How to turn your novel into a major motion picture

By Gillian Flynn
Updated October 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Book to film

Dear Person in Hollywood Who Makes Movies and Stuff:

I am a low-ranking writer at a national entertainment magazine. I write on many things. Like movies and stuff. But when no one is looking, I’ve been pecking away at my novel. It is both great and American. Please make a film of it, preferably starring Mimi Rogers and Brian Dennehy. I see Emilio Estevez in the role of Tad, the doomed, man-child flautist. Thanks! :)

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to get studio big shots to make a movie of your book. Heck, it’s not even that easy to get a book published. Or find an agent to take you on. Or write the thing.

We took it upon ourselves to canvas some industry types for suggestions. So follow the steps, and soon you too can place your own Variety ad decrying the casting of Angelina Jolie as your novel’s tattooed, thick-lipped, brother-loving heroine! You wrote that for Meg Ryan, dammit!


Quick vocab lesson: Filmic has a variety of meanings. ”It’s strong characters, an original story. You just know,” a studio exec explains. ”When I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… the voice is so authentic and so real and edgy it speaks to you. You see it visually, you see the characters. You see the movie.” She wasn’t the only one who saw Dave Eggers’ quirky memoir: The book has become this year’s ”get,” with New Line reportedly offering $2 million for the movie rights, which Eggers has declined.

It bears repeating: You can see the movie. (Studio suits, it should be said, aren’t necessarily imaginative, so help them where you can.) Take Jody Shields’ first novel, The Fig Eater. The plot — two proper ladies search for a murderer in 1910 Vienna — doesn’t exactly scream popcorn flick, but it’s now in development at Miramax, thanks to producers who ate it up. ”When I was writing it, I wasn’t deliberately being film-friendly,” Shields says. ”I wasn’t thinking like that — I mean, I didn’t even have a publisher. But everyone that read it kept saying how visual it was.”

Filmic, insiders note, also means that your story fits neatly into a specific genre that often works on celluloid. Think horrific plots, like Stephen King’s (27 books and stories turned into films); F/X extravaganzas, from the likes of Michael Crichton (10), or legal thrillers, as typified by John Grisham (6). In fact, Hollywood insiders will tell you that Grisham is particularly adept at churning out camera-ready plots, not to mention liftable dialogue and charismatic characters: He’s said, for instance, to have written his Pelican Brief heroine with Julia Roberts in mind (and you do remember who starred in the movie, don’t you?).

One final definition: Filmic means having a nice hook. Consider Jack Brehm, a real-life pararescue jumper who coordinated efforts to save the struggling fishermen in Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction best-seller The Perfect Storm. Brehm cowrote That Others May Live, which appeared last January, almost two years after Junger’s book and four months before the blockbuster film. It was an easy sell because it was piggybacking on a known commercial commodity. Explains Todd Shuster, whose Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Agency repped Brehm: ”It’s obviously filmic — action-adventure oriented, suspenseful, great stories.” Shuster’s people shopped the story around to studios while simultaneously tapping publishers. Guess who reportedly snapped up the movie rights before the book’s February debut? Warner Bros. — for Wolfgang Petersen, director of The Perfect Storm.


Do you have to have one? ”I would say so, absolutely, especially in regard to movie deals,” says Gerry Howard, who worked on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and is now editorial director of Broadway Books. ”If I were crazy enough to write a book, I could handle all the ins and outs of the publishing arrangements because I understand them, but I wouldn’t dream of handling the movie rights myself because the intellectual-property issues are so complicated. Nobody but a fool would handle movie rights themselves.”

A good agent also makes your book-to-movie path smoother. He’s hooked into the film industry — he knows who’s looking for a literary thriller, who needs a historical epic. He knows which studios will go nuts over a whiff of competition, which should be teased along with the idea of an inside buy — and he knows which books have the right stuff to go Hollywood.

”If the characters are unforgettable, if the prose sings, I’m mostly thinking, ‘This is a great story,”’ Shuster says. ”But I’m also thinking: ‘Is this one of those lucky books that should be on the big screen? Is a major producer going to want to make it into a big popcorn-crunching Hollywood film?’ Any agent worth his or her salt should be thinking that.”

As for actually getting an agent, your fears are warranted. Two rumors are true. First: To land representation, you pretty much have to be already published — even if it’s in your local newspaper. Agents are, alas, unlikely to take your word that you’re the next Frank McCourt — but they may spark to your magazine article about that spunky kid who taught his hamster sign language. Second: You pretty much need to know someone. ”The best way for a person to get published,” Shuster says, ”is to make friends with other published authors, and to get an agent through a successful published author.” Which shouldn’t be hard. Just dial up Messrs. Crichton and King, and ask them to lunch. When they hang up on you, go back to step one: getting published. Magazines, websites, literary journals — that’s where you’ll meet other writers, who may know other writers, who may know agents.

Or land one yourself. It’s not easy, but not unheard of. Pick up the Literary Market Place guide, which includes a massive listing of agents and their specialties — mysteries, true-life adventures, romances. Package your manuscript with a terse cover letter explaining the story, plus a bio that doesn’t skimp on credits, no matter how humble. Says Shuster, ”Even an unknown writing program suggests the person is taking the process of being a good writer seriously.”


”Agents usually want to be caught making deals rather than really linking up the right editor to the right project,” snipes one mega-editor. ”It’s like going to the dance and taking a girl home — often it’s not the one you’re best suited with.”

There, feel better? Agents: not a panacea. You can get your stuff to a book editor yourself — and then get an agent (exactly the route the aforementioned editor took with two young writers — who are now Hollywood darlings, thankyouverymuch). Just make sure you find the proper editor. Random House editor Pamela Cannon suggests picking three favorite authors who write in the same genre as you. Note the publishing house; then scan the acknowledgments for an editor’s name. But don’t send your manuscript until it’s in top-drawer form. ”I’m a jaded reader,” admits Cannon, who receives 5 to 10 novels a week. ”Most of what I turn down is publishable. For fiction, though, you have to absolutely love it and go to the mat for it.” But once Cannon has bought a book from an unrepresented writer, that Random House contract is all it takes for agents to take notice.


If you haven’t had luck landing an agent, here’s a novel idea: Make copies of your magnum opus and ”forget” them at Hollywood and publishing-rich sites. In L.A., park one at the Four Seasons’ pool, on the patio at the Ivy, inside CAA’s lobby, and at the Mercedes dealership. In New York City, try the ICM reception area, the bar at Michael’s, the tables inside the door at Le Madri, and the Hampton Jitney. Who knows? An agent, or someone who lunches with an agent, may read the thing and go bonkers and…

Okay, it’s off-the-wall, but we’d like to give this a happy Hollywood ending: Sometimes it all comes together. You get an agent, who submits your book to publishers and producers. Hollywood scouts begin pestering your editor. Late at night, low-paid publishing drones secretly fax your manuscript to friends in La-La Land. Your book, in short, gets heat. Studios go wild and pony up big dough. Angelina Jolie gets cast — and perhaps, magnanimously, you give her your blessing.