With Crazy Rich Asians closing on $200 million at the worldwide box office, its success continues to puncture several myths: that spandex heroes own the summer, that rom-coms can’t be cross-cultural, and that comics must provide the sole source material for franchises.
The surprise hit also points up Hollywood’s growing dependency on what some considered an arcane genre — the novel. Warner Bros was quick to announce that Kevin Kwan’s Rich novels will provide the basis for a new franchise (this was the studio obsessed with DC comics). Meanwhile, television producers and development executives are intensely competing for the rights to other once-obscure novels, having realized they lend themselves ideally to longer formats and to other streamer product.
All of this is good news for novice novelists – even several stars and filmmakers have tried their hands at fiction this year (Tom Hanks, James Franco and Guillermo del Toro included). It’s also relevant to those select companies like Random House Studio that develop scripted television by connecting published fiction to the fast-changing Hollywood universe.
Hollywood has always had its eye on revered literary titles, of course – witness The Great Gatsby, which was made (badly) four times. Movies based on Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind were giant hits, but some of Hollywood’s best movies stemmed from non bestsellers, such as Midnight Cowboy and In the Heat of the Night.
Hollywood’s appetite in genre and style has broadened in recent times, according to Peter Gethers, an accomplished book editor who is also EVP and general manager of Random House Studio, which is backed by Fremantle and Bertelsmann. The company has sold scripted projects to HBO, TNT and Showtime among others, along with three studio feature films.
Currently in development there as feature material are such novels as Social Creature by Tara Burton, a thriller about an ambitious career woman who winds up committing murder (it’s at Lionsgate); and Longbourn by Jo Baker, a Jane Austen-mode period piece set up at StudioCanal. Neither were runaway bestsellers but still found ready buyers. Random House Studio under Gethers also has optioned several books by Paulo Coelho as potential one-hour TV series. A Brazilian writer, Coelho’s books have sold more than 260 million copies, but The Alchemist, his best-known title, has proven difficult to translate because of its ethereal story line. In concert with Original Productions, Random House Studio has also moved aggressively into the documentary business.
From the point of view of Gethers, who also is the author of 12 novels, this moment in the media business holds out great opportunity for writers who may have struggled in a previous era. “Genre books ranging from The Thin Man to Maltese Falcon have always been ideal grist for films,” he points out. “The big difference today is that genre categories have shifted to TV, which eats up so much material that there’s opportunity for non-bestselling books. There’s room to fully develop characters and themes; the TV translation of the book doesn’t have to be crammed into two hours.”
Many of today’s “hot” filmmakers, of course, still rely on original material as the basis for their projects. The story of Roma was the creation of Alfonso Cuarón, while A Star Is Born, now in its fourth iteration, is credited to an original 1937 story by director William Wellman and three writers, one of whom was the legendary critic Dorothy Parker.
In a few famously reverse cases, however, the writing of the novels themselves was actually funded by studios for the purpose of translating them into films. The classic example was Love Story by Erich Segal; Paramount bought the script, then paid the author to novelize it. The studio also spent heavily on marketing the novel, with the promotional materials avoiding mention that the project originated as a script — a revelation that would have blemished its legitimacy. In the eyes of the literary establishment, it’s acceptable to film a novel, but not to manufacture one.