Please read my article about turning books into films. I interviewed Peter Jinks, author of the much acclaimed Hallam Foe, for it. The film - which stars Jamie Bell and Sophia Myles - is out today. The book is excellent by the way..
Having your book turned into a film, says Peter Jinks, author of Hallam Foe, is like “handing over your baby for a medical experiment.”
“You have to be aware that it’s going to be changed,” adds Jinks. “You can’t be surprised if it comes back with limbs in different places.”
Hallam Foe, an unusual coming of age tale about voyeurism and a boy’s tense relationship with his new stepmother, was Jinks’ first novel. It was critically acclaimed on publication, but not a huge best-seller, and Jinks admits that he was surprised when Scottish director David McKenzie (a former flat-mate of his) wanted to adapt it for the big screen.
“Everyone who writes a book hopes it will get optioned and made into a film,” says Jinks. “But I didn’t have any idea how it would work with my book. I knew that I liked Dave’s films and that he understood the underlying idea of the novel, but the book was just source material. They’ve been making their own piece of art.”
Hallam Foe – which stars Jamie Bell and Sophia Myles – is released today. But what made this particular book ripe for a film translation? And why are so many novels turned into films anyway?
“A book is something that actually exists,” says director McKenzie, whose two previous films, Young Adam and Asylum, were also based on novels. “It’s easier to galvanise people around a book than a screenplay, because it’s a tangible thing.
“Books are objects and people need objects to take hold of in the film business because there’s so much talk,” he adds. “It also means there’s a narrative there. With this book, I really liked the idea. It wasn’t your average coming of age stuff.”
But moving from the written word to the big screen is not always the easiest thing to do. Books are constantly turned into films, but for every big commercial and critical success – the Lord of the Rings films or The English Patient, for example - there are others which do not reach the heights they aspire to. The Da Vinci Code is one current case in point, but it joins many others including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
“A good book does not necessarily make a good film,” says Nick Marston, who runs the film and television department at literary agents Curtis Brown. “It’s such a combination of different talents, a translation into a totally different medium and a genuinely collaborative procedure.”
Almost every week it seems as if a book is either being turned into a screenplay (recent examples include Lionel Shriver’s award winning We Need to Talk about Kevin, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) or actually being released. Many of th4em are award-winning, from Rebecca to Brokeback Mountain.
“What we want is a really good story and a richness of character,” says Amelia Granger from film producers Working Title. “But what everyone is looking for is the holy grail – a manuscript that is brilliantly written, commercially appealing and yet prize winning!”
Granger is constantly on the look-out for new material, whether fiction or non-fiction. “True-life is often more exciting,” she says. “It all depends on the story and how good it is. If it’s original and feels like a world that hasn’t been seen before, then it may well be inspirational for a film.”
It’s true that film-makers don’t limit themselves simply to fiction. Fast Food Nation, Syriana and Munich are all based on non-fiction work, and in many ways, it’s the success of a book which helps to get it made.
“If a book has done well, it does give it a head start in terms of brand identity,” admits Nick Marston.
Last year, Marston set up a new in-house development and production arm at Curtis Brown. Its very existence demonstrates how many authors and agents have become more demanding when it comes to optioning their work.
“We did it because we felt that material wasn’t being fully developed and that there wasn’t enough imaginative twinning of writers and material,” says Marston. “It’s still the case that more things get optioned than get made, but some companies have really wised up and I don’t think we’re going to see such huge money coming out of the studios anymore.”
Amelia Granger agrees that in the past, “the creative process was being stifled,” by huge options on books which were then left languishing in development. She says that what authors and agents want now is an assurance that a film version of their book will actually get made.
“For example, we took on Ian McEwen’s Atonement for a director, Joe Wright (who made Pride and Prejudice) and a screenwriter, Christopher Hampton,” she says. “A creative approach was what was wanted and that was what we provided.”
For Peter Jinks the whole experience has been a delight, although he’s still overwhelmed by his visit to the set.
“I felt a bit like a ghost drifting around, but it was really emotional, a nice feeling,” he says. “It was a bit like seeing a dream become flesh.” And he adds that, although he’s currently writing a third novel, he has another ambition.
“I would like to write my own original screenplay,” he says.