Is it me or does every film nowadays seem to be based on a book? For the last few years the most acclaimed films seem to be a conveyor belt of adaptations. Crossover between the book and film world is an old story of course but has the extent of adaptations actually been intensified during the last few years?
The Wolf of Wall Street, The Hunger Games, The Great Gatsby,The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to name, quite literally, just a few. Take a look at the top 50 films from 2013 , 2012 , and you will be inundated with adaptations.Take a look at what 2014 and beyond has in store for further proof of this craze for adaptation.
So why would this be the case? The movies are the movies and books are books. On the face of it, they couldn't be more distinct. Films offer the one version of interpretation whereas the book offers the many possible versions held in each reader's imagination. So why would filmmakers be so keen to adapt books?
Perhaps this question might be better directed at Film Schools. Where have all the original screenplays gone?
One of the first things you learn at any screenwriting course is the difference in writing for screen compared to novelistic writing or, indeed, theatre plays. Screenplays are visual, they are concise and clear. They use simple words to convey what the film is about-novels often do the exact opposite. Whilst books are adapted into a screenplay first, rather than turned directly into a film, couldn't a budding screenwriter produce a great story rather than a great adaptation? Couldn't they be the story creator rather than middle-man? Indeed, what is the point of all these screenwriting courses-available at British and American universities with increasing frequency- if it is to the world of books which directors tend to find their true graduates?
The quality of adaptations is a mitigating factor in this. Not only have some of the biggest pictures in the last few years been based on the book-Tinker Tailor, the Descendants, The Help, Life of Pi- but also allegedly 'unfilmable books' have been successfully adapted such as Cloud Atlas and The Road and one day, 'hopefully' Blood Meridian. Indeed, some of the greatest films of all time are adaptations.
Take a look at the American Film Institute's top ten films of all time and you'll notice seven are book adaptations.
This post is not about whether the film versions are as good as the books, but rather why so many directors are taking adaptation routes at all?
Could it be that books are cheaper to adapt? Not really, since studios must pay for the underlying rights of the book and then the adaptation rights on top. It shouldn't be a financial concern at all.
Could it be that books are a 'banker'?
Maybe, but then not that many cinema-goers read books and not that many who've read the book will rush out to see the film adaptation. In fact, many will refuse hands-down.
Could, then, books be the easy option?
I think so.
There is a feeling of safety with adaptations which original screenplays may not possess. Film studios are dealing with a story which already works-albeit in a different medium. The book contains something successful which has already been planted. Film studios simply need to prune it for the screen. In fact, some studios have been known to court publishing houses in the hope of securing the next big thing and snapping up film rights before the competition can.
This angers me, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's the idea of an overpaid star with an army of extras and vast set pieces needed to portray what the writer can do with a simple pen or a keyboard. That, in essence, a writer reduces the story whereas a film studio inflates it. Whether these vast marketing campaigns which go into promoting films somehow forget that the true quality of the story is really nothing to do with them
Film studios are good at spending money, creating CGI effects and making an explosion look so believable and terrifying you feel the heat of it on your face, but they are less adept at generating stories which were always intended for the screen- an original screenplay. All the millions in the world can't protect a film without a story. Avatar must stand out as a film without a story. There are countless others.
And it is surely the element of story, the quality of the story which explains why directors are choosing adaptations. It's why every improvement, from 3D to HD, can do little to impact the art of storytelling.
That doesn't, however,explain why there would be a paucity of great story's in original screenplays. More on this later.