering screen deals around book series that can’t get written fast enough and experts are readying movie-level visual effects for epic storytelling aimed at the couch.

. . . .

Literary agent Joanna Volpe represents three fantasy authors whose books now are being adapted for the screen. “‘Game of Thrones’ opened a door—it made studios hungrier for material like this,” she says. A decade ago, she adds, publishing and TV weren’t interested in fantasy for adults because only the rare breakout hit reached beyond the high-nerd niche.

. . . .

HBO doesn’t release demographic data on viewers, though cultural gatekeepers say they barely need it. “You know what type of audience you’re getting: It’s premium TV, it’s educated, it’s an audience you want to tap into,” says Kaitlin Harri, senior marketing director at publisher William Morrow. By the end of the series, the audience had broadened to include buzz seekers of all kinds with little interest in fantasy.

The show based on the books by George R.R. Martin ended its eight-year run in May, but it remains in the muscle memory of many die-hard fans. “I still look forward to Sunday nights thinking that at 9 o’clock I’m going to get a new episode,” says Samantha Ecker, a 35-year-old writer for “Watchers on the Wall,” which is still an active fan site. The memorabilia collector continues to covet all things “Throne.” Last week, she got a $15 figurine of Daenerys Targaryen sitting on the Iron Throne “since they didn’t let her do it in the show.”

. . . .

“Game of Thrones” has helped ring in a new era in fantasy writing, with heightened interest in powerful female characters. Authors generating excitement include R.F. Kuang, who soon releases “The Dragon Republic,” part of a fantasy series infused with Chinese history, and S.A. Chakraborty, whose Islamic-influenced series includes “The Kingdom of Copper,” out earlier this year.

For its fantasies featuring power struggles that might appeal to “Thrones” fans, Harper Voyager uses marketing trigger words like “politics,” “palace intrigue” and “succession,” says David Pomerico, editorial director of the imprint of HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

The Rise of the Literary Miniseries

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: