TBI Weekly: What next for the novel adaptation boom?

The Witcher

With drama producers around the world being forced to put filming on hiatus, development has taken centre-stage, something apparent in the recent flurry of news emerging about novel adaptations and option deals. TBI explores what’s next for the literary boom.

Novels have been adapted for the screen pretty much since the day that the first TV was switched on, but with so many production companies stuck in development these past months, optioning literature has arguably never been as popular.

As Bad Robot’s Ben Stephenson told TBI recently: “If you look back at the history of TV, remakes and adaptations have always been a big part of it.”

Getting in earlier, and earlier…

But what is less common, and perhaps an indication of the incredible competition for IP at present, is the optioning of a book proposal. HBO this week claimed the rights to Brendan Borrell’s forthcoming story The First Shot, about the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine. Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries is already attached to turn this story outline into a limited series, long before the actual novel has even seen a printers, never mind a shelf or been seen by a critic.

Understandably, details of the proposed show remain scant, but with the ongoing impact of Covid-19 – expected by many in the industry now to cause production problems for years rather than months – the allure of being able to secure IP to develop is clear.

Add that to the growing animation boom, and perhaps the longer term impacts of the pandemic on the scripted industry are beginning to emerge. Earlier this week, LA- and Amsterdam-based production company Submarine optioned rights to author Matt Haig’s sci-fi novel Echo Boy, with the adaptation destined at present to be a hybrid live action/animated series.

Submarine has brought onboard long-time collaborator Tommy Pallotta, who co-developed the animation technique used in sci-fi feature A Scanner Darkly and docudrama Waking Life. The technique is also being employed on Amazon’s animated drama Undone.

From Haig’s point of view, his novel requires this creative approach. “It is a novel with a level of scope and ambition which needs to be factored into the adaptation, and I am confident Submarine’s visual flair and imaginative creativity make them equal to the challenge,” he said as the deal was announced.

It is not just novels that producers are looking for, however. British author, historian and TV presenter Dan Jones was in the news this week after signing an overall deal with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) to develop screen adaptations of his works.

Jones, who has written best-selling books including The Plantagenets and The Templars, will work alongside SPT’s stable of scripted prodcos, including Left Bank Pictures and the recently acquired Eleven, and offer his “unique insight and expertise” on other productions across the group.

Wayne Garvie, president of international production at SPT, added that Jones has “a terrific slate of future projects” and that Sony’s prodcos are the “perfect companions” to bring his projects to the screen.

Long-tail revenue…

While novel adaptations have long been cash cows for broadcasters and more recently streamers, the news that Netflix’s action-fantasy series The Witcher is receiving a second spin-off goes to highlight the long tail value of acquiring popular book rights.

The Witcher: Blood Origins will serve as a prequel to the existing show, helping to flesh out on-screen some of the history of the world created by author Andrzej Sapkowski in his original book series. It follows January’s announcement that an animated spin-off The Witcher: Nightmare Of The Wolf, was being produced for Netflix by Studio Mir.

What is clear is that when acquiring the rights to a popular enough property, networks can absolutely sustain several related projects and increase profitability.

When it comes to TV, there may well be no author with such a rich vein of IP to tap as the ‘master of horror’ Stephen King. His stories have received enduring popularity on both the page and the big screen, with adaptations of The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption and, perhaps most celebrated of all, The Shining, considered among the greatest features of all time.

The latter is now getting a TV reboot as well, with Stephenson’s Bad Robot onboard as part of a three-drama commission struck in April. It will join King’s existing small screen adaptations, which range from CBS’s Under The Dome to Hulu’s 11.22.63 and Spike’s The Mist. Elsewhere, Hulu placed its trust in King’s IP with Castle Rock and Shudder made a similar move with Creepshow, while adaptations of Lisey’s Story, Joyland and The Stand are all in the works. Just recently, US network The CW ordered a series based upon his short story The Revelations Of Becka Paulson.

Clearly, there is an ongoing demand for the works of writers whose stories or concepts have already proven popular in another medium, but with budgets currently tighter than ever and risk appetite low, it’s not hard to see why broadcasters and platforms would be keen to pursue these relatively safe bets.

The knock-on effect is that until the industry gets fully back onto its feet, there may be a shortage of new truly original dramas being produced. But, of course, it also means that your favourite literary character might be closer than ever to their screen debut.

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