Back in 2002, EW dubbed Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ”the It Script” of the year. With near-unanimous praise for the Pulitzer-winning novel — an unlikely mix of superheroes, Jewish mysticism, and war — and backing from top producer Scott Rudin, who’s known for taking on difficult literary adaptations like No Country for Old Men and next month’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a brilliant Kavalier & Clay picture seemed destined for theaters. Yet in 2004, Chabon declared the project ”very much dead,” and despite many attempts, it’s never been resurrected.
Adapting complex novels like Kavalier & Clay from page to screen can be a treacherous process, one that can begin long before the book itself is even published. Book editor and Macmillan Films head Brendan Deneen, who worked for years as a scout for Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Rudin, describes an almost ”black market” for manuscripts and books in New York City. ”Basically, the minute an editor buys a book, if it sounds even vaguely cinematic, every scout in New York is scrambling to get it as soon as possible,” he says.
Scouts read a manuscript in one night — or sometimes a few hours — then report back to the producer or studio exec about the story’s viability for the screen. Then an interested producer will make an offer to the author that consists of three components: the option, or the money required to ”rent” the film rights for 12 or, increasingly, 18 months at a time; the purchase price, which is the amount the author will receive (minus the option money) in the unlikely event that the film gets made; and the back end, a portion of the film’s net profits.
While young-adult and commercial fiction can be an easy sell in Hollywood, novels that are high in prestige but low in flash can be less attractive; they come with built-in expectations without the built-in audience. For every No Country for Old Men or The Help, there’s a box office dud: Never Let Me Go or The Road. ”Generally, the critically acclaimed novels that Rudin tended to gravitate to are character pieces more than anything,” says Mira Shin, who served as Rudin’s creative executive during the filming of Revolutionary Road, adapted from the 1961 Richard Yates novel. (Rudin himself declined to comment for this story.)
Given the creative difficulties in filming literary novels, movie executives are increasingly betting on short stories. ”If it’s the kind of short story that has a beginning, middle, and end, it becomes a treatment for a film,” says Patricia Burke, whose career as a book-to-film exec spans more than 30 years. ”It’s a lot easier to take something small and make it bigger than it is to take something big and make it small.” Million Dollar Baby, In the Bedroom, Brokeback Mountain, Away From Her, and the upcoming The Descendants, starring George Clooney, are all based on short stories.
There are always exceptions, and sometimes the most unlikely books do make it to theaters, usually after years of script revisions. Burke is the first to admit that she’s been surprised many times. While heading the East Coast literary-affairs department at Paramount, she was shocked when Rudin showed interest in making a film out of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which reimagines the final days of Virginia Woolf: ”He just saw great roles for actresses, and that’s how he built the movie.” Occasionally, a director who’s passionate about a difficult novel — such as Anthony Minghella was with The English Patient — can streamline it into an Oscar-winning and commercial success.
It used to be that a sprawling novel without a Minghella-like backer might rot in development hell. But now there’s a new option for those books that can’t be made to work for the big screen: premium cable. Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, which Deneen helped pitch to Rudin, is a prime example. The critically lauded novel about a complicated Midwestern family languished for years as a potential feature before finally finding traction at HBO. ”Cramming all of that into a two-hour or even three-hour movie is very difficult to do,” says Deneen, who read several drafts of the script.
Many literary novels are following The Corrections‘ lead. Chad Harbach’s much-hyped debut The Art of Fielding has been optioned by HBO, along with Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers. The obvious advantage that a cable series affords is time to delve into the complexities of a multi-faceted story. ”People who watch HBO are generally people who read literary novels,” says Russell Perreault, who represents movie and TV tie-ins for Random House’s Vintage and Knopf imprints.
Nora Skinner, who executive-produced next month’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, points to HBO’s recent miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce as a model. A 1945 film version starring Joan Crawford centered on a murder mystery that didn’t even exist in the novel — it was a device that simplified the plot for a 111-minute film. The HBO series was able to remain faithful to the novel by letting it unfurl over eight hours.
But cable TV doesn’t have a lock on everything literary. There are big-screen versions of the classics Anna Karenina and Bel Ami coming out in 2012. Rudin recently bucked the HBO trend by acquiring the rights to Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel The Marriage Plot for film rather than TV. And after years of false starts with various directors, Yann Martel’s seemingly uncinematic, highly metaphorical Life of Pi is now in postproduction with Ang Lee directing. ”In the movie business,” says Burke, ”you never say never.”