Can authors control how their work is adapted for film?

Gillian Flynn adapted Gone Girl for the screen - but why is she the exception? Should book authors be involved in adaptations of their work?

Last year, Gillian Flynn adapted her own bestselling novel, Gone Girl, into a screenplay, which was then directed by David Fincher. Most fans of the book would agree that the film is just as capital-F effed up as Flynn envisioned it on the page, but we all know that this isn’t necessarily a given in screen adaptations.

“I know how the story goes, which is that the author gets to do a first draft, and then is immediately fired and someone else is brought in,” Flynn told the L.A. Times about being asked to adapt the story for the screen.

That’s not how it turned out at all – Flynn’s script for Gone Girl was widely acclaimed and indeed, she is now moving on to write Fincher’s US remake of Channel 4’s Utopia with the director. But is Gone Girl some kind of curate’s egg because it measures up to the book? Is the film ever really as good as the book?

As with most seemingly unshakable maxims in fan culture, there are more than a few exceptions to this ‘rule’. For instance, Chuck Palahniuk has always been the first to admit that Fincher’s Fight Club has a better ending than his book. Either way, it’s arguably more important that a film should stand on its own merits, irrespective of its reverence for the source material.

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But while there are plenty of perfectly serviceable films that are held in low regard by admiring readers, some of the same quotient of fandom would suggest that any uproar would be comfortably avoided if these pesky studios would just enlist the author to adapt their own stories.

Some writers balance novels and screenplays in their stride, most famously William Goldman, who adapted his own novels The Princess Bride and the recent Stath vehicle Wild Card, and has also been credited with some of the best original screenplays of the last 50 years.

On the other hand, look at the example of Stephen King, who is one of the most adapted living writers. He’s been known to sell off the rights to short stories for as little as $1 to independent filmmakers – that’s about as hands-off as it’s possible for an author to get, for those stories at least. But are the current bestselling authors now getting increasingly involved in the process of adapting their own work?

If you’re on tenterhooks waiting for the announcement of 50 Shades Darker, the sequel to February’s record-breaking box office smash 50 Shades Of Grey, you may also have heard about the widely reported dispute that’s causing a hold up behind the scenes at Universal.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has already ruled out coming back to direct the remaining two adaptations in the trilogy and apparently, the author of the novels, E.L. James is holding out for more creative control over these films, including writing the scripts herself.

By all accounts, she was a very hands-on producer on the first film, (allegedly rejecting the polished dialogue written by Patrick Marber in favour of her own text) and if there really are hold-ups with the 50 Shades sequels based on her demands, it’s somewhat surprising that Universal didn’t lock this stuff down before embarking in their trilogy plans – Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel did a reasonable job first time out, given the source material.

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To go from the ridiculous to the sublime, way back in the day, Graham Greene wrote the mystery noir The Third Man as a novella in preparation to write the screenplay for Carol Reed’s film. Though it wasn’t originally intended to be read by anyone, the text was actually published after the release of the film in 1949, which has to be one of the earliest cases of a tie-in novelisation for a film.

But in most cases, it comes down to deconstructing the story in its original medium and then re-tooling it for a visual medium, a process that can’t possibly be more delicate if undertaken by the author than by an impartial screenwriter.

As David Nicholls, the screenwriter who adapted his One Day into a 2011 film directed by Lone Scherfig, told Word & Film: “The best analogy is that adapting your own work is like cutting your own hair; sometimes you want someone to take a look and make sure the back looks okay. The only person who wants the movie to be longer is the screenwriter.”

It’s definitely possible for films to miss the point though, and it’s almost as if the less than glowing consensus about films based on books has led to the current trend of getting authors more involved in the process of film adaptations.

In terms of blockbuster adaptations, the average turnaround from the publication of the book to the release of the film is usually within a decade at the most. For instance, Harry Potter had the gap down to four years, almost all the way through its run. As we’ve said before, those films are almost unusually faithful to JK Rowling’s books, in comparison to other adaptations of its ilk. Any fan who thinks otherwise, and complains that characters like Ludo Bagman didn’t make it into the films, arguably doesn’t know they’re born.

But the Potter films, together with other adaptations of the 2000s, could be seen to have made the box office environment in which films are unerringly reverent to the source material, especially very recent books. It also set the trend, followed by TwilightThe Hunger Games, and Divergent, of splitting the last book into two films, just to make sure it gets everything in the saga (as well as every last penny out of it.)

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In the case of Potter and Twilight, they were shepherded through by screenwriters, Steve Kloves and Melissa Rosenberg respectively. Rowling did exercise some creative control over the films in the beginning, insisting on keeping the British end of the series up, and maintaining approval over merchandise, at one point having to veto a Moaning Myrtle-branded toilet seat. It’s the kind of terms you get to negotiate when you’re writing the biggest books in the world. Of course, now that the 50 Shades books have done Potter numbers, one would expect James to have the same amount of bargaining power.

James may be seen as a bad writer (to paraphrase House Of Cards‘ Frank Underwood, you may say that, but we couldn’t possibly comment), but she’s objectively not experienced as a director or a screenwriter and it’s hard to imagine Universal so eagerly handing over the reins as Fincher did to Flynn on Gone Girl.

There have been other instances of hands-on writers taking their own adaptations right through production. Following the Oscar-winning success of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty scored cult admiration for decades afterwards when he wrote and directed the adaptation of his own novel, The Ninth Configuration. More recently, Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to the screen in 2012, from his 1990 novel, to great acclaim from fans and newcomers.

It’s telling that the screenplay categories at the Oscars are separated into Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay – first, that so many Oscar hopefuls year on year are based on acclaimed biopics or literary hits, and second, that writing one kind is so markedly different from the other. If you write The Grand Budapest Hotel, you’ve got a blank canvas, but writing a film based on Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice presents an entirely different set of challenges.

To look specifically at Adapted Screenplay winners, there’s a short list of authors who’ve won Oscars for adapting their own work. As mentioned, Blatty won for adapting The Exorcist. Mario Puzo won twice, for co-writing The Godfather and its sequel with Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Blake won for Dances With Wolves.

The most recent came in 1999, when John Irving won for adapting The Cider House Rules. In the latter case, many critics still left in the caveat that the script hadn’t quite captured the essence of the book. Film critics do tend to favour the director over the writer when reviewing a well-liked film, and then blame everything they didn’t like on the writer in a film they hated, and it’s in this regard that the question of whether authors should write their own movies is moot.

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In the end, it all comes down to authorship. Literature is the author’s medium, whereas film, if you can say a collaborative medium belongs to anyone, is the director’s. Even then, directors have to marshal a cast and crew and answer to studios and producers. If authors are involved in adapting their own work, it’s only by pulling a Blatty or a Chbosky that they can ever truly control the process of a collaborative medium.