How Hollywood is using a book club approach to adapt hit novels
Hollywood loves to hit the books.
As long as film and television have existed, so have book adaptations. And with the explosion of streaming platforms, there are more places than ever for books to find potential homes for adaptations. Jason Richman, a media rights agent at UTA who represents the likes of Celeste Ng, Lindy West, and Jesmyn Ward, tells EW that when he first started, 95 percent of rights sold for film adaptation, but he sees a trend of well over 50 percent of rights going to television today.
As streaming has increasingly become a home for prestige television, so too has it become a home for prestige adaptations. While beloved YA franchises and twisty thrillers are still the provenance of big-screen features, literary fiction is finding its niche on TV. The reason? Producers, agents, and executives are treating finding, pitching, and crafting these projects like a book club writ large.
"The novel lends itself so much more to TV," Richman says. "I'm seeing a lot more networks take chances, where it feels like bigger feature film studios are a little risk-averse or working within needing it to be a $100-million-dollar-plus success at the box office. On television, we're taking more chances on prestige literary material that we haven't seen before, embracing voices that we haven't heard."
That ethos is evident at Hulu, which has become something of a poster child for literary adaptations. It made its name (and became the first streaming platform to win the coveted Best Drama Emmy) with the adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and continues its bookworm ways with buzzy adaptations of best-selling titles like Little Fires Everywhere, Normal People, and the upcoming Nine Perfect Strangers.
Beatrice Springborn, Hulu's vice president of original content, is the driving force behind the streamer's love affair with books. A self-professed bibliophile (her mother was a librarian), she says she looks for the same passion in her staff. When it came to pitching Hulu as the home for the onscreen version of Ng's Little Fires Everywhere to producers at Hello Sunshine, Springborn describes the meeting as a little less Hollywood boardroom, a little more living room.
"It very much felt like a book club," she recalls. "The entire team had read the book — we were talking about themes of motherhood and race and identity. It didn't feel like a typical Hollywood pitch meeting. We have a team that is very literate and able to speak to the deeper meaning below the surface."
Springborn says these conversations are essential internally, before they go out to potential producers or talent. It has also helped them approach — and woo — authors directly in an increasingly competitive market for rights. It paid off in the case of Sally Rooney, who both wrote and adapted her hit novel Normal People. So much so that Hulu has now doubled down and signed on alongside the BBC to adapt her first novel, Conversations With Friends, as well. "Sally Rooney perfectly and beautifully captures the complicated dynamics of relationships in her stories," Springborn said in a statement announcing the deal. "After bringing that to life in Normal People to an overwhelmingly positive response, we are honored to do the same with Conversations With Friends."
For agents looking to place their authors somewhere their artistic vision will be honored, this speaks volumes. "It's rare to find executives, on a consistent basis, that are reading things at such an active rate," Richman says of his frequent collaborations with Hulu. "You know that your client, the book, and project are going to be taken care of at the highest level very early on in the process. It's not like they just read coverage or reviews on the book; they're picking up specifically what has spoken to them and why it's meaningful and how you can help tell that story and adapt it for the small screen."
Hello Sunshine, the Reese Witherspoon-led media company with a mandate for female-driven storytelling, has found success by combining the producing arm with a fully fledged book club that now has a selling power rivaling Oprah's Book Club.
Lauren Neustadter, head of film and television at Hello Sunshine, says she sees their work as a value-add for books: "In adaptation, there's the gift of the world that has been created on the page," she says, "and then you have the honor and privilege of taking that beautiful world and opening it up and bringing it to life on screen."
Neustadter also stresses that the Hello Sunshine Book Club and the film and TV department are completely separate, though they remain in frequent conversation with each other. Despite outward assumptions, book club picks aren't necessarily destined to be optioned by HS, and adaptations aren't guaranteed a book club spot. The significant overlap between the two stems from the company's shared love of reading and Witherspoon's central role in both departments.
This club ethos extends to all levels of the process at companies like Hulu and Hello Sunshine — from hiring the team adapting the series to choosing which books to option in the first place. Neustadter notes that the selection process for everyone from a director to a production designer goes back to the book: "The thing that determines whether or not a person feels like exactly the right fit is 'Do they love the material like we love the material? Do they see in it what we see in it?'"
Much like the discussion prompts one might find at the back of a book, Richman, Springborn, and Neustadter all say they have a core set of questions they ask before deciding to bring a story into the adaptation pipeline.
"Will it make people have conversations that they aren't having?" Neustadter asks of every title she reads. "Will it make them think about and feel things they may not be thinking about and feeling? How is this going to change people? And how is it going to shift perspective?"
Springborn lays out similar guidelines for Hulu, citing the need for books that feel surprising and contemporary (regardless of time period) and will drive cultural conversation. "We're looking for things that have a depth and scope in the storytelling," she says. "I always know the projects that are going to be the most successful are the ones that when we optioned the book or are working on script notes, we have the most debate among executives. Because you want an audience to dissect and question and get excited about and be moved by all of our shows."
For Richman, too, it's about finding a personal connection for an author and their work — rather than just being on-trend or easily marketable — especially since deals are often brokered before a title hits shelves. "The things that I read and say, 'I know how I can sell this,' are the books that collect dust on my shelf," he says. "You have to feel passionate about it and about representing someone not just from book to book, but their whole career and helping to build them into a larger brand."
Hulu and Hello Sunshine have a strong track record for pegging potential literary best-sellers well before readers even know about them, but it's also a symbiotic relationship. In early May, following their spring series launch, both Little Fires Everywhere and Normal People sat at No. 1 and No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list for paperback trade fiction, and they both remain in the top five in late June.
Creative partnership is at the heart of what Richman looks for in his clients' partners, but every author is different in their desired level of involvement. Some, like Rooney and Shrill's Lindy West, want to write scripts themselves and be embedded in a series' evolution. Others, like Ng, want to step back from day-to-day production processes (although she did visit the set and cameoed in what else but a book club scene) or the inevitable page-to-screen changes.
"When you have hours [with which] to tell a story, you get to say, 'What are the questions that I had when I was reading the book that I want to answer now?'" Neustadter says. For instance, expanding the Little Fires Everywhere plot allowed them to delve into the backstories of characters like Elena (Witherspoon) that weren't in the book.
Springborn notes that showrunners take care to ask authors if proposed changes go against core rules of their universe or characters' moral codes, and that they rely on the authors to help "use their platforms to telegraph those changes to the fan base."
Because ultimately, the biggest part of this equation is that audience — readers and non-readers alike (indeed, some of the changes, like making Normal People far more linear than it is on the page, are at the service of helping engage a TV audience that's broader). "You want to adapt for an audience that has read the book and has some familiarity with the book, but also open it up to an audience beyond those core readers," Springborn says. "It's a balance of giving the readers the pleasure of what they read, but also giving the show to an audience beyond those readers."
She adds, "You are bringing people's imaginations to life, and that is a huge responsibility."
It's a delicate process shepherding a novel, which is often an intensely personal and intimate cultural experience, into a broader, visual entity. That means that like a good book club pick, these titles will spark discussions, perhaps even heated ones about what works and what doesn't, spirited conversation about what some audience members love and others virulently hate. Just don't forget the wine.