The ups and downs of book optioning for the movies

Books have always been a fertile breeding ground for film producers looking for original source material for their movies. It is a no brainer for film studios to option novels with an existing watertight workable plot and fully formed characters rather than start from scratch. It is the equivalent of starting a 100 metre dash seventy metres from the finish line while your competitors are messing about with character and tone on the starter’s blocks.

For authors it is a win-win situation for them as soon as their book is optioned and the cash has transferred into their bank accounts. They get paid even if the movie isn’t made within the timeframe agreement. Once this has elapsed, the rights revert back to the author to sell again. This is pretty lucrative in its own right. James Ellroy’s American Tabloid has been optioned three times without any director getting anywhere near shouting ‘action.’  

That’s why it was great to see a well-known crime writer sharing her enthusiasm about a possible film adaptation of one of her books recently. Her excitement is well deserved and merited. After all, adapting books into films is free money for an author who has already done the hard graft. She is also very realistic about the developmental processes. While the writer/producer/director doesn’t have a fistful of dosh, he is happy for her to co-script the film so she also adds another skill to her resume. Her pragmatic approach is to try and complete a first draft and see where they go from there.  

Naturally, I’d love to emulate her success with Without Rules — although the story of China and Jak is just starting as the book has only just been published. 

I’ve worked in PR and the creative industries my entire career and fully appreciate the obvious drawbacks. Once the film has been optioned, the author loses all creative control of their baby, unless they have the clout to negotiate a deal where they hold all the cards. Bad acting, a poor screenplay or a failure to retain the spirit of the source material are all potential pitfalls that can outweigh the financial rewards. And for every massive success such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter films, there are many, many more disappointments. For every LA Confidential there is a Black Dahlia. Both were films adapted from James Ellroy, the first to universal acclaim, the latter best swept under the carpet.

Authors tend to be split on their views of the movies of their books, depending on the critical and box office reception or their unease at how their work has been reinterpreted and altered.  

Anthony Burgess said: ”The film (of A Clockwork Orange) made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.”

Bret Easton Ellis was not overly impressed with his debut. “American Psycho was a book I didn’t think needed to be turned into a movie. I think the problem with American Psycho was that it was conceived as a novel, as a literary work with a very unreliable narrator at the centre of it and the medium of film demands answers.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel was equally scathing about the limited-release Prozac Nation:  “As you should have figured out by now, it’s a horrible movie… It’s just awful. If they thought it was good, they’d have released it long ago.”

However, others enjoyed the transition from paper to celluloid a lot more. 

Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane said: “I saw the movie and it’s terrific, I wasn’t going to say anything if I didn’t like it but it’s really terrific.”
LA Confidential writer James Ellroy said: “The movie is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke — and a wonderful one — and it is never going to happen again — a movie of that quality.”

And Annie Proulx, who wrote Brokeback Mountain, said: “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire. And, when I saw the film for the first time, I was astonished that the characters of Jack and Ennis came surging into my mind again.”

To celebrate the publication of Without Rules, here are six personal snapshot assessments of films and books that have inspired me one way or another — for a bit of fun I’ve marked them out of 10 although this very subjective.   

Jack’s Return Home (Ted Lewis) — 8

Film: Get Carter, 1971 — 9

Director: Mike Hodges 

This iconic crime movie, which starred Michael Caine as adopted Londoner Jack Carter seeking revenge for his brother’s murder up north, was based on Ted Lewis’s book, originally titled Jack’s Return Home. I’ve watched the movie umpteen times since first viewing in my teens but only read the novel a couple of years ago. From the first page, you can see why it inspired director Hodges and actor Caine. Gritty northern noir sparsely written in less politically correct times, it follows Jack ruthlessly hunting down of his kid’s killers — terrifying everyone in his relentless pursuit as the body count rises. Both book and film spawned a thousand Brit imitators but very few equals. 

 You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames) — 7

Film: You Were Never Really Here, 2018 — 6

Director: Lynne Ramsey 

Released this year, the parallels between Joe and the young girl in You Were Never Really Here and Jak and China in Without Rules were an obvious motivation for me. I read the wafer-thin book first in a couple of hours. It is virtually a noir film treatment (unsurprising given Ames movie and TV background) but just as it gets started, it’s over. The book reaches inside Joe’s suicidal head far more effectively than the visually stunning but narratively stunted film. 

Rum Punch (Elmore Leonard) – 8 

Film: Jackie Brown, 1997 – 8

Director: Quentin Tarantino

I read so many of Elmore Leonard’s books when I was younger that is hard distinguish one from another — until you revisit them and the storylines come flooding back. He has an economy and ease of writing that contrasts with his razor-sharp plots and snappy dialogue.  Jackie Brown is probably Tarantino’s best movie because every character doesn’t speak in Quentin’s voice. The look and feel and the soundtrack are so magnificent you can ignore DiNiro hamming it up. 

The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson, 1952) – 9 

Film: The Killer Inside Me, 2010 – 7 

Director:  Michael Winterbottom 

The prolific Jim Thompson is right up there with Leonard and Ellroy in the ‘top dog’ noir crime writer stakes. The Killer Inside Me is his stand out novel (he wrote ten novels in two years in its aftermath, often penning one a month).  The apparently amiable, pleasant and slightly dull-minded narrator is actually a sexual abuser and violently insane. The film received mixed reviews and was slammed by many for the sustained and savage graphic violence against women – it is a matter of opinion whether it drives the narrative or does this for shock value. For me less, is always more with graphic sex or violence.   
No Country For Old Men (Cormac McCarthy) — 10

Film: No Country for Old Men, 2007 — 10

Director: The Coen brothers

I watched this glorious Coen western at the old Cornerhouse in Manchester.  Then bought and read the book the next day. The lack of speech marks inspired the original version of the Wicked Games (which now forms the first third of Without Rules, complete with quotations marks). Brilliantly sparse with very few descriptions, this is another book that could double as a film treatment (Cormac originally envisaged NCFOM as a screenplay). The world weariness evident in the book contrasts with dominant omnipresent violence of Javier Bardem’s psychopathic Chigurh. You can rest assured, the Coens never expected that to happen when they made the movie.

LA Confidential (James Ellroy) – 8 

Film: LA Confidential, 1997 – 9 

Director: Curtis Hanson

Nobody did intense crime writing like James Ellroy. Many tried but they invariably fell short. His short staccato sentences and battering-ram raps and riffs took no prisoners, even if you haven’t got a clue what was happening with the incredibly complicated narrative. LA Confidential was good but American Tabloid was his masterpiece. He had not slipped yet into the caricature that dogged his most recent efforts like The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A River and Perfidia. The movie was brilliant as per the ‘fluke’ quote from James earlier in this blog. Brilliantly directed, written, casted, acted, especially Kim Bassinger and Russell Crowe.  

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