Too Many Adaptations?

It’s no secret that Literary Fiction is not a lucrative business. Hardly anyone is busting into the industry hoping to make millions, and those that do are generally producing commercial work that is less than substantial.

 It seems to me that a budding novelist really only has three ways to count on keeping their heads above water whilst attempting to write full time.

  1. Strike gold with their first book and win a major award/receive major endorsement
  2. Teach
  3. Have their work adapted

The 1st requires a good amount of luck. Most end up relegated to #2. Door #3, however, is that illustrious fail-safe. 

There’s just no denying the reality: more people watch movies and television. The chances of people reading your work after it has been adapted for the screen sky rockets. But as a vanguard of the written word, the novelist must ask themselves, is this selling out? Is it forsaking the cause of literature? Is this the writer’s equivalent of a Burger King voice-over for a struggling actor? 

These days, book to screen adaptations seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. Chances are, if you’ve got a book on the bestseller pile, someone from Hollywood is going to want the rights, and it’s only a matter of time before all your efforts are obscured by big name actors and the blockbuster sheen. By the time award season has wrapped up, the book seems more like a companion piece compared to the massive press tours, billboards, and Late Night promos that the screen adaptation is afforded. 

Major authors have clearly made their peace with the new normal. George RR Martin, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, JK Rowling, Ian Mcewan, Philip Roth, are among the countless writers who have accepted that their work won’t survive on the page alone, and have allowed vast quantities of their work to be adapted.

Consider also, that I’m only really talking about adaptation of recent books. One doesn’t have to dig too deep through piles of screenplays to realize that most of them are adapted works. So really, the adaptation machine is indicative of two depressing trends: A book’s shelf life is only guaranteed with a visual aid of some kind. And a scarcity of original content in Hollywood. 

>Both mediums are suffering from the same business model, and we are caught in a feedback loop where quality suffers. What then, are the merits of having one’s work adapted, beyond publicity? 

Firstly, it seems necessary to acknowledge that adaptations can be standalone works of art. Some of the best adaptations are only as good as they are because the director had a radically different vision from the author whose book is being adapted. I believe that most of what we see today is adaptation for adaptation’s sake. 

 It is an understandable move for a studio executive to make. Before the film even begins production, they can guarantee some amount of viewers from the book’s readership. They can ride the coat tails of an author’s laborious efforts. 

Philip Roth is a major author who is notably pessimistic about the future of reading. In a 2009 interview, he emphatically stated that “the book can’t compete with the screen.” While avid readers would obviously disagree, he is right to notice that the book does not offer nearly as much in terms of franchise and advertising opportunity. All the book really offers is the book itself. Hopefully we continue to live in a world where enough people agree that that is more than enough. 

Featured image courtesy of Comingsoon