It probably comes as no surprise to you that book to movie/TV adaptations are all the rage. After the successes that Hollywood has seen with The Hunger Games, Divergent, Game of Thrones, and The Martian, it seems like every book is getting optioned. Part of this isn’t surprising, but it is a little off-setting to me. In business, you want to go with proven strategies. Successful models will always be more appealing. But I suspect that there are a lot of franchises being set up to go nowhere at best and down the drain at worst.
In the past year or so, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Wes Chu’s Time Salvager, and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. Have all been optioned for various movie, tv, and video game productions (sources hyperlinked).
Let’s start by talking about what this means.
According to legal-dictionary.com, an option means:
A right, which operates as a continuing offer, given in exchange for consideration—something of value—to purchase or lease property at an agreed price and terms within a specified time.
In a way, all of the buzz over this is a bit misleading. Being “optioned” means that a company has bought the rights to produce an adaptation of the story. The company can then take the story and start developing scripts, production ideas, and testing the story on potential markets. What “optioned” doesn’t mean is that those adaptations will necessarily be made or that they will be made any time soon.
An option is a way for a company to test the waters. There may be contract terms which require certain things like script development or production, but this isn’t inherent to the term. To boot, an option is like a lease, after a certain time, you’re done. The copyright holder can move on to the next offer.
What’s more important is (1) what company has optioned a story, (2) if they have anyone on contract for the story, (3) the popularity of the story, and (4) if the story allows the company to tap into a new or a wide audience.
For instance, saying that a small company has optioned a story, but has no one on board to adapt it, it’s only a fairly popular story, and it’s not going to tap into or expand the audience they already have, means less than a large company optioning a story with an enthusiastic and popular team on board for a story that has broken the NYT bestseller list.
Optioning doesn’t mean so much in and of itself, but there has been a slew of optioning, by fairly established companies. Many of these optioning deals have teams to help the potential production on board and are picking up niche, but well received books. Wes Chu’s novel Time Salvager , for instance, was optioned by Paramount with Michael Bay lined up to direct and Chu set to be the executive producer. That’s a serious deal. Considering the works that have been announcing optioning, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that in the next 5 or so years we will get a large number of movie adaptations of hit works.
Optioning: Good? Bad? Meh?
Part of me is ridiculously excited to see so many SFF adaptations (potentially) in the works. It’s been so long since we got an SFF adaptation that was truly energizing. Afterall, there’s so much potential in SFF that hasn’t been tapped into. Star Wars and Star Trek reboots will only get you so far and Scyfy hasn’t made a tv show worthy of weekly watching for quite some time. Lately more shows like Game of Thrones and Orphan Black have been on the rise. The idea of a new, gritty scifi show, or an engaging fantasy show sans-Starks is exciting. But, I’m hesitant about the swath of adaptations for a few reasons.
Choosing stories for the medium
Popular stories are the first place a company is going to look for a potential adaptation. There’s a built in market and the story has been (at least somewhat) vetted. This has the potential to be fantastic, but also means that there is a far more limited field of what’s being considered. And, frankly, plenty of popular science fiction and fantasy stories don’t lend themselves well to visual medium.
Take, for example, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Justice won a Hugo for best novel, an impressive feat made more impactful because it was a debut novel. The story truly pushes the limits of science fiction storytelling and is absolutely captivating. But, a lot of the story is not immediately appealable and the storytelling is extremely complex. It’s difficult to see immediately how a television show will convey the inability of Justice One Esk (the main character) to see gender. The descriptions of how One Esk describes the politics is extremely detailed with a long backstory that may be difficult to build on a visual platform where there is limited time and information. This is not to say it cannot be done or cannot be done well, simply that it will require alterations and reworking.
As a more stark example, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear have been optioned by Lionsgate for production as a movie. The King Killer Chronicles has been optioned before. In 2013, Fox –the same company optioning Leckie’s novel– attempted to develop the books into a TV show. It didn’t wind up happening. Much of Rothfuss’ story may simply be hard to explain visually or be less compelling when turned into a script. Without the insight into Kvothe’s mind and the magic system, the story may lose affect. Similarly the story has a non-traditional subject matter. It’s hard to make a high fantasy story work on screen. The struggle in the book to articulate magical words that you learn suddenly as opposed to through rote practice, the story’s slow pace, the 200 pages of fairy sex, may just not really work for the screen, big or small.
Quality of production
It’s hard to imagine that many start up stories are going to get the money to invest in special effects necessary to really pull-off some of the stories being optioned. The investment in creating a believable version of a magical or science fiction world is large. Even larger the more detailed it gets. Game of Thrones costs HBO almost $6 million per episode to make. This may be lessened by going with a British series model (6-12 episodes per season), but doing so disrupts much of the current television model in the US. Disruption and a major budget investment may simply be less appealing than going for a more traditional story with a greater chance of conventional success.
Flooding the Market
Perhaps this is unwarranted, but I worry about the ability of the current television market to handle a mass influx of SFF stories. It may be popular to contract those stories for a while, but competition combined with the high cost of special effects will likely force many of these stories out of production. I worry that it will stigmatize optioning SFF in the future. This is probably overthinking, because SFF isn’t always seen as a good bet to begin with, but I can’t help taking it into account.
I really am excited to see SFF getting optioned. I just am a worry wart. I want it done well and I want to spread the SFF love. Hopefully that goal is about to be achieved.