Skip to main content

THIS WRITER'S LIFE: The Not-So-Silver Screen

Our bestselling author reveals what it's really like to have a book adapted into a film, and why she continues to sign away her rights.

THE FIRST TIME one of my books became fodder for Hollywood, three producers wanted the rights: a music producer, a director with several movies under his belt and a producer/screenwriter who wanted me to co-write the script. The latter called me on his wedding day (I could hear the "Wedding March" through the receiver). "Don't you have something important to do?" I asked. He said he needed me to know why he had to write this screenplay with me: The book was about teen suicide, and his brother had killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide. Doing this, he said, would help him heal.

I told my agent to give him the rights. A year into working with him, I learned that he'd never even had a brother.

Welcome to Hollywood.

Although it's a grand achievement to publish a novel, inevitably, one of the first questions you're asked is: Is it going to be a movie? America is smitten with the silver screen, and authors who've really "made it" have their books translated into film. Nevermind that it's often so painful a journey that John Irving wrote an entire book about the process. For some reason, the brass ring of the publishing industry is crossing over into the film industry.

I've had two books turned into TV movies: The Pact and Plain Truth. Another, Keeping Faith, will air on Lifetime in the next few years. My Sister's Keeper has been in development at New Line Cinema for two years and is creeping forward. The Tenth Circle just went out to studios. By now, I've figured out the difference between Hollywood and New York publishing. In publishing, they say, "I hate it, I hate it" until finally someone grudgingly agrees to represent you. In Hollywood, they say, "I love it, I love it" when, in fact, they have no intention of pursuing your work.

For neophytes, here's what you need to know about the film industry:

NO ONE READS IN HOLLYWOOD. A 500-page novel will become a three-page treatment, which apparently matches the attention span of a Hollywood producer. No matter how original the idea, it'll be boiled down into something else that's succeeded. For example, a film adaptation of Moby-Dick might be described as: Splash meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets The Perfect Storm.

THE WHEELS OF HOLLYWOOD GRIND SLOWLY. I'm always amazed when a book is translated to film within a year of publication, because the only entity more full of red tape than a publishing house is a film studio. Having a big name attached means nothing, because that person might leave the project for another one more likely to get off the ground. Even if your book is bought for film, you may not see the movie until you're living in a nursing home.

IT'S NOT A GET-RICH-QUICK SCHEME. Yes, we've all heard the stories—the multimillion-dollar film deals struck by lucky authors. But this is about as likely as the multimillion-dollar book deals you hear authors getting from publishers. Does it happen? Sure. Often? No. In fact, most books aren't bought outright by a studio or production company but instead are optioned. The difference between a purchase price for a novel and an option can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. I know authors who've re-optioned their books for years—well aware that the movie may never be made but perfectly happy to collect an annual pittance.

THE AUTHOR IS THE LEAST IMPORTANT PERSON INVOLVED. It's like giving a baby up for adoption—you're not allowed to call and ask what she ate for breakfast. You have to trust that you're giving your pride and joy away to someone who's going to care. Although I've been fortunate enough to be invited to the set of my movies, not once have I been contacted during the process and asked, "Hey, what did you mean by the passage on p. 365?" The studio, the screenwriter and the director all want to put their stamp on the story, which means that when the film's finished, it might not look much like your book.

STEREOTYPES ABOUND. If you're a female writer, no matter what you write, film agents will assume that it's best suited for television. (There are exceptions—chick lit translates well to chick flicks, fiction for teens sometimes becomes a big-screen release or a star falls in love with a female writer's book and shepherds it into film.) Women writers are pitched primarily to two outlets: Lifetime and Hallmark. If you figure in how many original features they each produce annually, the competition is fierce. Female romance writers, such as Danielle Steel and Barbara Taylor Bradford, have long been staples of cable TV movie networks. But thematically comparable stories written by male authors like The Notebook and The Horse Whisperer, went straight to the big screen.

My own experience in Hollywood has left me pretty jaded. That first foray, with the brotherless screenwriter/producer, became even more unpleasant when the script we adapted from my book on teen suicide was pitched to studios a day after Columbine. Instead of trumpeting the screenplay as an honest representation of teen depression, he decided to make changes that completely altered the story. It was a great moment of irony when someone at Lifetime read the script and wanted to make the movie, but only if another screenplay was written, one closer to my original novel.

Ah, karma.

When the filming began, I was invited to Toronto to watch. The first scene was one that had come verbatim from my novel: A teenage boy lies down on the fresh grave of his dead girlfriend and kisses the earth. It was an emotional scene to write, but I was unprepared for how stirring it would be to see it brought to life. I crouched behind a tombstone as the director called "Action!" and sobbed, amazed to see what I'd pictured in my own mind unfolding before me.

And that's why, in spite of the heartaches of translating a book to film, you sign away the rights. I've been privileged to be on the sets of two of my book-to-movie translations; I've had cameos in both. I've met talented actors and watched them transform into my characters.

But here's the real reason you sell the film rights to your novel: You find an audience that would never have known you. When Plain Truth aired on Lifetime, seven million people watched. The only authors who sell seven million books are Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. If even one-tenth of those TV viewers pick up the book your movie is based on, it's an instant bestseller. After Plain Truth was broadcast, I had more than 100 e-mails from readers who'd seen the movie and picked up my book afterward—and went on to read all of my other novels, too. The translation from book to film nets an author an audience that's far more extensive than the book-buying demographic: people who couldn't tell you where their nearest bookstore is; people who'd never otherwise know your name.

I cross my fingers that My Sister's Keeper will hit the big screen sometime before I'm eligible for AARP. I pray that the ending won't be changed. Ultimately, if it is, I know my die-hard readers will be just as disappointed as I. They'll return to the product they know won't fail them: a novel, written exactly as the author intended.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.