Monday, November 11, 2013

Books to Film: Turning Bestsellers into Blockbusters

There’s a sense of prestige attached to just about any movie adaptation of a book. Something about the written word elevates any cinematic venture, even if it’s about a zombie who falls in love with a nubile young blonde. That’s right, last Feburary’s Warm Bodies was a novel before it became a romantic comedy. Not exactly a literary classic, but such adaptations are a lot more common than something by, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Since 2011, the studios have averaged 20 major releases based on books, though the numbers climb when you factor in mini-majors and independents (The Hunger Games, for instance, comes from Lionsgate). An initial look at the 2014 schedule—still far from set—suggests that average isn’t going to let up, and a couple of the most highly anticipated flicks are coming from smaller distributors.

Lionsgate alone has two of what can probably be considered The Big Four, including Divergent, hitting theaters in March and the third Hunger Games installment emerging around Thanksgiving. The third is Focus Films’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Throw in the third installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit adaptation, and you would be hard-pressed to find four more highly anticipated book-to-movie releases in 2014.

Among the majors, plenty have interesting fare on their slates. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and directed by David Fincher, has gone into production and will wrap some time in February, meaning it’s not farfetched to speculate that the flick could hit theaters before the end of next year. It’s exactly the kind of Oscar hopeful that goes in line with the strategy of the adaptation of high-profile books: Take a respected best seller, attach an Oscar-caliber director and cast, give it a plum fall release date and wait for the kudos to come in.

Now, obviously, the last item on the checklist is as-yet wishful thinking. But the 20th Century Fox has followed the playbook thus far. They made such a big deal about Fincher coming on board, then about the casting of Affleck—fresh off his Oscar win for directing and producing Argo and right before the announcement that he had been cast as Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. Gone Girl was named in all the stories about Affleck’s bat-casting—and, finally in the competition surround the casting of Amy, the titular “gone girl.” When Pike got the part over such rumored hopefuls as Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman and Fincher fave Rooney Mara, among others, it was front page news.

Looking back over the past couple years, a lot has been spent—and earned—by the studios from their book-to-movie adaptations. In addition to The Hobbit (and discounting The Hunger Games as it’s not the product of a major studio), you’ve got Lincoln, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Les Miserables—an adaptation of a musical that itself was based on a 19th-century Victor Hugo novel—Life of Pi, The Vow, The Great Gatsby and World War Z as the big winners in the Book Adaptation Sweepstakes. And let’s not forget Argo, which, at least partially, was based on the autobiography of Antonio Mendez, whom Affleck played in the movie. Not only did all of these films do exceptionally well at the box office, but at the Oscar ceremony last winter, they won a total of 12 statuettes.

True, the movie considered one of the decade’s biggest flops, John Carter, also sprang from the bookstore. Disney lost about $200 million on the adaptation of the century-old tome, A Princess of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Beautiful Creatures, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Alex Cross, Gangster Squad, The Host, One for the Money and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones all showed returns that fell anywhere in the range of mild to spectacular disappointments.

Still, just as with anything involving the studios, just because one thing fails doesn’t mean decision makers are going to give up the ghost altogether. That is, few poorly performing genre films won’t signal the end of that genre (unless we’re talking about westerns, of course).

Now that we’re officially in what we like to call Oscar Season, audiences are about to be inundated with Hollywood’s prestige fare, much of it comprising book adaptations. The Wolf of Wall Street and Labor Day from Paramount, The Book Thief and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from Fox, The Fifth Estate from Dreamworks and Disney, Captain Phillips and Monuments Men from Columbia—all are anticipated as hotly as original fare like Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Llewyn Davis and Her, among the few dozen others on the schedule.

Consider also that Foxcatcher was moved to 2014 (director Bennett Miller needed more time to finish the intense character drama), and next year’s fare, alongside Miller’s film,  includes The Maze Runner, A Hundred-Foot Journey, Into the Woods, Unbroken and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, for starters. That plus the aforementioned Gone Girl, the final installment of The Hobbit trilogy, the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow (based on the novel, All You Need Is Kill), and a couple of movies based on stories from the Bible—Noah and Exodus. And lest we forget: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Most apparent about the list is its mixture of upscale and popcorn. There probably won’t be an Oscar push for Edge of Tomorrow. On the other hand, with the pedigree of Unbroken, based on a non-fiction bestseller by the author of Seabiscuit and directed by Angelina Jolie, this particular Christmas release will surely generate awards chatter. So might Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Steven Daldry’s Trash or any number of others not yet officially on any schedules. Again, we’re only taking into account the pictures coming from the Big Six, though the minis and independents have enough interesting fodder to keep all us bibliophiles interested.

Considering there are roughly 120 titles currently in active development, and literally hundreds more being developed by studios and production shingles alike, the conveyor belt of entertainment that runs from the bookshelves to the movie theaters shows no sign of slowing, much less halting. Let’s face it, there’s too much money to be made by all the players involved for anything else.


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