It’s by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, but writing can lead to fortune and fame. Or at least a comfortable living. Or it can at least provide a creative outlet if nothing else (and that’s not something to dismiss).
Writers can practice their trade in anonymous obscurity, scribbling away for years while waiting to be discovered. Besides a pen and paper, or a typewriter, or a laptop, they don’t really need any expensive materials or space to create. They can do it anywhere, at anytime. For that reason, the number of success stories is perhaps higher than in other creative fields. J.K. Rowling, the author of the iconic Harry Potter series, went from near bankruptcy to being the most famous - and wealthy - author in the world. Her net worth is estimated somewhere around one billion dollars. Not too shabby.
Of course, not all the dollars and cents come from the book itself anymore. There’s so much more at stake. A successful book can be translated into various other languages, bought and sold the world over via ebook platforms like Amazon’s Kindle or the Kobo Reader, and even transferred to other mediums like theatre, television, and film. And that’s where the big (potential) bucks reside. Books are such a frequent source for Hollywood that there’s even a special category of Academy Award for them: Best Adapted Screenplay.
An author may go through their entire career without ever selling the film or television rights to one of their stories. But when they do...kaching! You’d think they’d all be falling over themselves with gratitude to the studios and filmmakers.
But you’d be wrong. Lots of them secretly or openly hate the adaptation of their books. Anne Rice was a vocal critic of the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat in the film adaptation of her bestseller Interview With the Vampire. She instructed her fans to boycott the film and write angry letters. She changed her tune, however, after she actually saw the finished film.
Winston Groom so thoroughly despised his experience with bringing his novel Forrest Gump to the big screen that the first line of the literary sequel Gump and Co. reads “Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story.” Ouch.
Oddly enough, authors have hated some rather iconic film versions of their novels. These are seven of the most infamous examples.
1. The NeverEnding Story
1984’s The NeverEnding Story will never be mistaken for a cinematic masterpiece, but to those of us who grew up in the 80s, it was pretty dang epic. It hasn’t aged well, but it was everything our younger selves wanted in a movie. Based on the novel of the same name written by Michael Ende, the initial screenplay was co-written by Ende and director Wolfgang Petersen. Ende was promised creative input in bringing Bastian and the others to the screen, and he assured the many fans of the novel that the film would be true to the book. His screenplay may have been...but that’s not the one that was ultimately used. After finishing their draft, the studio hired additional writers to tweak and revise. When he next saw it, Ende was horrified with what the film had morphed into, and he tried to back out of the deal. No dice. He campaigned against it, and called the finished product “a humongous melodrama of kitsch, commerce, plush, and plastic.” Not a ringing endorsement. He tried unsuccessfully to have the film erased from existence.
2. The Shining
In the world of authors, you don’t get much bigger or better than Stephen King (like or hate his books, the man is prolific). And in the world of filmmakers, you don’t get much bigger or better than Stanley Kubrick, the creative force behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and A Clockwork Orange. So when Kubrick was tasked with adapting and bringing The Shining to the big screen, King must have felt comfortable handing over the reins of his bestseller. Kubrick personally wrote the screenplay (along with Diane Johnson). What could go wrong? Apparently, everything. King did not like the film version at all. He hated what Kubrick did to his characters, turning Jack Torrance into a crazy SOB, and his wife Wendy into a helpless idiot. He did not care for the casting of Jack Nicholson in the lead role, either, believing it made the character crazy from the first second you see him (rather than the hotel slowing driving him insane like in the book). King was not a fan (while everyone else considers it one of Kubrick’s best, and a perennial favourite among horror aficionados), and personally assisted in a 1997 television adaptation starring Steven Weber (which he presumably liked at least a bit more).
Clive Cussler is a very successful adventure writer (and marine archaeologist to boot). He’s had more than twenty books on the New York Times bestseller list. His most famous literary creation is Dirk Pitt, a character that has starred in twenty-three of Cussler’s novels. Pitt is a government agent, marine engineer, and an all-around adventurer. In short, he had all the markings of a great film character-in-waiting. So when his 1992 novel Sahara was brought to the screen in 2005, everyone expected good things. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, it was supposed to be an Indiana Jones for the new generation. Except everyone hated it. It made back less than $70 million of its nearly $150 million budget, and Cussler loudly and frequently panned it to the press and anyone who would listen. He blamed the studio for not giving him creative control. They blamed him for loudly dissing the film. He sued the studio, they sued him, he lost, they won, that decision was overturned on appeal...and on and on.
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The novel is a classic - albeit twisted - story from Roald Dahl. I’ve read it. You’ve read it. We’ve all read it. It was surreal, and dark, and funny...perfect for the movies. Unfortunately, Dahl despised the final product with every fiber of his being. He hated director Mel Stuart, whom he openly accused of having “no talent or flair whatsoever.” He hated the songs. He hated what they did to the Oompa Loompas (turning them into orange-skinned, green-haired freaks). He hated the new emphasis on Willy Wonka over Charlie (hence the film version being called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And he hated Gene Wilder in the title role, calling him “pretentious” and “insufficiently gay and bouncy”. Dahl campaigned against and eventually disowned the film. No love lost there.
5. Mary Poppins
Say it ain’t so. Not Mary Poppins! Who could hate the Disney classic?! As it turns out, the author did. P.L. Travers was wooed by Walt Disney for decades (Disney’s daughter was a huge fan of the book series and brought it to her famous father’s attention), but Travers had no interest whatsoever...that is, until financial difficulties forced her hand, and she reluctantly sold the film rights in the early 60s. She was promised creative input if not control, and she was apparently a bit of a nagging thorn-in-the-side of everyone during the film’s production. She gave copious notes on the screenplay and direction (usually ignored), hated the songs (even the iconic “Supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus”), hated the animated penguins sequence, thought Julie Andrews was wrong for the part (What!?), and thoroughly believed Dick Van Dyke was miscast as Bert and Mr. Dawes Senior. Travers broke down in tears at the film’s premiere in 1964, such was the force of her displeasure with the film.
The frosty and adversarial relationship between Travers and Disney itself became the subject of the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany's
Another classic Hollywood film, another iconic performance by one of its leading ladies...and yet another example of an author hating it all. Truman Capote published the novella in 1958, and the film based (at least loosely) on it was released in 1961. That’s a quick turnaround. Capote, while a professed fan of Audrey Hepburn, believed she was completely wrong for the part of Holly Golightly. He lobbied hard for Marilyn Monroe to be cast in the role, but to no avail. Upon seeing the finished film, Capote went on record calling it “the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up.” Hepburn, of course, was nominated for an Academy Award for the movie later that year. Revenge is sweet.
7. Catcher in the Rye
Considered a literary masterpiece by English teachers and librarians worldwide, the novel by J.D. Salinger was published in 1951 and became an instant classic. Its stark portrayal of teenage angst and alienation has made it relevant even today...so you would think that Hollywood would have come calling long ago. Well, don’t think it hasn’t tried. This is one example of an author assuming beforehand that he would hate any adaptation, so he never agreed to it. Salinger allowed his story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” to be adapted into 1949’s My Foolish Heart. He despised the movie so much that he vowed to never, ever, never allow any of his work to be adapted ever again...ever. And that’s why a novel widely considered to be one of the best of the 20th century will never get the Hollywood treatment. Right up to his death in 2010, Salinger apparently turned down very lucrative offers to bring the story of Holden Caulfield to the screen, and left very explicit instructions in his will that it should not be permitted even after his passing. That’s commitment to hating literary adaptation, folks.
In many ways, a novel or story is kind of like your child. You brought it to life. You suffered and sacrificed for it. Surrendering it to another creative team must be incredibly difficult, and when the results fall short of how you imagined it in your head (or misses the mark completely in terms of bigger themes and intentions), that must be devastating to an author.
So can we blame them? Of course, once they take the money, they don’t really have the authority and right to complain. The book is ALWAYS better than the movie, so seller beware.
What’s the worst novel to film adaptation that you’ve seen? Leave your answers in the comments below.