Books to Film

by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

When asked about selling screen rights to Hollywood, Hemingway is said to have replied that at the California border, “You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump in your car and drive like hell back the way you came.”

It may be apocryphal, but the line captures the sentiment many writers share about Hollywood. It’s almost beside the point whether having your book made into a movie is a great experience or a satisfying adaptation; the money is good. Very good. And having a book adapted into a screenplay has made it possible for many writers to keep writing the books they want to write.

The reward isn’t only for writers. Hollywood has depended on books since movies were born, and with streaming services multiplying by the day, the hunger for fresh content has grown exponentially. That need has pushed some novelists into expanding their skill sets and writing for TV directly. Others are happy to keep writing what they like to write, with the possibility that their work might find its way into the hands of someone with the power to get it onto a big or small screen.

In fact, one reason Hollywood so loves books is because so much of the work has already been done. “When you go into a studio to pitch a project, it’s advantageous to say the project is based on a book or a series of books,” says Daniel Pyne, a novelist, screenwriter, producer, and showrunner for Bosch, adapted from Michael Connelly’s novels and currently airing on Amazon Prime. “True crime stories sell really well because the journalist/writer has already done a lot of research.” Pyne went on to say that in a crowded market, studios look for any advantage to sell their ideas. Having the right to intellectual properties in hand, whether it’s a classical novel or a recent bestseller, puts them in a good place, and then they can hire a writer like Pyne and package it with “talent.”

It’s a good bet. Forbes reports that worldwide, films adapted from books earn 53 percent more at the box office. While this bodes well for writers, how does it work? How does prose find its way into the hands of a producer or director? Some say having a bestseller or a project that’s generating a lot of attention will get you there, and that is often true. “Books-to-film agents have a nose for what’s hot,” says Los Angeles-based literary agent Betsy Amster. “What’s sold for a lot of money, what’s a lead title, what’s getting buzz in other venues, starred reviews, bestseller status, lots of foreign sales…Buzz, of course, also gives agents leverage, which is something every agent wants.”

Novelist Tess Gerritsen, author of more than two dozen novels, agrees. “If a book’s a huge bestseller,” she says, “it’s going to catch the attention of Hollywood. Anything that comes with a built-in audience has an advantage.”

BJ Robbins, an agent in Los Angeles, agrees. “Material that’s new, hot, and generating a buzz has a greater chance of being sold, especially if it’s selling well [in book form], because from the film company’s perspective, the material has already proven it has an eager audience.”

That’s how it happened for novelist Janet Fitch. Her first novel, White Oleander, became an Oprah book, and sold to Warner Brothers within the first month. “You can’t replicate that,” says Fitch. “It’s hard work plus a lot of accidents. Who’s to say when you write a book whether it will sell at all, be a bestseller, or languish.”

Her second novel, Paint it Black, was also made into a film, but this time she was contacted by Amber Tamblyn, an actress who wanted to play the lead role and write the screenplay. Fitch met Tamblyn and loved her vision for the movie. Tamblyn raised the money herself, not relying on a studio, and directed. “It was the opposite of a studio film,” Fitch says. “The first movie was big budget stars, corporation to corporation, the second was writer to writer. It was an amazing experience and turned out to be an amazing film.”

Jean Hanff Korelitz has had three of her novels optioned. Admission was made into a movie and You Should Have Known was turned into an HBO series under the title of The Undoing. Neither book was a bestseller at the time of their publications, and parting company with several of her peers, Korelitz believes bestseller status doesn’t matter much to the film industry. “Our numbers don’t approach their numbers, for one thing,” she says, “and there have been so many films made from novels that never got near the bestseller lists. And of course, many, many bestsellers have been passed over for film adaptation. I think it’s a question of the right person responding to a book, someone who has a vision for that particular story.”

As an author without a bestseller, Pyne agrees that it’s a matter of getting the work into the hands of the people who might respond to it, i.e., a production company. “It’s best to come from a gatekeeper,” he says, “someone the production company trusts. The least successful way is for a writer to query directly.” Hiring a freelance developmental editor who has relationships with agents may be another way to get your work into the hands of someone who can make a difference, he says. The editor could help you get your work into shape and once in shape, refer you to an agent. “That’s always the thing,” says Pyne, “to get someone to read it, whether it’s a script or a book.”

What about older projects? Can a book that was published years ago gain traction and generate interest?

“Occasionally I receive offers to option books that have been out for a while,” BJ Robbins says, “either because the subject is now more relevant or the TV/film producer has come across it on their own. A book I sold 17 years ago suddenly has a lot of interest from some heavy hitters in Hollywood.”

Book reviews can help. Diana Wagman’s debut novel, Skin Deep, received a favorable New York Times book review, and a production company contacted her agent who put them in touch. The book was optioned, she met with several female directors and actresses, but after several years and multiple expired options, it fell out of consideration.

Often, it comes down to who you know. Wagman’s friend, the novelist Marisa Silver, gave Wagman’s novel, Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets, to her producer husband, who read it and optioned it after its release in 2013. He’s continued to renew the option and is now working on a script.

Living in Los Angeles doesn’t hurt. Andrea Portes says selling Hick to film was an accident, but it also had a lot to do with living in L.A. A new friend of a friend asked what she did. She told him she’d just published a novel called Hick. “Two months later he called and said he’d read the novel,” says Portes, “and wanted to option it. So it was a happy surprise.”

Her second novel has been in and out of assorted directors’ and producers’ hands and her third, Anatomy of a Misfit, sold to Paramount Pictures in a seven-figure, pre-emptive deal, following a bidding war. “Most of my books have been optioned,” says Portes, “but it really has to do with being in L.A. and having lived here forever. Having said that, I absolutely think there’s a way to get your novels made into TV or film. You just have to be strategic about it and not too greedy, especially the first time around.”

Potential content is discovered in multiple ways. Crime novelist Gary Phillips, currently a writer on Snowfall on FX, has had short stories, graphic novels, and a novel optioned. Some have been scripted, but none yet produced. He credits NetGalley, an online site where reviewers and the media can access review copies of books pre-publication, for one of his books being optioned. “I think this is how our book, Culprits, got noticed,” says Phillips. “Used to be, you had to see the physical copy or you had to see a review in the Times or PW. Because material is now cyberly available, it helps. Also, producers and agents go to mystery conventions scouting for material. The more reviews you can get for your book, the more it is featured in a podcast, or a showcase or some unconventional way you can figure out, that helps too.”

But as is true in much of life, who you know does help, sometimes. It helped Phillips get his gig writing for Snowfall. “I know Walter Mosley, who has been on the show since the beginning, and he knew John Singleton, one of the creators of the show. John knew I wrote my first Ivan Monk mystery, Violent Spring, in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and riots of '92. Not the same timeline of Snowfall, but it demonstrated that I knew South Central. And Violet Spring had been optioned twice by HBO as well.”

Janet Fitch agrees. “Movie companies read the literary journals, looking for writers, looking for story. Or actors looking for strong roles. If you have a short story you think would be a good script and good for a certain actor, send it to the actor’s production company. Especially if they’re no longer a big star—maybe someone who was unreachable 10, 15 years ago—they might be interested in a story in which they can star.”

Leslie Lehr went to film school and sold two screenplays, but found the process so difficult she turned to writing books. She had published both fiction and nonfiction when she hit on the idea that became A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me… and You, a hybrid memoir. Lehr worked on the book for five years. When it was done, her agent shopped it around, getting rejections by 30 publishers. “I was going for a big commercial publisher, but they didn’t like memoir. Then I went to smaller feminist publishers, but they didn’t like memoir either. The person it went to at Pegasus cared about the writing.” In the meantime, Lehr knew someone who knew someone at Creative Artists Agency (CAA ), who got the book to the actress Selma Hayak. Hayak loved it and found a show runner for it even before the book was picked up by Pegasus. “You have to keep believing,” said Lehr, who is doubling as an executive producer for the HBO series. “Persistence and belief in a project is key.”

If, however, you don’t happen to know someone who knows someone, your best bet for getting your book or story to a director or a producer is to have an agent who works directly with Hollywood or who has a co-agent who does. Powerful literary agencies like ICM, WritersHouse, William Morris, and CAA, have direct pipelines to Hollywood, and though publishing a book with one of them can’t guarantee a film deal follow-up, your chances of getting a hearing may be higher than with a small agency.

“I can’t imagine not working with an agent/co-agent team,” says Betty Amster. “This doesn’t strike me as an industry where a direct approach works. The various entities involved don’t want to be accused of stealing an idea, for one thing—something that doesn't tend to be much of a worry in book publishing.”

BJ Robbins concurs: “The bottom line is that if the writer has something that’s book-worthy, they should definitely get an agent, get the book published, and when it’s time to sell film/TV rights, their agent will help to secure a film/TV co-agent.”

“Great characters matter,” says Tess Gerritsen,especially for a television series. Producers are looking for unique, powerful characters who can keep a series going. Actors, too, are looking for characters they want to play, and sometimes that’s what can greenlight a series—if the right actor pushes for a project.”

“I don’t advise novelists to tie themselves into pretzels trying to write a novel that can be shot into film,” says Janet Fitch, “but you can make your characters vivid and your dialogue really powerful, working in scenes, the dramatics of storytelling. If you like the conventional way of telling a story and think in dramatic terms, be aware people are out there looking.”

“As for knowing people in the business,” says Hanff Korelitz, “I imagine that connections can possibly get your book in front of people, but no one has ever made a movie as a favor to anyone else, just as—correct me if I’m wrong—no one has ever published a book as a favor to someone else. Rather than put one’s faith in such an unlikely prospect, I’d advise a novelist to use his or her time and effort to…write a novel.”

A Nowhere Near Complete List of TV series and Movies Made from Books and Short Stories

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Emma by Jane Austen

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Novels by James M. Cain

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

Novels by Michael Connelly

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Circle by Dave Eggers

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

White Oleander and Paint it Black by Janet Fitch

Novels by Gillian Flynn

Outlander by Diana Gaboldan

Rizzoli & Isles by Tess Gerritsen

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Firm by John Grisham

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Our Souls at Night by Ken Haruf

Novels by Patricia Highsmith

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Novels by Stephen King

Admission and The Undoing by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Laguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Novels by Tom Perrotta

Hick by Andrea Portes

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

Novels by George Simenon

Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Lean on Pete and Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

Nomadland by Chloé Zhao

And short stories by Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Julio Cortazar, Andre Dubus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gary Phillips, James Thurber.

This article originally appeared in the Author’s Guild Bulletin