If you’re lucky enough to have your book published, if you’re lucky enough that your book strikes the right chord with a lot of people, then you might be lucky enough to have your book optioned by a production company.
This is rare.
There have been a rash of book-based films in recent years – Beautiful Creatures, City of Bones, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Fault in our Stars and, of course, LOTR and Harry Potter.
It’s perhaps understandable that aspiring writers see these films and think that this sort of thing is easy or that it happens to every book.
I’ve read hundreds of books over the last couple of years alone, and only a tiny, tiny handful of them ever landed that film deal. (And the ones that do usually get butchered by cack-handed production companies, but I digress)
So it seems…naive of aspiring authors to obsess over things like film rights. But I regularly see it happen. Not only do authors plan out how their book-baby would be translated to the silver screen, they frequently plan out who would play their characters. Some authors even claim they can’t get on with writing their story until they’ve picked the perfect ‘cast.’
This isn’t a problem if you’re just doing it for fun. I’m sure lots of people like to daydream about their book-baby landing a film deal and being brought to life by today’s hottest stars. It becomes a problem when obsessing over a film deal gets in the way of actually writing something – or worse, is your sole reason for writing.
Let’s break down the reality of a film deal.
Having your book optioned does not mean it will ever actually make it to the screen. When a production company options your book, they pay you for exclusive permission to buy the film rights to your book. The option usually lasts between 1-3 years. If the production company has not done anything with your book in that time then the option expires.
The bad news? Your book isn’t being made into a film, after all.
The good news? You still get to keep the money that was paid to you for the option, and the book is now available to be optioned again.
Let’s jump forward and pretend your book is officially on its way to becoming a bona fide film. Time to track down your dream cast, right?
The author of the book is not going to have any say in the casting of the film.
Aside from the obvious – authors don’t generally get to decide who appears in a film – there is something rather pointless about obsessing over suitable actors and actresses. By the time the books have been:
b) become successful enough to attract a production company
c) been scripted
the actors/actresses the hopeful author has in mind could well have fallen off the Hollywood radar by then.
Even worse are the authors who believe they could – or worse, should – play the lead of the adaptation of their book. Again, I see it all the time – authors arguing that they’d be the best person for the role because they know the character the best, and because they wrote the thing, blah, blah, blah.
Yeah…it’s not gonna happen.
Unknowns are often cast in films – how would anyone become a star if no one took a chance on them? – but a production company is not going to cast the author of the book in the lead role. Expecting otherwise is beyond wishful thinking.
The reality of the film deal is that you get paid for the rights to your creation, and that ends your involvement with the production. You won’t be consulted about the changes the studio plans to make to your precious book-baby, and you might not be at all happy with the resulting film.
Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a look at five authors who hated the famous screen adaptations of their books.
- P.L Travers hated the Disney version of Mary Poppins. It might be a much-loved classic now, but the author of the book spent the premiere in tears. Subsequently, she refused to let Disney touch any more books in her series.
- It’s another film considered a classic, but Stephen King was deeply disappointed in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, claiming that Kubrick ‘just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel.’ He was also critical of Jack Nicholson’s performance in the lead role.
- Queen of the vampire genre, Anne Rice, took to Facebook to express her disgust of the screen version of Queen of the Damned. She told her Facebook fans to avoid watching the film as it had ‘mutilated’ her book.
- Roald Dahl thought the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film was ‘crummy’ and derided Gene Wilder’s perfomance as Willy Wonka. His contempt of the film prevented the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, from making it to the screen. I can’t help but wonder what Dahl might have made of the Tim Burton version of his beloved book.
- Richard Matheson has not liked a single film version of his book, I Am Legend. In response to the latest attempt, starring Will Smith, Matheson said, ‘I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it.’
All of these authors landed that coveted film deal and all of them were disappointed.
‘But mine will be different,’ I hear you cry. Maybe you like to imagine your book is so brilliant that no studio would dream of making a single change.
Maybe you think that all you need to do is explain to the studio that any changes they make will not be for the better. They will, of course, be very understanding.
It just doesn’t work like that. In very rare cases, some big-name authors (think good ol’ JK Rowling) might be able to bag themselves a seat on the production team. For the majority of authors this is not the case. Generally speaking, once the film people buy the rights to your book, they can do whatever they want with it.
The film deal obsession I see circulating among some authors boils down to unrealistic expectations. If you chase impossible dreams, you will end up disappointed. Set yourself achievable targets. Your book may be published, and it even may be made into a film, but you, the hopelessly hopeful author, will not be overseeing production. You will not be writing the script. You will not be choosing the cast. You will not be starring in the lead role.