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The Writer’s POV: Your Work Adapted for Film or TV

What's it like to have your writing adapted for the screen? Four authors share their stories.

February 4, 2019

For writers, getting published — whether that results in a novel, essay, or article — can feel like a Herculean accomplishment. To then have a producer approach you about adapting your work for the screen can be overwhelming, even bewildering.

Like publication, having a story adapted for film or TV is neither common nor guaranteed. It’s not a subject broached in MFA programs or journalism school, where the focus wisely remains on crafting a good story or producing sharp reporting.

So, when writers are approached about the possibility of having their work adapted, what’s it like? Is it glamorous beyond belief? Do you swim in oodles of Hollywood money? We spoke to four novelists about the process, peaks, and pitfalls.

Learning industry lingo

Before any of the fabled “lights, camera, action” schtick, there’s the humble “option.” That’s the short-term agreement of either twelve or eighteen months that gives someone, typically a producer, the exclusive right to develop a film or television project from an existing novel, essay, short story, or other original written work. The author is paid — somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000 usually — for the initial option, with a larger sum doled out if the project goes into production. If, at the end of the term, the project is still in development, the option can be renewed, usually for another small fee. While the vast majority of options never go into production, you’ll at least net extra cash.

Your literary agent will negotiate the agreement for you, but you should have an attorney with experience navigating literary adaptations finalize the terms. If you don't have an agent, you should still hire an attorney.

Trust your gut

The phone rings, and you’re standing there talking with a producer who’s interested in your book. How’d they find you? There’s no set way this goes down. It could happen organically, perhaps with your book becoming a best seller or getting a great review. Or it can be more deliberate, like when your publisher or agent, hoping that an adaptation will drive sales, pushes your work directly to producers. Regardless, it’s not going to get traction if it doesn’t stand out.

For writer Sara Zarr, the tipping point was being included in an article published by prominent lit rag Book Slut. “Book Slut had a feature article called ‘The Heirs to Judy Blume,’ spotlighting women who were writing about teenage girl's lives,” she explained. “A lot of people read that article.”

It highlighted her first book, Story of a Girl (2007), and soon after, she began receiving calls from producers and agents who wanted to option the book. None of the offers seemed quite right until Zarr got a call from producer Emily Lansbury, who eventually revealed that her producing partner was actress Kyra Sedgwick. Sedgwick loved the book and was interested in meeting Zarr.

Actress Ryann Shane and writer Sara Zarr on the set of Story of a Girl. Credit: Emily Lansbury.

Having a Hollywood celebrity knocking on your door may be heady stuff but don’t rush into anything, Zarr recommends. “It can feel like you just want to say yes right away and make it happen, but there's no point in that, given how slowly movies get made,” she said.

Her advice for that first meeting is to “just do a lot of listening and not a lot of talking or promising. Then say, ‘Let me think about it’ and consult with your gut. Ask yourself if you trust them to not commit an atrocity upon the story. Sleep on it,” she says.

Ultimately, Zarr’s meeting with Sedgwick and Lansbury went well, and Zarr accepted their offer. “It felt good, and there was money,” she says. “Not a lot but I think it was $5,000, and $4,500 was what I got after my agent’s fee.”

Story of a Girl was ultimately adapted for Lifetime and broadcast in 2017.

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Don’t get too attached

Once you’ve determined that you can trust a producer not to ruin your work, it’s time to consider how involved you’ll be with the production. Some authors like to adapt their own work, but that process can be fraught and isn’t for everyone.

Remember, once they have the rights to your material, producers can pretty much do whatever they want with it. It can be traumatic to watch your work be ripped apart and reassembled into something you never intended. Because of this, most authors agree to have very little involvement in the adaptation, beyond reading a few drafts of the script and visiting the set once or twice.

That’s what happened to writer Peter Rock, who teaches creative writing at Reed College in Portland, OR. His 2009 novel My Abandonment was adapted into the acclaimed film Leave No Trace, which made former U.S. president Barack Obama’s list of favorite movies of 2018.

Before Rock’s novel was released to the public, his publisher showed the manuscript to producer Linda Reisman, who was immediately interested. Selling the option at that time “was a good thing. I wasn't in the greatest moment of my career, which doesn't have that many high points really,” Rock jokes. (He’s being modest. Rock has nine novels to his name, with a tenth to be published this year. He’s also the recipient of numerous honors, such as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.)

Rock received an option fee of $1,000, which the producers had to renew each year as they worked to attach talent and get the project funded. Eventually, they got filmmakers Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini interested in the project and arranged a meeting with Rock. “I knew the last film they made, Winter's Bone,” he says. “I liked it quite a bit, and I thought they were probably a good fit.”

As Granik and Rosellini worked on the script, Rock had little involvement in the process: “I read the script and gave them some feedback. But they're talented people, and I had plenty of other things going on, and I sort of ceded it was not something I was going to be a real collaborator on.”

Author Peter Rock on the set of Leave No Trace. Credit: Linda Reisman.

Rock explains that the process of another person transforming your completed work into their vision is complicated. “I think there are two schools of thought. From the beginning, you can decide that you're going to be really involved, but I think a healthier way would be to make sure that you’re working with people you respect,” he says. “I wrote my book; I told the story the way I want to tell it. The more you can walk away from it, the better.”

Or maybe go all in

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those adaptations conducted in close collaboration with the filmmakers. Think George R. R. Martin working with David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to adapt his novels into HBO’s Game of Thrones. This level of involvement is rare but can be quite fulfilling when it works.

Take, for example, novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond. Also based in Portland, he collaborates frequently with director Kelly Reichardt. His short stories inspired her films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. He also wrote the screenplays for Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, and their fifth collaboration, based on his first novel The Half Life, is currently in production.

“She was probably the only person who ever would have seen a feature film in that story.”

As if those credits weren’t impressive enough, Raymond’s also been nominated for an Emmy alongside director Todd Haynes for their adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

It’s an eyebrow-raising CV, and Raymond admits he’s lived a charmed life: It was Haynes who introduced him to Kelly Reichardt. “Fifteen years ago, my friend Kelly read a short story of mine called ‘Old Joy’ that she adapted into a film,” he explains. “She was probably the only person who ever would have seen a feature film in that story.”

While it may seem advantageous to be able to sell your book to a filmmaker friend, Raymond didn’t make any money on the option — or production — of Old Joy. In fact, he says he hasn’t made much money on any of his adaptations, but for him, having a collaborative role in each production is the reward: “I’ve been lucky to be part of the creative conversations around the filmmaking. Each thing is different, and the people are different, and you develop different friendships with people. When you're with people that you really like, I can't think of anything more fun.”

Above all, be patient

Once you agree on the fee, terms, and involvement, and your lawyer has looked over the agreement, you’re ready to sign. At that point, get ready to wait. It can take six months or longer for a script to be written, and many years after that for a project to be funded. Actors and directors come and go. The entire process can take a decade to run its course.

That was the experience of Michelle Wildgen, a writer, editor, and co-founder of the Madison Writers Studio in Wisconsin. Her 2006 book You’re Not You was eventually adapted into a film starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum in 2014.

Shortly after its publication, You’re Not You was featured prominently in People magazine, and, as it did for Zarr, the press garnered immediate attention. “Right away, I started getting calls from people asking about film rights, and I thought, ‘Oh, this must mean that my life is going to change,’” she says. “My book was not one of those that sold for a huge amount where everybody was in a feeding frenzy, but the initial option was $10,000. It was just, like, ‘Hey, if you want to option it, I will take that money.’”

It took eight long years to turn You’re Not You into a movie, but Wildgen made an effort to mitigate the stress. “Somebody told me very early in my writing career that as soon as you are waiting to hear on one project, you should disengage and start worrying about the next one,” she says, sounding very much like Rock. “I'm not a Zen person, but I was oddly Zen about this. I was just, like, if it happens, great, and if it doesn't happen, then that's how it goes for many, many options, and that's okay.”

The good stuff

At the end of the day, for Wildgen, optioning her work was a no-brainer, even if it wasn’t a big boost to her career. “People like to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have this film with Hilary Swank in it!’ That sounds really good. It generates more foreign rights sales. There's a new paperback version with Hilary Swank on the cover,” she says.

Author Michelle Wildgen. Credit: Nick Wilkes.

She didn’t see a spike in book sales, though. “When you have a movie that's really quite small, it can only drive so much,” she says.

The film, however, was a different story. “When You’re Not You went into production, I got $250,000 for the film rights, and for once, I got a really good paycheck,” Wildgen recounts.

For Rock, he felt just having the option before his book was published made an impact on how his publisher released his book: “If your last book hasn't sold that well, it’s hard to get a publisher excited about anything. But if someone else demonstrates that they think it's interesting and are willing to put some money forward, that's exciting. It helps the publication of the book because suddenly the publisher feels like they potentially have something. So maybe they push it a little bit more.” 

Raymond says his experience with adaptations has completely changed his career: “I feel like I've become more of a professional screenwriter in the last five or eight years, but it's sort of an unreproducible path. When people ask ‘Oh, how did you get into this stuff?,’ I feel ridiculously privileged. ‘Well, have an incredible filmmaker friend. Know amazing people.’ It's something that's hard to turn into advice. In my case, I was really lucky.”

For Zarr, the sweetest part of the experience has nothing to do with options or sales: “Story of a Girl was written by, directed, produced, and designed by women. It's been part of a platform that has helped launched Kyra's directing career, which makes me feel great.”

Jim McMahon is a freelance writer and producer based in Los Angeles. Previously, he was an executive producer at SundanceTV in New York, where he oversaw the channel’s on-air promotion for award-winning series including The Staircase, Top of the Lake, and Rectify. Before that, he worked as a graphics producer at Buster Design, post-supervisor at The Annenberg Space for Photography and Stun Creative, and visual effects coordinator at Rhythm+Hues. Jim is also a short form writer-producer-director and has produced two narrative features including director Yen Tan’s film Ciao, which was nominated for the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Read more by Jim McMahon