Hollywood has long been seen as a place that is unfriendly to writers. Faulkner described it as a town where a man can get “stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder.” Hemingway advised authors: “Throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.” But thanks to a rise in demand for daring, long-form television, not only has there been a surge in options for literary material but producers and executives have become more open to original projects from novelists.
“We are selling more intellectual property to television than ever before,” said Rich Green, a veteran agent at ICM Partners who specializes in this area. Not only has there been an uptick in the number of literary properties being acquired but, as he noted, barriers that once prevented novelists from writing TV or film are beginning to break down. “What you’re finding in both television and film now is a recognition that a great storyteller is a great storyteller, regardless of the medium,” Green said. “Once upon a time there was a very high and thick wall that separated those who wrote for television and film from those who wrote novels.... That wall has come down.”
George Pelecanos, who had a well-established pedigree as a crime novelist when he began writing for the HBO series The Wire (2002–2008), has experienced this firsthand. Pelecanos said that David Simon, who created the cable drama, had a different viewpoint than the average show runner. Simon, who began his career as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, brought on a number of crime novelists to write for The Wire, including Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. (Pelecanos was hired after author Laura Lippman, Simon’s girlfriend at the time, urged him to read Pelecanos’s work.) Simon’s once-singular notion, that novelists are ideal writers for the kind of character-driven TV drama he was creating, is now more widely held by producers and studio executives.
Pelecanos continues to write for television—his post-Wire credits include working as a writer and producer on the HBO series Treme (also created by Simon)—and he said that thanks to people like Simon, “the studios and cable companies are no longer afraid to hire novelists.” Now, he added, “there are lots of jobs out there for the taking.”
The success of Nic Pizzolatto, creator of HBO’s True Detective, points to just how much Hollywood’s view of novelists has changed. Pizzolatto’s 2010 book, Galveston, garnered critical acclaim but generated few sales. After he wrote a well-received screen adaptation of the novel, on spec, his representation paired him with a TV specialist in order to create a polished pilot. The pairing paid off when True Detective was picked up by HBO.
In the past, sources noted, the division of labor in Hollywood was more rigid—especially when it came to writing. Authors were often cut out of the production process entirely: their books were optioned and they were paid, but they were rarely offered the chance to get involved beyond that point. Now some authors, especially those with clout, are given more choices. George R.R. Martin, for example, is a producer and writer on Game of Thrones, which is adapted from his Song of Ice and Fire book series. Then there’s Gillian Flynn, who bargained to stay on as the screenwriter of the film adaptation of Gone Girl when it was optioned. Flynn is now signed on to write an adaptation of the British series Utopia for HBO, as well as a planned feature adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
Richie Kern, a former co-agent who was recently hired by Foundry Literary + Media as head of filmed entertainment, said that years ago, novelists were seen only as sources for “underlying material.” Kern thinks attitudes started to shift as more and more projects adapted from books became successful films and TV shows. “The more times you buy a book from a certain author, the more you begin to think, maybe I want to talk directly to this author.”
This isn’t to say, though, that Hollywood has swung its doors wide open to anyone with a publishing credit and an idea. While Kern acknowledged that it has become easier for an author to “seriously consider TV as a second career, or as an additional career,” only a handful of writers are the right fit for TV and film jobs. He thinks the novelists Hollywood wants are the ones “who’ve created a specific world,” like Martin and Robert Kirkman, author of the Walking Dead, the comic series turned hit AMC show.
Josh Kendall, editorial director and executive editor at Mulholland Books, edits a number of authors who are finding success writing for TV and film. While he has seen how the hunger for material in Hollywood—especially for more daring and interesting stories on the television side—is creating opportunities for many of his novelists, he believes talent is still the starting point for any potential project. In discussing the aforementioned examples, from Flynn to Pelecanos, Kendall said the strengths of the authors’ books are what opened doors for them. This is proof that even in Hollywood, as Kendall put it, “you still need a track record.”