When the movie drives the book (wait a minute, there is no movie yet)

My oh my, times have changed. People once bought a book simply because he or she wanted to read it. Now one might choose to read a book because it will be made into a movie involving famous Hollywood stars. What is this Kat talking about? Read on.

The relationship between books and movies is a story of both separation and symbiosis. The printing industry trundled along for over 300 years before the movie industry first began to take shape. The challenge for the movie industry is first and foremost content. Before you need anything else, you need a story. One can commission writers to create screen plays, de novo, but want can also make use of existing literary contents, and then commission a writer to adopt them for the cinema. The advantage of the latter is that there is already an existing story on which to decide. The challenge is then to translate the literary platform into a movie one. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the literary story is simply not suitable for the movie form; sometimes poor choices are made in adapting the literary story for the big screen. But the relationship is clearly present.

Copyright law did its bit. By giving legal recognition to derivative works, copyright law empowered authors to make their literary works available, for a price, to Hollywood types, to remake the written work into movie form. Indeed, with such legal control, authors had greater incentives to create literary works intentionally fashioned for such possible adaption into a movie. For example, Cornell_Woolrich, while largely forgotten today, was in his heyday deemed the equal of his more famous American mystery writer contemporaries, Dashiell Hammett, Earle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. More of Woolrich’s literary works were adopted as screenplays for the noire film genre than those of any other author, most notably, the classic Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, which was derived from a Woolrich short story, It Had to Be Murder. This Kat is inclined to believe that Woolrich had in the back of his mind the fashioning of stories that could be easily adopted for the movies.

OK Kat, I roughly get it. The movie industry makes good use of the reservoir of written stories that are out there, to the benefit of both sides, and savvy authors may sometimes even seek to predispose their works for adaption into a movie. Indeed, a successful movie may in fact spur a surge in sales of the underlying book; sometimes, such as with the classic book/series and equally classic movie, Lord of the Rings or To Kill a Mockingbird, each stands on its own and yet each helps feed the fame and success of the other.

But the story of the recently published (March 2018) and much discussed book by Christine Mangan, Tangerine feels different. Consider the review of the book that appeared in The Independent--
"Christine Mangan’s debut novel Tangerine is borne aloft a cloud of buzz regarding the fact it’s already been optioned for film by George Clooney’s production company Smokehouse Pictures, with Scarlett Johansson set to star. An atmospheric psychological thriller set in Tangier in 1956, it’s easy to see the story’s filmic potential; think the Morocco-set opening scenes of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much meets one of the more recent Patricia Highsmith adaptations."
Indeed, in giving the book an unenthusiastic review, the caption describes the book—
‘[a]s a disappointing debut novel, that has been optioned for film by George Clooney’s production company Smokehouse Pictures, with Scarlett Johansson set to star, which might prove more satisfying.”
The review in The New York Times was both more upbeat and blunt—
it is a “camera-ready first novel”.
What jumps out is that Tangerine is as much about the move-to-be-made as the book that has already been published. Sure, the book seems stand on its own. But the ultimate reason that one might want to read the book, and why it seems to be enjoying media notoriety, is that George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson want to make a movie based on it. Ultimately, one wishes to read the book because it might enhance the viewing experience in the movie theatre or one’s computer screen. Without the movie-in-the-making, Tangerine's commercial success is likely (fatally?) diminished.

In any event, given the reports that Ms. Mangan received a sizable advance (per the Irish Times, the “novel was the subject of a bidding war in the US, where Harper Collins bought it for a reported $1.1 million”), principally because of the movie option, her legal control over the book as movie seems to have served her well.

by Neil Wilkof
When the movie drives the book (wait a minute, there is no movie yet) When the movie drives the book (wait a minute, there is no movie yet) Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, May 13, 2018 Rating: 5


  1. Well.. in a review of Doctorows 1989 novel "Billy Bathgate" I remember reading the sentence that the book has the problem that it reads too much like the movie which undoubtedly it soon will be. So we had this before.

  2. My wife works at Hachette in the US which bid on Tangerine and the auction for the book preceded the auction for the movie. It should also be noted that the author took a lower bid to go with the imprint ECCO which has ties to Paul Bowles and Tangier. My wife was talking about this book for months before the auction and that should be racked up to the talent of the author's agent, not Hollywood. The movie went to its own auction weeks after the book sold.

  3. yeah you are absolutely right. People read a book now a days because it will be made into a movie or it has already been developed as a movie. This is different time mate.


  4. I think I was listening to BBC 4 Front Row a while back when I heard somebody working in the film industry beam "well producers only want to look at scripts coming with an IP"...she meant book. In her views, scripts that are derivative of a book are rated better in the selection process, than the other way around (even though rights need clearing!). The idea would that the entire commercial chain pre and post film production can be controlled and maximized. Not sure if this holds true across all genres, production companies and countries though...


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