Over the weekend of September 9-11, I was at Can-ConSF, a literary science-fiction and fantasy convention in Ottawa, Ontario. The con is small but brings both readers and writers together to discuss various topics. One of the panels was called “Adapting Literary Works to Television and Movies”, so, naturally, I had to go.
There were five panelists, representing different views of being adapted. Tanya Huff, one of the author guests of honour, had her Blood books* adapted as a TV series that can still appear on Canadian cable stations thanks to Canadian content requirements. Ian Rogers is a horror writer who has had stories optioned by Roy Lee, but nothing is going to pilot yet. Jay Odjick is the creator of Kagagi the Raven, a comic that he adapted as a cartoon that airs on APTN. Sam Morgan is a literary agent with the JABberwocky Literary Agency, and provided the insider view. Moderating was Violette Malan, a fantasy novelist.
While there are some writers who either don’t want their works adapted or have had bad experiences and won’t go down that path again, for most, getting optioned is like winning the lottery, except the lottery has better odds. The money from being optioned isn’t that much, but if the adaptation is picked up, it can be comfortable. Tanya was able to pay off her mortgage thanks to Blood Ties going to air and still sees royalties coming in from the series.** But, while the money from adaptations may not be much, there is a boost in sales of the original work that comes immediately afterwards. Tanya saw a thirty percent increase in the sales of her Blood books right after the first episode aired. This boost, though, doesn’t necessarily carry over with comics. Jay didn’t see an increase and believes that movies may be too different from the comic to entice new readers.
Writers have little control over how a work gets adapted. Some writers may have more leverage; JK Rowling, thanks to the success of Harry Potter, managed to ensure that the movies remained as faithful as possible, but most writers don’t have that luxury. Stephen King treats adaptations of his works as entities separate from the originals. Changes will be made and the writer is low on the totem pole when it comes to decision making. The best thing to do in that case is to treat the adaptation like a grandchild; don’t complain about how they’re raised or you won’t see another grandchild ever. Tanya treats adaptations as fanfic that she’s getting paid for. She even wrote an episode of Blood Ties, so she wrote fanfic of her own work.***
Kagagi the Raven is a little different. Jay tried shopping the adaptation around, looking for someone to pick it up. He and his partner wound up producing the series themselves. As a result, he had more initial control once APTN licensed the series from him. However, APTN doesn’t pay for the show until it’s done. Jay had to find a distributor to sell the show internationally. As a result, Jay is now beholden to network distributors and advertisers. However, Jay now has a producer credit and can now make pitches far more easily than when he was shopping Kagagi.
Each of the panelists had works optioned in different ways. Jay, as mentioned above, became a producer to turn his comic into a cartoon. With Tanya’s Blood Ties, the series had been optioned since the third book, with Kaleidoscope being the studio to take the adaptation to pilot and then to series. Kaleidoscope had read the books and loved them but, being Canadian, couldn’t pay as well as an American studio. To make up for that, they let Tanya be involved with the show. With Ian, Roy Lee, who had adapted a number of Japanese horror movies including The Ring, had one of Ian’s stories recommended to him. Lee contacted Ian out of the blue to option the story, and took a number of other ones that were related. Ian now has credit as a consulting producer even though the series hasn’t gone to pilot. Sam, the literary agent, often gets called to find out if the rights to a book are available. With True Blood, Alan Ball had bought the book prior to a dentist appointment, then read it afterwards while recovering, and the rest is history. Sam also mentioned that production companies have people, book-to-film agents whose job it is to find works that could be adapted.
The big takeaway, at least from the writer’s view, is to know when to take credit. If the movie or series is a hit, take the credit as the creator. If the movie or series is a flop, blame Hollywood. “Eh, you know how it is in Hollywood.” This goes back to treating an adaptation as a grandchild; changes will be made. Knowing that changes happen and accepting that it’s beyond a writer’s control means sleeping easier, especially with option and royalty money coming in.
* Not to be confused with the Books of Blood by Clive Barker.
** Tanya recently received a $600 cheque thanks to Blood Ties being in the top ten shows in Pakistan.
*** Tanya also reports that most final drafts of scripts keep no more than five lines from the first. Her episode of Blood Ties managed to keep in six thanks to some actor improvisation that matched her early draft.