How Hollywood is rekindling the rom-com — with the help of romance novels
All you need is love — a precept romance novels live by with the notion of the HEA (happily-ever-after) embedded in their DNA. But it’s a message Hollywood seemed to forget over the past decade, with mourners tolling the bell for the death of the rom-com. The big screen’s loss has been publishing’s gain, as a rom-com renaissance in books has exploded. Cindy Hwang, editorial director of Berkley Books, says her last several acquisitions have been rom-coms — many inspired by pop culture, including Kerry Winfrey’s Waiting for Tom Hanks, which features a Nora Ephron-obsessed heroine. At St. Martin’s Press, Nancy Naigle’s upcoming Dear Santa is a You’ve Got Mail retelling.
There couldn’t be a better time, in other words, for Hollywood to finally realize the untapped riches of romance publishing. And they appear to be doing just that. Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, Christina Lauren’s Roomies, and Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient have all been optioned in recent months. Shonda Rhimes is also hitting the books, developing a TV show for Netflix out of the Regency-era Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn.
Quinn says the issue of “prestige” is the reason it’s taken so long for so many to see romance as a viable source for adaptation. “Producers would rather do the 496th Jane Austen than something with a ‘romance novel’ label,” she says. With Rhimes’ influence, Quinn is hopeful for change.
It’s 2018, after all, and just as Hollywood storytelling has influenced romance novels, the reverse is taking place as more books are adapted. “[They’re] built on common tropes,” says Andie J. Christopher, author of the upcoming Not the Girl You Marry. “Romance embraces the beats of film storytelling. It is a genre that embraces form in the same way film does. The creativity in writing novels is about taking the form and doing something fun and new with it. Literary fiction is afraid of being too derivative, but [romance authors] know that when you apply your own voice and sensibility and values to [tropes], it completely transforms it.”
Christopher also says the recent dearth of rom-coms on screen likely comes from the same “prestige” issue that leads many to view romance novels with condescension. “Romance novels and rom-coms suffer from the same assumption that because they have a happily-ever-after, they are predictable and less artistically relevant,” she says.
Winfrey, the Waiting for Tom Hanks author, says many of today’s romance writers grew up on a steady diet of rom-coms, which they chase in their writing. “Romance novelists are some of the most creative writers out there because they can make a story feel new even though we all know what’s going to happen,” she says, adding that most romance fans have an appetite for the tropes and grand romantic gestures Hollywood has stopped feeding.
“People are definitely taking their inspiration from movies and other forms of pop culture,” says Hwang. “So I really do hope we see a renaissance of these types of movies.”
The recent flurry of projects going into development suggests that there are plenty of romance fans working in Hollywood. Rhimes has been a vocal champion of the genre, devoting considerable coverage to it on her website Shondaland.com since it launched last summer. Both Thorne (the Hating Game author) and Christina Lauren (the pen name of Roomies writing duo Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs) say they were delighted to discover that the producers who optioned their books were already avid readers of romance. Each of the projects is perfectly primed for its respective medium. Only television could do justice to Quinn’s eight-book series, while Thorne acknowledges the role her undergraduate degree in film plays in her writing style and voice. Hobbs says that Roomies, with its NYC setting and Broadway elements, “felt really cinematic” from day one.
“This is an exciting time for Hollywood to find and snap up great stories and new voices, particularly by female writers. The romance community is brimming [with] creative geniuses, skilled at making readers laugh and blush,” says Thorne, whose forthcoming 99 Percent Mine is yet another rom-com overflowing with humor and heart. It’s a sentiment many in the genre share.
“Now is the right moment to pay attention to women’s voices,” says Hwang. And according to Billings, “The things women love [are] generally dismissed in society. This is a great stage for us to show the storytelling we have as a community and the ways we’re able to push conversation and write hopeful, wonderful stories.”
When it comes to pushing conversation, there’s a crucial area where both Hollywood and publishing still have a lot of work to do: making rom-coms more reflective of the world around them. Formerly the domain of turtlenecks and upper-class white women, the genre is becoming more inclusive — Not the Girl You Marry, for instance, is a gender-swapped How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days with a biracial heroine. “We need rom-coms with people of color, unrepresented LGBTQ pairings — not just as supporting characters,” Thorne says. “Let them be the stars. Let’s see characters that might be differently abled, or with unique looks and varied body types. Everyone is worthy of achieving their goals and finding their true love, without undergoing that once-mandatory makeover scene.”
It’s not only what Hwang is looking for as an editor, but something she sees readers are hungry for. “Today’s rom-coms are broader stories,” she says. “They feature a variety of characters and situations, which reflect people’s experiences now. They are aspirational. They are what people want life to be like all rom-coms are, but also more realistic regarding the situation.”
Hobbs and Billings aren’t afraid to tackle these issues as they adapt their best-selling Roomies for the screen. The original source material centers on Irish busker Calvin McLoughlin and his marriage of convenience to Holland Baker, which allows him to pursue his Broadway dreams. In their most recent draft of the screenplay, Calvin is no more, instead replaced by Mateo Perez, a Latino immigrant. Billings says the notion of a telling a story about immigration that only dealt with white people was “too easy,” adding, “Christina and I and all of the producers felt like the issue of immigration is one we needed to be facing head-on with this story, and we had an opportunity and responsibility to do that.” Hobbs adds that it made for a seamless transition while writing. “It was the way it needed to be told,” she says. “It unfolded so much more authentically this way.”
How Rhimes — known for her inclusive casting — will tackle the Bridgerton series and its lily-white characters remain to be seen. Quinn admits she wasn’t considering diversity when she began publishing the series in 1999. “But I am now. A lot,” she says. “There definitely were people of color in Regency England, and many of them moved in aristocratic circles. I’m eager to see how Shonda and her team might reimagine some of the stories to make them more inclusive.”
There’s one thing romance authors point to when crediting the current rom-com boom in publishing and Hollywood’s sudden interest in the genre: hope. Thorne calls the happy endings “chocolate box perfection,” and Hobbs cites romance novels as “inherently hopeful.” As Dear Santa author Nancy Naigle puts it, “People are clinging to something that gives us a little lift in our day.”
Winfrey perhaps says it best: “Romantic comedies provide hope, happiness, and escapism. Those things don’t ever go out of style.” In fraught times, perhaps the romance industry can embrace a Hollywood ending they’ve long deserved — one with room for all.