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Writer’s block – keeping control of adaptations

Louise Berg from the entertainment and media industry group at global law firm Reed Smith on the rights difficulties that emerge when adapting novels and original intellectual property for television.

Louise BergIn a recent interview, best-selling historical novelist Philippa Gregory spoke of her frustration when historical details in her novels are changed by scriptwriters. In her contracts with film makers, she now insists on the inclusion of a clause which prevents historical facts from being altered.

Many novelists will sympathise. Having spent years lovingly crafting each word of a book, it must be very difficult to hand it over to a producer and watch, powerless, as characters are cut, locations changed and endings re-written.

There have been many famous examples of authors who did not consider that film or TV adaptations did justice to their original PL Travers, author of the book Mary Poppins, begged for an invitation to the premier of the Disney film and then wept throughout the screening. Stephen King openly criticised Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, complaining that the on-screen character of Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicolson) had “no arc at all”.

But creative control over an adaptation is a luxury available to only a few novelists. Philippa Gregory is one of a small pool of successful authors who have sold millions of books, and therefore have the bargaining power to insist on creative control in their contracts. Another writer in that pool is, of course, JK Rowling. The early Harry Potter books had already been an enormous success when she sold the film rights, and she was able to secure an unprecedented amount of control (including the right to insist on a British cast, and approval over scripts).

Authors who are not established will generally have to surrender creative control if they want to earn money from on-screen adaptations. Sometimes authors can negotiate ‘consultation rights’, but these are worth little if the wording of the contract does not require producers to comply with instructions given during consultation.

In an environment where big budget TV drama is competing with Hollywood for great source material, filmmakers may lose out to TV producers who can offer writers a more faithful adaptation

Although writers may be frustrated by the position, it is undoubtedly to the good of the film and TV industry. Existing books provide much needed creative inspiration for filmmakers and TV producers, but they need the freedom to adapt the story so that it works on screen. Writing a novel requires a very different skillset from writing a screenplay. Novelists focus on describing settings and characters as vividly as possible in words so that readers can conjure them up in their imaginations. Screenwriters have to create a set of instructions that enable a story to be told in images and dialogue alone. As John Le Carré said in an article for the Guardian, “In the beginning was the word. The writer lives or dies by it. To the filmmaker, in the beginning was the image. The creative battle has raged happily ever since the first movie flickered into life.” (© David Cornwell (John Le Carré), October 2015).

Some novelists do understand the changes that need to be made to translate a novel to screen. Paula Hawkins, for example, convinced producers that she could write the screenplay for the film of her novel The Girl on the Train. However, an author’s contribution to a screen adaptation is not always positive.

It has been suggested that the film Fifty Shades of Grey would have been better if the author EL James had not insisted on sticking to the original dialogue from the book, and if Truman Capote had had his way on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the world would have been deprived of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly (Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly, with himself starring as the male lead).

It may be better for all concerned if authors take a step back. Producers will have the freedom to create a new work that is a piece of art in its own right without being stifled. Authors themselves may also benefit if they are prepared to let go; if a book is optioned without any creative constraints, the film or TV series is more likely to be commissioned, and so the author will gain financially. Increased notoriety, not to mention increased book sales, are also an incentive.

But those in the TV industry may yet have cause to be grateful to fiercely protective authors. TV producers have something to offer that film producers do not: time. A film may only allow 120 minutes for an author’s story to be told, but a TV series may provide 500 minutes or more. This will inevitably mean fewer cuts to the original work.

In an environment where big budget TV drama is competing with Hollywood for great source material, filmmakers may lose out to TV producers who can offer writers a more faithful adaptation.