Just as Hollywood has Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so publishers have their stars, too. Indeed, many of publishing's marquee names existed long before and will outlast the shooting stars of Hollywood. Film producers find immense value in bestsellers, as a film is easier to finance if it has built-in name recognition and an already established fan base. It also helps if the author has created a strong, central character with ongoing story lines. After all, everyone is looking for the next character franchise to generate movies, TV series, video games, etc. Consider Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne, or bespectacled Harry Potter... and über-author Stephen King has already had 27 books filmed.
Nevertheless, the process of adaptation is fraught with pitfalls. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, who adapted Philip Roth's The Human Stain, is quoted as saying, "The more important or beloved or significant the book is, the more you have an obligation to try and do it some kind of justice." The Human Stain is not an obvious or easy book to adapt, despite which Lakeshore Entertainment also optioned Roth's American Pastoral as a "sequel." The film will be released on October 3, and while it may not beat Pirates of the Caribbean at the box office, it will certainly garner critical attention. Also, Houghton Mifflin and Vintage will certainly see increased sales.
Another author who at first sight is not an obvious choice for film adaptation is Patricia Highsmith, creator of twisted antiheroes. Yet her books have generated around 25 films and TV series. Hitchcock famously adapted Strangers on a Train in 1951, and French, German and Italian producers have used her work as inspiration ever since. In 1999, Anthony Minghella directed a high-profile adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon. The film of Ripley Under Ground is now in postproduction, but screenwriter Blake Herron definitely does not see it as a sequel.
For one thing, the film is now titled White on White. Herron explains that they wanted to distance themselves from the Minghella movie; as film rights in the five Ripley books are owned by different producers, distinctions had to be drawn. Herron made a conscious decision to alter the character of Ripley from a bisexual murderer into a more straightforward heterosexual sociopath who kills for love. Herron found Highsmith's Ripley to be "too much like Camus's TheStranger, which from a commercial standpoint is just not viable... and there was no love interest."
Not surprisingly, White on White is financed not by Hollywood but by German producers Cinerenta. Several writers tried to adapt the book, so when Herron was hired, he was given leeway to solve its inherent problems. The story revolves around a scam in which a famous artist accidentally dies, and Ripley maintains the illusion that he's alive to continue selling forgeries as his paintings. "Highsmith is interested in the vacuum of evil, so for a movie of broad appeal, you have to create a story around that. The setup stays the same; the characters still exist; but the movie character is significantly different from the book because of his motivation. I tried to dramatize essential Highsmith, in that she loved to explore the effect of restrained and released compulsions." The film stars Barry Pepper as Ripley, with Tom Wilkinson and Willem Dafoe. It will be released in 2004, and apparently has the potential to generate its own sequel. The book is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.
Robert Ludlum has sold millions of copies for Putnam and Bantam, but had not enjoyed similar success on celluloid until the adaptation of The Bourne Identity last year. Universal and Kennedy Marshall optioned both that title and The Bourne Supremacy with a view to creating a franchise. Indeed, they are now in pre-production with the sequel, again starring Matt Damon and Franke Potente.
Herron, who also scripted The Bourne Identity, explained that his challenges were to compress the time frame of the book and to dramatize the central relationship. "The genius of the book is the setup: an assassin who doesn't know whether he's good or evil, and tries to regain his memory." The essence of a book has to be distilled, and 544 pages turned into a 120-page script.
No look at high-profile adaptations is complete without mentioning the film of John Grisham's Runaway Jury starring Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Eight Grisham novels have been adapted for film with varying degrees of success, with the successes outweighing the failures. 20th Century Fox paid a reported $8 million for the film rights, and Knopf and Bantam will benefit from the film's release on October 17. Never mind that the central issue of the film is gun manufacturers rather than the tobacco industry, as in Grisham's novel.
The list of significant books currently being turned into films is an encouragingly varied one. This fall readers can see films of Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun, TracyChevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, Eric Garcia's MatchstickMen and Thomas Eidson's The Last Ride, among many others.