The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 15, 2001
Time Off

Stories that make authors rich
Manohar Malgonkar

WHAT do novelists dream of? A lead review in the TLS? A book club selection in America which ensures a sale of hundreds of thousands of copies at one go?

Maybe? But of course the crown jewels of the calling are the sales of film rights to Hollywood where the real money is.

Here the author himself and the studio which buys his story have little or no contact. Even an author’s agents have to take a back seat, because the details are hammered out between lawyers, theirs and yours or your agents. The contract that finally emerges is a bewilderingly complex document which provides for a host of quite bizarre contingencies such as, believe it or not, a clause seeking to prevent the author from running down the film version of his own book.

As will be seen, this is an almost indispensable clause in film-rights contracts, because as a rule, no author is happy with the film version of his book, and most authors cannot even bear to look at them.

R.K. Narayan often held forth about how dissatisfied he was with what Dev Anand had done to his book The Guide, and never one to pull his punches when it came to his creative output, has even written about his disenchantment.

Novels and films. Both tell stories. But to transform a story from one medium into the other is not easy, and distortions are inevitable. Add to this the prejudices and eccentricities of those who actually make films, screenplay writers and directors, and you get films adapted from novels which bear little relationship to their originals. Film directors just have to put their own stamp on stories no matter who wrote them, and how well-known the stories are in their printed versions.

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July 1, 2001
Degrees of intolerance
June 10, 2001
Red hands and red faces
May 20, 2001
Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000

When I heard that David Lean was making a film of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, I remember thinking how appropriate the choice was. Then I saw the film and was sorely disappointed. Lean had not only distorted the story to introduce a sexual overtone, but tacked on a quite fatuous postscript to provide a more convential ending. And since Santha Rama Rau figured in the list of credits as having done the screenplay, I asked her how someone like her, a friend of Forster’s who had interpreted the book so well in the stage version, had taken such liberties with the screen version. It turned out that she, too, was just as dissatisfied with the film version, and had actually walked off the set, as it were, when they were filming it. The inclusion of her name in the list of credits must, she believed, have been a term of the contract.

The question that naturally arises is if authors are so dissatisfied with the films of their novels, why do they sell film rights at all?

It’s the money. They’ve seldom seen anything like it before — with a six-figure advance, with more to come if there are TV sales, repeat showing, translations, dubbings in foreign countries, and to cap it all, a thick layer of icing which provides that the author will get 2.5 per cent of the total budget of the film.

What with the fact of the competetive recklessness of Hollywood film-makers, the thought of that 2.5 per cent guaranteed, is enough to make most authors drool. And remember it is a free dollop, gravy — you don’t have to do anything to earn it, just sit back and agonise about how much of it will go to the tax man who, of course, shares in such windfalls, but alas, not in your lean times when you had to worry where the rent was coming from.

Few authors are so rich, or sensitive about the maulings that their stories will be subjected to, as to say ‘no’ to Hollywood. O.K., E.M. Forster did it; just refused to sell film rights. They had to wait till after he was dead to make a film of The Passage. But Forster was the exception.

The fact that Hollywood offers are rare even in the lives of otherwise successful authors, makes them positively irresistible. Anthony Powell who many people regard as the dean of British writers, was past 90, when Britain’s Channel 4 came up with an offer to make a TV serial of his monumental twelve-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, which, let it be emphasised, its author had completed 25 years earlier. The director they have entrusted with the filming is Christopher Morahan who made the TV serial of Paul Scott’s A Jewel in the Crown. The serial was made after Scott had died, so we will never know what Scott himself would have thought of it. True, those of us who saw it enjoyed it as good entertainment. But how true was it to Paul Scott’s mental image of the Raj?

A somewhat extreme scenario of what can happen to novels in the process of their adaptations for filming, is offered by the case of a book called About Schmidt, written by Louis Begley who lives in America.

The book was published in 1996, and was ‘optioned’ soon after, meaning that someone paid out a substantial sum in advance to the author to reserve the film rights in his book for a year while he explored the possibilities of making a film of it. Before that year was out, the buyer ‘exercised’ his option, meaning that he paid the full amount that must have been agreed upon for the novel’s film rights.

In March 2001, Begley’s agent called him with "exciting news." They were going ahead with shooting the films.

A month or so later, as Begley told a reporter, "he has had no contact with anyone involved in the movie." So it is through other sources that he learned how the location of his story had been changed, the occupation of Mr Schmidt had been changed, the anti-semitism which Mr Begley had sought to show up, had been excised, and one of the main female characters ‘written out’ of the screenplay.

It turned out that the Director who had been chosen to direct the film of About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, had decided to ‘fuse’ the book’s story into a script which he himself had written some years earlier and titled The Coward. Oh well, it was perhaps only natural, that in the fusion, the Coward should swallow up Schmidt whole.

But not quite whole, the title About Schmidt has been retained. "I thought about changing the title," Mr Payne is on record as saying, "but the title is great." Which is something to be thankful for, because, as a reporter puts it. "Not a single scene from About Schmidt (the book), appears in About Schmidt, the movie.

What Begley himself thinks of the film version of his novel, is not likely to be known, because his contract, too, contains that clause which forbids him from saying anything negative about the project.

But then what does it all matter? The film rights cheque has cleared, and there is still that 2.5 per cent of the total expenditure to look forward to say, a quarter million dollars, which they will have shelled out only for the title: About Schmidt.

Which just shows the sort of money Hollywood has to throw around. Who can turn down a Hollywood offer? Even if they maul, disfigure, mutilate your book. Not me. I signed away the film rights in one of my books two years ago and signs are that they’ll go ahead with the filming this year.

Or will they? One can never tell with Hollywood, can one?

Home This feature was published on July 8, 2001