What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Screen Adaptation
Author: Adi Gandhi
February 16, 2022
Among book lovers, the answer to the well-worn debate—Which did you prefer, the movie or the book?—has been resoundingly in favor of books. But with the recent success of such adaptations as Frank Herbert’s Dune, Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, perhaps that answer is becoming more ambiguous. The cinematic screen offers a unique allure, allowing us to see our favorite books play out before our eyes. The adaptation process has an appeal for authors, too, as it provides them with avenues for further profit and a wider audience.
Deesha Philyaw, James Earl Hardy, and Sarah Waters are each talented queer writers who have had their written work adapted into movies and/or TV shows. In this roundtable, they discuss their reasons for adapting their work, the feeling of seeing their books become visual stories, and the advice they have for authors who want to bring their work to the screen.
Deesha Philyaw’s (she/her) debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Deesha will be the 2022–2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.
James Earl Hardy (he/him) is the author of the bestselling B-Boy Blues series, praised as the first gay hip hop love story. The latest title in the series, Men of the House (IAJ Books), is an Amazon Top 100 LGBT Bestseller. The award-winning stage adaptation of B-Boy Blues has its official Off-Broadway run this month @ the 47th Street Theatre. The film version recently won the American Black Film Festival’s Narrative Feature Fan Favorite Award, and is the Official Selection and Closing Night Film of the 2022 Mardi Gras Film Festival at Queer Screen (March 3rd).
Sarah Waters (she/her) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Paying Guests, The Little Stranger, The Night Watch, Fingersmith, Affinity, and Tipping the Velvet. She has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, and twice for the Orange Prize, and has had five of her novels adapted for stage and/or screen. She lives in London.
When did you first know that you would be adapting your writing for television and/or the cinematic screen? What motivated you to adapt your work?
Deesha: A friend who works in television approached me first about adapting my book for TV. I was immediately excited about the prospect of revisiting my characters (Black Southern women and girls) and expanding on their stories through this different medium. I very much wanted to be involved in the production itself—not just optioning the rights, but writing and executive producing the show. I was (and still am) excited about the opportunity to build a new kind of writing muscle and learn new skills.
At the same time, I had a film/TV agent who was pitching my book to various networks, streaming services, and production companies. This agent had reached out to my literary agent the day after my book was announced in Publishers Marketplace, a year before it debuted. So she followed my book throughout the publication process, and then signed on to rep my film/TV rights once the book was published. Ultimately, I received multiple offers for adaptation, and my deal with HBO Max and Tessa Thompson’s production company, Viva Maude, was finalized in November 2020 and announced in January 2021.
James: I’ve been traveling the movie adaptation road for over a quarter century: Ten months after B-Boy Blues was published, I entered into my first option deal and wrote the first of what would be four screenplays.
While writing B-Boy [the novel], it felt like a movie; the book is a rollercoaster ride, a propulsive energy defines it. So I knew that it would easily transfer to the screen—the book’s cameo appearance in Spike Lee’s Get On the Bus, held up prominently by a Black gay character, was further confirmation that it ought to be in pictures—but getting there wouldn’t be easy.
“Since queerness has often been obliged to be secret, or solitary, or fumbling, fiction has lent itself really well to a certain kind of queer aesthetic. … Then again, only the screen can really do justice, perhaps, to the physical, visual, visceral impact of bodies.”
“Listening has continued to be vital”
What has your experience been like working with the production companies and media professionals who wanted to make your work into a film or show? How much control do you have over the production of your work?
Sarah: My experience has been really positive right from the start, when my first novel, Tipping the Velvet, was adapted for television. The production company behind that, Sally Head, was keen for me to be happy with what they were doing. Although they made some decisions that probably wouldn’t be made now (straight male adaptor, straight male director…), I felt they wanted to do what they could to remain faithful to the novel’s lesbian agenda, to its spirit of queer fun.
Since then, when approached by other companies, I’ve tried to get a feel for what their vision of the adaptation will be. If any alarm bells go off—if I feel they might misrepresent the story and characters in some way, or if their ideas about possible adaptors seem not quite right to me—then I draw back. Once the process is underway, I like to be included but, creatively, I’m happy just to watch from the sidelines. Ultimately, allowing your novel to be adapted for another medium is a leap of faith, and you have to be relaxed about that. The original book is all yours, but the adaptation—it’s the screenwriters’, the directors’, the producers’: a complete team effort, and doesn’t really belong to you at all.
Deesha: As a writer on the project and an executive producer alongside Tessa, I have a good degree of control over the production. Overall, I’m having a dream experience, and I think it’s in part because our team started this process with a lot of listening. Tessa, her company’s executive Kishori Rajan, and the HBO Max team asked me questions and listened to my vision, ideas, and concerns, and I listened to the same from them. And listening has continued to be vital to how we work together. Every step of the way, there’s been a lot of communication and seeking clarity and making sure we’re on the same page, in order to position the series for success. And the “we” now includes my co-writer Tori Sampson who is brilliant and sharp and funny, and an absolute joy to work with. In a short time, I’ve learned so much, and I could not ask for a better creative partner.
James: It has been quite an experience. Despite B-Boy’s bestseller status, devoted fan base and cultural impact, filmmakers/producers just couldn’t—or wouldn’t—accept or respect a narrative about two Black men from different worlds falling in love. “Are you sure this is real?” “These kinds of gay Black men actually exist?” (My response: “One of those kinds is sitting right in front of you.”) And of course: “A gay homeboy from the ‘hood?” So they’d push for B-Boy Blues Lite—“Let’s change Mitchell to Michelle and his friends to a group of heterosexual women à la Waiting to Exhale”—or B-Boy Blues White—“Let’s make Raheim white and we can get Marky Mark or Channing Tatum!” Needless to say, those deals/talks fell through. What’s the point of adapting B-Boy Blues if you’re going to erase its heart and soul, and the people it centers and celebrates? There have been Black gay filmmakers—Isaac Julien, Maurice Jamal, Patrik-Ian Polk, Deondray & Quincy Gossfield, to name a few—who expressed interest in or optioned the work, but they also came up against the same ignorant naysayers.
When Jussie Smollett signed on as director and co-writer in June 2020, he was aware of that history; in fact, he was a part of it, auditioning for one of the previous B-Boy film incarnations in 2006 and B-Boy Blues: The Play’s debut in 2013 (he also had a testimony similar to many Black gay/bi men in the 90s and 00s: reading the novel in secret, and receiving affirmation and experiencing freedom because of it). During his first season on Empire, we began exploring his co-starring and producing. He understood how much the novel meant to us [Black Same Gender Loving/queer men] and that we had to get it right, so nearly every decision regarding casting, shoot locations, music, or even changing a word of dialogue was approved by me. It’s rare for the author of the book—even if she/he/they are the co-screenwriter and executive producer—to have that kind of involvement, the final say. I tip my hat to Jussie for honoring the work, the audience, and my voice.
Are there some elements of queerness that you find are better expressed on page rather than on screen and vice versa?
Sarah: Fiction is great at interiority—great at capturing the private intensity of fantasy, longing and desire—and since queerness has often been obliged to be secret, or solitary, or fumbling, fiction has lent itself really well to a certain kind of queer aesthetic. When we’re watching a story unfold on screen, by contrast, we’re always outside the characters, looking on: we’re not right there with them in their heads or right inside their desiring bodies, so some of that interiority is lost. Then again, only the screen can really do justice, perhaps, to the physical, visual, visceral impact of bodies. And when those bodies are queer or transgressive ones, doing queer or transgressive things—wow, the effect can be mesmerising, something you literally can’t take your eyes off. Fiction can’t quite compete with that, I feel.
Deesha: What Sarah said! I feel that, 100%.
A $2.15 Budget
What were the biggest changes you had to make to your written work during the adaptation process?
Deesha: We’re still very early in the process, but we’ve moved several characters and their stories forward agewise and time (era) wise. And we’re bringing characters from different stories in my collection together into a single world, a single town. Some of the queer characters’ queerness remains a secret (as in the book). Others are out and their queerness is a facet in their storyline, but it is not the storyline. Their queerness isn’t centered as some kind of problem to be solved.
James: Because of the budget—as Jussie jokes, $2.15 [laughs]—we couldn’t recreate summer 1993 in New York, especially since we were filming in October and in the middle of a pandemic. But with a comedy/dramedy series we can return to the story’s 20th century roots, with each book in the B-Boy Blues series receiving its own season. I’ve already claimed it.
“Folks should be willing to listen and provide reassurances; they should gladly tell you their vision for the adaptation to give you a chance to see if it aligns with yours. That’s more important than the money. (I didn’t take the deal that would have paid me the most money.)”
Another Writer through a Different Medium
What is your favorite part of the adaptation process?
Sarah: I love the technical side of writing a novel, the nuts and bolts of creating a narrative experience for readers: how can I make them feel just what I want them to feel, at this particular point? How do I create mood? How do I glue someone to the page, make them sad, turn them on? And my favourite part of the adaptation process is seeing another writer achieve these things, but through a completely different medium. Sometimes something in a novel will work on a screen or a stage almost without alteration; other things will have to go, or be completely re-thought. I find that really fascinating.
Deesha: Being given the time and freedom to imagine and to world-build is fantastic. We aren’t being rushed or pressured. There’s trust and respect for the creative process and for the time it takes to do our best work.
James: Being on set and witnessing the magic being created. The consecutive twelve to sixteen-hour days wore me out, but it was a fire I would gladly go through again and again. I was over the moon watching Timothy Richardson (who portrays Mitchell “Little Bit” Crawford), Thomas Mackie (who portrays Raheim “Pooquie” Rivers), and the other actors step into the skins of and literally become the characters I’ve carried with me for decades. I’m so thankful Jussie insisted that I be present everyday.
“I sometimes avoid watching adaptations of favourite books”
In this Golden Age of streaming media, the big (& small) screen has a wide reach. How do you deal with the increased visibility of television & movies?
James: There is just so much content it can be overwhelming—and, unfortunately, too many of the films and series I’ve sampled are more interested in being sensationalist instead of telling a compelling story. I’m a child of the 70s and teen/early twenty-something of the 80s, so I often return to what are now considered classics: The Jeffersons, All in the Family, The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, A Different World, St. Elsewhere, Fame, The Carol Burnett Show. The laughs, the melodrama, and the tears are familiar and comforting, and viewing that same episode for what feels like the millionth time never gets old.
Sarah: As a novelist, used to creating characters and stories with words on a page, it always disconcerts me slightly to realise that some people will only experience my books through their screen adaptations. Someone at a signing, for example, might tell me how much they enjoyed, say, Fingersmith—and it’s only as we talk that it becomes clear that they really mean the TV version. … Does it matter? Not really. It’s still incredibly flattering. Screen adaptations give books a second life—there’s something magical about that. And one great thing about adaptations is that they often lead viewers back to the books that they are based on. They are very different beasts, however. Books rely on you, as reader, doing most of the visualisation yourself—every Tolstoy fan has their own Anna Karenina, every Brontë devotee their own Jane Eyre. But with a screen adaptation, you get a fixed package: face, body, voice, gestures. … Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to put that package out of your mind. I sometimes avoid watching adaptations of favourite books, for that reason.
Deesha: I’m actually not a big TV watcher. I’m usually 6 months to a year behind watching the latest hot show, if I watch. But I read all the Twitter commentary and spoilers! Lately though, I’ve been watching specific shows as homework, from a craft perspective, as part of my learning process around structuring story for television and things like that.
“You will have to compromise—sometimes. But the compromise should be pragmatic, not problematic.”
“It’s better to have no deal”
What advice do you have for queer writers who are thinking of adapting their writing for television or film? Is there anything you wish you knew from the beginning?
Deesha: I’d say try not to think about adapting while you’re writing, but rather, give all you’ve got to writing the best book that you can. A book that you love and are proud of and excited about. Many (actually, most) great books don’t get adapted. There’s no magic formula. Ask your literary agent to help you connect with a film/TV agent to rep your film/TV rights (which should be yours to exploit, not your publisher’s). Think about whether you simply want to option the rights for your book, or if you also want to write the pilot, or if you want to write the pilot and executive produce. You may not get everything you want, but don’t hesitate to let folks know what you want to do. There’s no harm in putting it out there. And if you do land a deal, don’t allow yourself to be rushed or pressured into agreeing to things.
Ask questions. Think about what’s most important to you about your work and let folks know those are things you don’t want to compromise around. What fears or worries do you have about having your work adapted? Tell people what you’re concerned about. Folks should be willing to listen and provide reassurances; they should gladly tell you their vision for the adaptation to give you a chance to see if it aligns with yours. That’s more important than the money. (I didn’t take the deal that would have paid me the most money.) Keep asking questions until you understand and are comfortable with what is being offered. Everyone involved should welcome your questions, and they should want you to have clarity and feel comfortable.
Your literary agent, film/TV agent, and entertainment attorney (get one, stat!) should be champions of your work and willing to push to get you the best deal possible. They should be in all the business conversations your film/TV agent is in once offers start coming in. And if you’re not comfortable, don’t hesitate to walk away. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of just being happy and grateful to have a deal on the table, or terrified that if you walk away a better deal won’t come along. And it might not, but it’s better to have no deal than one that’s not right for you and your book. Finally, know that the business/paperwork side of things can take FOREVER, so try not worry. Move on to your next project while you wait.
James: Knowing how to write cinematically is a very different wheelhouse than literary fiction/nonfiction. Don’t only watch television shows and films—read the scripts. Authors have unlimited pages on which we can expound, but there is an art to capturing a moment, even an entire chapter from a book, in a single line of a screen or teleplay. Also, you will have to compromise—sometimes. But the compromise should be pragmatic, not problematic.
Sarah: I can’t speak for the adaptation process, never having done it myself, but for novelists hoping to get a book adapted by someone else I’d agree with Deesha: concentrate on the book first, making it the best it can be as a novel. Good producers aren’t looking for books that already read like screenplays; they’re looking for novels with great characters, with emotional authenticity and heart. And, yes, a trustworthy, sympathetic TV/film agent is a must!
“Filmmakers/producers just couldn’t—or wouldn’t—accept or respect a narrative about two Black men from different worlds falling in love. “Are you sure this is real?” “These kinds of gay Black men actually exist?” (My response: “One of those kinds is sitting right in front of you.”)”
This is a three-parter: What’s your favorite queer book-to-screen adaption so far? What’s one coming down the pipeline you’re dying to watch? And what’s one you wish would get adapted for the screen?
Sarah: I absolutely loved Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Carol: so gorgeous to watch, and so true to Highsmith’s novel. In terms of what’s in the pipeline, I’m very excited to hear that a TV version of Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain is in development, with Stuart himself as adaptor: the novel is a wonderfully affecting portrait of a young queer boy and his alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow, and should be terrific on screen. Wish-wise, I wouldn’t mind seeing an adaptation of Isabel Miller’s deeply romantic historical novel Patience and Sarah—a book that made a big impression on me when I was a wee young lesbian, and which I still find terrific whenever I return to it.
Deesha: Moonlight is my favorite; it’s based on an unpublished play. I haven’t had a chance to see Passing yet, but I’m excited to see it. And I hope my friend Brian Broome’s Kirkus Prize-winning memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, gets adapted.
James: After seeing a sneak preview at the American Black Film Festival: B-Boy Blues [laughs]. It truly is the movie I’ve prayed for and dreamed of, a love letter to Black Same Gender Loving men. Jussie has done us and the ancestors proud. It was worth the 27 year wait.
I’d love to be part of the team that finally brings Just Above My Head by James Baldwin to the screen. It inspired B-Boy Blues.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw Paperback, 978-1949199734, 192 pp. September 2020
Men of the House: A B-Boy Blues Novel by James Earl Hardy Paperback, 978-1719937900, 158 pp. December 2018 The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters Paperback, 9781594633928, 592 pp. September 2015