Illustration of someone watching a period drama on a sofa with the book acting as a screen
Illustration of someone watching a period drama on a sofa with the book acting as a screen

Books have long served as inspiration for TV and film, from 1939’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind to the BBC’s popular 1995 imagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The interest in books to adapt for TV and film has only grown, with some of the best shows of the past few years - from The Handmaid’s Tale to Big Little Lies, His Dark Materials and Noughts and Crosses - all based on books (by Margaret Atwood, Liane Moriarty, Philip Pullman and Malorie Blackman respectively).

The TV and film industries are looking for great stories to tell, so it’s no surprise that books are such an attractive proposition. But not all books will translate to the screen, and those that do may take years, or even decades, of development.

Which books translate well to film and tv?

Juliet Mushens, literary agent and director at Mushens Entertainment, says there are many considerations which play into whether a book gets adapted: “It can be difficult to get the tone right for an adaptation of a book which has a very strong first person narration – how does that translate to screen?

“Certain genres like space opera and fantasy can be hugely expensive because of special effects and CGI, and some books have complex timelines and points of view. Film and TV also have trends, just like publishing does, so genres fall in and out of favour.”

How does a book get scouted?

Interest from film and TV companies can come at any stage in a book’s life, from before it’s published, to years after it’s been on shelves in a bookshop.

“When a book is announced, or hits the bestseller lists, we might get a stream of enquiries from producers, film scouts, and sometimes from managers who represent actors/directors who are also interested in the work,” says Juliet. “We always work with a specialist film/TV agent who will also draw up a submission list for the manuscript and send it to a variety of places - some who have requested it, and others who we just think would be a good fit.”

What is a literary scout?

Among those people who might read a book by an author Juliet is representing, is Kate Loftus O’Brien of KLO Scouting, a scout for TV and film who describes her role as being "part spy and part matchmaker”.

“It’s my job to uncover the best storytelling opportunities - be they longreads, novels, podcasts or non-fiction titles,” she explains.

Kate’s job is to try and get wind of a manuscript as quickly as possible, but she also spends time scouring backlists and doing more specific research, and her role is a little different to that of a traditional literary scout.

“Traditionally, literary scouts work on behalf of international publishers to bring them the best manuscripts from their market, which they feel have scope for translation overseas. I work solely on behalf of production companies, so instead of hunting for stories that might translate well for readers abroad, I’m looking for stories, characters and worlds that can be transposed onto screen and which have potential to reach a broad audience that way.”

What are production companies looking for in a book?

Production companies and producers are looking for things based on different criteria, but Kate says “broadly speaking they will want stories with a strong narrative drive, distinctive characters and a brilliantly rendered world.”

“Stories with bite and muscle that ask questions about who we are and how we live. Stories that entertain us. Worlds we can escape into, with iconic settings, original characters or unusual premises.

“Ideally for TV, a book could offer scope for a returning series, for example, a set of characters an audience will want to keep coming back to.”

What does ‘optioning’ mean?

If a production company is interested in adapting a book it will option it, which gives it the exclusive right to develop the book into a TV or film idea. This work can include getting a script in place, finding directors and actors, and getting financing for the project. Production companies typically have 12 to 18 months to do this, with the option to extend this period.

It may be the case that more than one company is interested in adapting a book, in which case Juliet says she and the author would look at who has a vision which most aligns with the author and who is most likely to get it made.

“There are financial considerations at play too, and sometimes you have multiple bidders: some for TV and some for film, so we have to decide which medium best suits the book,” she adds. “The biggest auction I have had for film/TV rights had 14 bidders, which was exciting, but stressful (for The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman).”

But optioning is not a guarantee that an author will see their book on the big or small screen. “I have had four projects of mine make it to screen,” says Juliet, “and I have had a lot more than that optioned.

“If the adaptation doesn’t go ahead, the rights revert to the author – and sometimes later down the line, someone else will pick it up and make it. Some adaptations have been in the works for years before finally hitting screens.”

How much is an author involved in the TV or film adaption?

If a book does make it to the stage where it is being made for TV or film, authors can be involved, or not, to various degrees, with the level depending on the author and the deal. 

“Some authors want to adapt, and some have no interest in adapting: authors also have to weigh up learning how to write a script (very different from writing a book!) with the other deadlines they might have,” Juliet continues. “Some authors are attached to the project as executive producers, and are consulted on big decisions. Others will just sign the contract and leave the production company to it.”

Kate says she’s often “working on a specific brief for a production company, which can mean they already have a screenwriter or director in mind that they’d like to find a project for”.

But she considers authors beyond just their books as well: “I sometimes wind up recommending authors for writers' rooms or for original TV projects - perhaps their book isn’t exactly what a production company is looking for but they’ve got a totally unique voice, a great ear for dialogue, or are brilliant at crafting tense scenes or unusual concepts.”

Take a look at some of the best screen adaptations, and how they made the story reach an even bigger audience.  

Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin

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