Steve Clarke reports on how the importance of known IP is driving intense competition for book rights.
Adapting books for TV is as old as the medium itself. But in the age of peak TV, the imperative to option a title and maybe, just maybe, discover the next Game of Thrones—based of course on the fantasy novels of George R. R. Martin—has never been greater.
Crime novels by Agatha Christie or P. D. James; spy tales spun by John le Carré or Graham Greene; classic literature penned by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens; contemporary fiction like Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet; or a memoir such as Howard Marks’ Mr Nice. These stories offer potentially rich pickings for producers and distributors.
“In the old days, people used to read the whole Booker shortlist, pick a couple of titles they liked and see if the rights were available,” recalls Hilary Salmon, the head of drama London at BBC Studios. “Now the rights will not be available because the books have been optioned at the proof stage.”
Such is the hunger for content that it is not only successful novels that are being snapped up. “In the last couple of years, we’ve put in bids involving large sums of money for factual books that haven’t even been written yet, based on a 15-page proposal,” adds Salmon, who in July announced that BBC Studios is developing Mr Nice in tandem with Independent; a feature film based on Marks’ career as a cannabis smuggler was released in 2010.
Lars Blomgren, Endemol Shine Group’s head of scripted for EMEA, agrees, “Nowadays a lot of book rights disappear before the book is published.”
Some of the most garlanded television of the past two years owes its origins to the printed word. A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant in a career-defining performance as disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe, and Ben Whishaw as his lover, Norman Scott, was based on John Preston’s account of the same name. Few TV shows capture the zeitgeist more than Killing Eve, adapted from the Codename Villanelle series of novellas written by Luke Jennings. Margaret Atwood’s classic tome formed the basis for The Handmaid’s Tale; Big Little Lies was based on Liane Moriarty’s Australian bestseller.
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