It’s official: the Fifty Shades movie franchise has made over $1 billion. It’s surprising for many, and thoroughly unsurprising for the legions of E. L. James loyalists out there. The book series was a smash hit in a way that few are. It’s no wonder, despite being critically slated, why Universal adapted the trilogy.
Money, yes. These movies made the studio bundles of cash, especially considering their relatively sparse budget (Fifty Shades Freed was reportedly made for $55 million, which is mid-budget). But that’s not the only reason Universal adapted the tentpole book series. It was tried and true.
Having essentially been market-tested before a second of pre-production was put into the first movie, the studio could rest assured that no matter what they came out with—which, most critics would assert, was no good—audiences would show up. Because even if the movie itself was a bore, enough people would want to see the sensual novel brought to life.
And when Fifty Shades of Grey first dropped, as with any book adaptation, you could hear the calls of internet-frequenters throughout the globe: Can’t Hollywood come up with any original ideas?
Considering, of this year’s Best Picture nominees in the Academy Awards, only one is a book adaptation (Call Me by Your Name), the answer is clearly a resounding yes. Movie makers are more than capable of creating and producing wildly successful original movies, and audiences will show up.
Yet critics of book adaptations persist. There’s nothing wrong with book adaptations. There’s no problem now, in 2018, and there never was. Let’s jump back 100 years, to the early days of the movie industry.
Back in 1918, movies were being pumped out like crazy. Many of the same studios today were around then. Their formulas haven’t changed. Some of the biggest smash hits of the silent era were based on literature: Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, F. W. Murnau’s Faust, or Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera. Not to mention D. W. Griffith’s hideous 1915 classic The Birth of a Nation.
From The Man Who Laughs, based on the Victor Hugo novel. | Image Via Classic Monsters
Basically, the movie industry’s been aping literature since its dawn. It’s no surprise they’re doing so now. Regardless of a book’s built-in audience appeal, there are other reasons movie makers (not studios) gravitate toward literature as their inspiration.
Books inspire people. It’s not a controversial thought, especially on this site. They inspire you. Just like they inspire you, they might inspire a screenwriter or director or producer to take to their chosen art form and bring an abstract story to life. It goes beyond money. Put simply, books beg to be adapted. The marriage of book and film is as natural as milk and cookies.
Prose fiction is an abstract medium. Though a writer painstakingly chooses the proper words through which to deliver their story, those words can and will be interpreted differently by every reader. Though dictionaries do a good job of giving us all objective meanings, a good writer will not only create, but flourish in their metaphors and ambiguities. The best writers, at least in my opinion, are those like Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges or Ursula K. Le Guin, who trust enough in their readers to give them the impossible to imagine.
Since film is probably the most immersive visual medium we have, it makes sense that the people who’ve internalized the abstract stories in prose fiction will be compelled to translate those stories into tangible reality.
There are legitimate gripes that readers have with film adaptations. Characters aren’t written quite right, or settings aren’t accurate to what the writer wrote. For the most part, though, these sorts of criticisms are unfairly expectant that one medium is capable of capturing and communicating a story in exactly the same way as the other. In other words, books and movies are made of different stuff. You can tell the same story in a book and in a movie, but some changes are going to be needed.
Book adaptations have been around since feature-length movies have been around. It’s not just because studios know they have an audience waiting to see the films—after all, book audiences are much smaller than movie audiences. Book adaptations are as popular as they are because we want to see stories come to life. Audiences and filmmakers alike are genuinely curious and anxious to see how snugly an adaptation fits the image they’ve constructed in their head. In the same way we get hungry or tired, fans of reading want to see the stories in their head exist in the real world. In a sense, book adaptations, even Fifty Shades Freed, are a dream come true.
Feature Image Via Universal Pictures