The Process and Reception of Book to Film Adaptations

‘The Process and Reception of Book to Film Adaptations’ is a dissertation originally written in 2010 by Steve McCarthy as part of a Masters degree in Publishing. This dissertation was produced with the help of industry professionals acknowledged below, and is now being re-published online with the aim of illuminating the process of book to film adaptation for the wider public. In some places, where appropriate, the author has edited content to bring it into the modern day context in which it is being shared. The dissertation will be published in 6 parts covering the key players in the process: the author, the agent, the script, and the producer.


The publishing trade supplies an invaluable source of stories to the film industry year on year, but information surrounding the process of adapting a book for the screen is limited. This is surprising as the process is a collaborative one, and the success of an adaptation is often reliant on the good communication and understanding of those involved. This dissertation focuses on illuminating the process of book to film adaptation to counter the void of current information on the subject. This was achieved through a combination of: interviews with experts working in the film and publishing industries; original quantitative data; an analysis of literature on the subject of adaptation; and a focused case study of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

This study produced a number of key findings: evidence suggests a growing semblance between books and film in an attempt to ensure their survival and appeal to larger audiences. In particular the book’s evolution in size which now better suits the timescale of film. But also the way films are now more prepared to demand a repeat viewing or ‘rereading’, something that has been inherited from a history of using literary works as inspiration. In addition, the interviews conducted highlighted the importance of co-operation to the process of developing a book and the threats that are involved with a business structured around risk.

By understanding why a book may resist the transition to screen – be it an issue with the material or obstacles created by those involved – writers, literary agents, screenwriters and producers will be better placed to know what problems need to be addressed, in order to make the adaptation work. This research suggests that to maintain the advantageous relationship that the publishing and film industries currently share, there is a need for those in the film industry to continue searching for fresh methods of utilising the UK’s vast supply of literary material; methods structured around a clear understanding of the economics of filmmaking.

Aims and purpose of the study

This study
This dissertation looks to shed light on the process by which a book is selected for a film adaptation, and the decisions made by those involved. The publishing and film industries are collaborative by nature, and so this dissertation aims to function as a resource for those currently operating within them.

One area I aim to evaluate is the book’s evolution and adaptability as the film industry has grown. In particular the way books have decreased in size since the classics like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, making them more suitable for the condensed nature of film. I will also explore whether or not authors are consciously writing with film in mind, and how audiences are responding to their cherished books being portrayed as cinema. Furthermore I hope to learn what advantages and disadvantages book adaptations bring to the filmmaking process.

I have devoted less space to adaptation theory in general, as there is already ample discussion available in this area as my literature review will highlight. Instead this dissertation is designed to provide a more specialised and personal exploration into the process of adaptation, with a focused examination of the connections between the publishing and film industries from those currently active within them.

Linda Hutcheon, in her book A Theory of Adaptation, attempts an explicit denotation for ‘adaptation’ as: ‘taking one “property” in a “franchise” and reusing it in another medium.’1 She then seeks to classify the term further: as a formal entity and product, ‘an adaptation is an announced and extensive transposition of a particular work or works.’2 ‘As a process of creation, the act of adaptation always involves both (re-)interpretation and then (re-)creation; this has been called both appropriation and salvaging.’3 Adaptation can also be ‘seen from the perspective of its process of reception, adaptation is a form of intertextuality.’4

The written form has existed for so long that the probability of a story being told through this medium far outweighs that of any other. Paper is more durable than other story forms, and before the written word oral storytelling was common practice. It is widely believed that Homer’s Illiad was in fact an adaptation of a spoken, or even sung, story for example. However, the idea that books are the source of all adaptations is misleading; there have been many play to film, TV to book, musical to film, TV to film adaptations, and many more variants. Even brand to film adaptations exist, with films based on the board game Battleships and the construction toy Lego just two examples.

Similarly films are now inspiring books; novelisations of films. Millions (2004) was made as a film first and then Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote the book afterwards. The book being published very successfully alongside the film.

Continue to Part 2…

1 Hutcheon, L. (2006) A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge. Page 5
2 Hutcheon, L. (2006) A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge. Page 7
3 Hutcheon, L. (2006) A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge. Page 8
4 Hutcheon, L. (2006) A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge. Page 8

I would like to thank the following people and organisations for their support, advice and contributions to this dissertation:
Kingston University, Alison Baverstock, Sarah Mahaffy, Mary Braid, Julian Friedmann, Linda Seger, Tally Garner, Nick Hornby, Lucy Chavasse, Evan Leighton-Davis, Adam Baron, Kieron Connolly, Ken Marshall, Emma Wood, and all those who participated in the survey.