The release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them marks J.K. Rowling’s first screenwriting credit. Yet authors adapting their own work for the screen is neither a new nor a particularly rare practice. Back in the 1960s Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name shared an interesting and entangled genesis. Kubrick’s desire to make a quality science-fiction film led him to Clarke, whose existing short story ‘The Sentinel’ provided the inspiration for both screenplay and novel, which were then developed in parallel.
In today’s film industry this is a familiar process. M.R. Carey worked on both the novel and screenplay for The Girl with All the Gifts simultaneously, and Steven Spielberg’s 2018 release, an adaptation of sci-fi novel Ready Player One, follows a similar trajectory. Author Ernest Cline sold the rights for the movie the same day as his book deal with Random House was signed, and has since produced the screenplay in tandem with two other screenwriters. Such events seem to represent a canny collaboration between publishers with a good eye for cinema-worthy material and production execs willing to gamble on an unpublished work in hope of snagging the next big crossover phenomenon a few years into the future. If it pays off, the film release promptly follows a publishing success which has pre-established brand recognition and a sure-fire target audience for movie distributors. Although its screenplay wasn’t written by Paula Hawkins, author of the source novel, The Girl on the Train was released with the book still flying off shelves and generating word of mouth, and this likely contributed to its big box office takings.
From a business perspective, the formula boasts success. But what are the creative challenges and pitfalls for authors adapting their own work?
Among recent major releases adapted for the screen by the books’ original authors, Fantastic Beasts is somewhat of a standout. While Emma Donaghue wrote the screenplay for Room and Gillian Flynn adapted Gone Girl, Rowling’s primary source material, in this case, wasn’t a novel. For any readers who weren’t Potter fans in 2001 (a minority, surely?), the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is based on an early Potter spin-off. Bloomsbury published a Rowling-penned version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one of the textbooks used by the characters of the original series, for Comic Relief. The book, therefore, isn’t a narrative work. It has an encyclopaedic format, outlining the characteristics of magical creatures arranged in alphabetic order. The cover named Newt Scamander as the author, and thus the book can be seen to establish or provide a basis for the character played by Eddie Redmayne in the film. However, in comparison to Donaghue and Flynn, Rowling’s writing process for the Fantastic Beasts screenplay was closer to producing an original story – of course, with the caveat of respecting the fictional universe established in the Harry Potter books and films. If Fantastic Beasts becomes a big hit this awards season, it’s likely to show up in Best Adapted Screenplay categories.
If it does, Rowling will be following in the footsteps of Donaghue, who was Oscar and BAFTA nominated for adapting her 2010 novel at the beginning of this year. Constructing a new narrative based on existing and well-loved folklore is arguably an easier job than deconstructing your own successful novel and figuring out how to put it back together. The strengths of Room’s screenplay are in its sensitivity to the protagonist’s situation, its refusal to over-simplify the character of Ma, and ultimately in its structural balance. The film spends as much time examining Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) distinct adjustments to family life as it does documenting their confined way of life and their escape. This is what allows the film to transcend the suspense-thriller qualities it contains and comment on society’s ability to respond adequately to victims of psychological trauma. Donaghue (along with director Lenny Abrahamson) also excelled at finding moments in the novel that could be amplified in the new medium. Room’s visuals were echoed in a poster design which conveyed the film’s scenario, narrative development and uplifting tone. Yet Donaghue missed out on the major awards, losing to The Big Short, a dramatisation adapted from a non-fiction account of the financial crash. Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have shown a tendency to award adaptations which, like Fantastic Beasts, involve more fresh creation and storytelling than a straight novel-to-film adaptation. In 2015 The Imitation Game triumphed over Inherent Vice; in 2013 Ben Affleck’s Argo received Picture and Screenplay Oscars, beating the celebrated 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in both, and the 2014 roster of nominees didn’t include a single script based on a novel.
This year The Big Short beat four novels to the gong: Carol, The Martian, and Brooklyn, as well as Room. Gone Girl, on the other hand, didn’t even make the list the previous year. As our review noted on release, the David Fincher-directed Gone Girl is rigidly faithful to the novel’s plot. And hence it exemplifies perhaps the biggest challenge for a novelist adapting their own work for the silver screen: do they have anything else left to offer? The problem is compounded in the thriller genre, as, for the ready-made audience who have read the book, strict narrative adherence diminishes suspense as well as threatening boredom. The anxious, compulsive page-turning experience of reading Gone Girl was rendered tedious repetition on screen; a by-the-numbers retread without inventive or distinctive visual style to engage.
Of course, the making of a great adaptation isn’t purely down to the screenwriter, whether or not they wrote the source material. Other crucial components are the understanding of a director with a compatible vision and spot-on casting. Eddie Redmayne is a man on fire, capable of both endearing and awing. If precedent is anything to go by – and let’s face it, it is – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be netting several awards nods next year.