What Kind of Book Translates Well to the Screen?

Image: Netflix on the screen of an iMac computer.

This article was first published in my paid newsletter for authors, The Hot Sheet.

Given the increase in book-to-screen deals in recent years, and the tendency of the TV/movie industry to build off existing intellectual property, it’s natural for authors to wonder if their own work is suitable for adaptation—or if they can increase their chances of writing something that will be adapted. In a panel last year at the virtual Bologna Book Fair, several players in the industry discussed what they look for in projects.

Compared to scripts, books might have a better chance of becoming a recommended project. Annie Nybo, a reader for Netflix, sifts through more than 200 potential projects in a year for the streaming service. Her job requires her to read a book or script, write a three-page summary or synopsis as well as a one-page analysis, and rate the project on five criteria. Those criteria include premise, structure (hitting the plot beats), story line (how that plot is working), character, and dialogue. Even for books, Nybo is able to rate dialogue based on how the characters speak and if they sound unique (versus everyone kind of sounding alike).

Last year, Nybo read 215 scripts and books combined and recommended eight of them. That’s about a 4% acceptance rate for projects coming to her. As far as books specifically, she read 22 and recommended four. That’s a 14% acceptance rate and half of what she recommended. (Stand proud, authors, agents, and publishers!)

Nybo tends to start by first analyzing the premise when recommending projects. “We all have to write loglines and summarize a whole project in one sentence, and so for me, finding a project where the premise is the conflict is really important.” As an example, she offered To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, in which the main character’s secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes: that’s the premise and the conflict.

It doesn’t matter how many copies the book has sold. Nybo said if the book is popular or has an established following, she has to take that into consideration when thinking about the adaptation, especially when there’s a plot point she doesn’t think will work well for the screen. If the fans are very invested in the story, it could be more challenging to adapt. “There’s more room to shift things when you don’t have an enormous audience,” she said.

Characters are critical. Caterina Gonnelli, EVP of content at Xilam Animation (France) said, “We want authentic characters and characters who are really moved by a strong drive and a clear drive. For children’s content we would want this character also to embody positive character traits—which does not mean that he or she is flawless. Of course we also want flaws, because otherwise there is no salt in the recipe.” Speaking again to children’s work, she added that the themes need to be clear, but not preachy, and the character’s trajectory must be clear. “What doesn’t work for us is what is static,” Gonnelli said. For example, a story might be static because there isn’t sufficient action or there aren’t any turning points or surprises for the characters.

Ellen Doherty at Fred Rogers Productions agreed and added that some stories just don’t pop. “You don’t get to know enough of the character or the world,” she said. “Sometimes there’s just no growth.” The characters are so important that if they’re strong enough, what might at first appear as a very local or regional story can in fact be adapted into something universal and appealing for global audiences—regardless of the source country of the material.

How loyal an adaptation should remain to a book—and how much the author ought to be involved—remains an open question. Gonnelli said, “We could debate for hours.” On the one hand, she said, one can argue that the author is in the best position to know the characters and the world they’ve built. But one might also argue distance is required to produce the best adaptation. “I guess what is really key is the relationship—to build a relationship that is based on trust, mutual trust—and for that you need to factor in a lot of time,” she said. She warned that if producers totally skip looping in the author—partly to offer reassurance that the book is in good hands—then there will be trouble. “You’re in a lot of anxiety from both sides.”

Doherty said, “That relationship between the producer and the author is key.” Ideally, the vision for the TV or film version can be built together during the development phase, so that when production starts, there’s already been a meeting of the minds and everyone knows what’s going to happen. However, Doherty said, “Ultimately when it comes to a TV version, for me the producer has to have the final say because we know our medium the best. I have seen instances where the author has too much control and the translation to the new medium doesn’t work so well.”

It’s more common than ever for producers and studios to find ideas and stories by following creators on social media. This is especially true in the case of graphic novels, comics, and illustrated children’s work. Doherty said there’s now a “profusion of opportunities” to find content on social media. Doherty said, “To follow individual creators that way is really interesting because you get to see more of their personality, you get to see maybe their playfulness and things that are in process, and I really like that. There are people that I’m watching to see what they do next; I’m checking out their books as they go.”

How can an author increase their chances of adaptation?

All panelists agreed that they look for stories that are the best example or expression of their genre. Nybo and others look for that blend of familiar and fresh, where the author clearly knows what genre they’re working in and hits those structural points but includes interesting and surprising twists and turns. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the quality of the writing on the page doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s more important that the story is “working on all cylinders,” according to Nybo. Excellent literary writing can’t translate to the screen as well as snappy characters.

Angela Cheng Caplan, president and CEO of Cheng Caplan Company, said (in a separate panel at Bologna): “Honestly, it’s all about the narrative. It’s really about the author’s narrative. We really, really pay attention to that. What is the author’s back story? What is the author trying to say? I’m always big on context. And I always have the authors that I work with put together an author statement that really sort of addresses why they’re the only person in the world to tell this story—what exactly it is that they’re going through that makes this relevant for this moment in their lives and how it can relate to everybody else.”

She also offered a warning: “Within the past year we’ve actually started looking at potential clients and their social media. I’m very, very aware of when someone is a troll, quite frankly—if they’re trolling for the good or trolling for the bad at some point in time. Whatever energy is put out there sort of comes back in some way, shape, or form. So I would say for authors who are out there trying to create publicity for themselves … be very aware of the kindness or lack of kindness you’re putting out into the world.”

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