Author Margaret Atwood on the set of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted from her 1985 novel
Little Fires Everywhere, starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, was adapted for Hulu from the novel by Celeste Ng.
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones star in Hulu’s Normal People, adapted from the novel by Sally Rooney; the author’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, is also headed to the streamer.
When TV production shut down earlier this year, producers and executives all did the same thing: they reached for a book.
The race to snag an unsung literary gem that could become the next Big Little Lies or The Leftovers has become brutal. Books — those things your parents said you should be reading instead of watching TV — are currently the hottest thing on TV.
"The screen market is super-hot, definitely," says Lesley Thorne, who runs the film and TV department at Aitken Alexander, a leading literary agency in New York and London. "A lot of the really big TV series are based on books at the moment. You only have to look at some of the successes during lockdown — Little Fires Everywhere, Normal People — they've all been beautifully done, and they all come from bestsellers."
Books have long been a source of limited series. The first golden age, in the 1970s and '80s, yielded classics like Roots and Lonesome Dove and, from the U.K., Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown.
Thanks to streaming outlets like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, there are now more screen hours to fill than ever. Premium longform dramas drive subscriptions like nothing else, so the hunt is on for winning characters and gripping stories, and books are an obvious place to find them.
"First of all, you've got recognition value and kudos from being adapted from a successful book," Thorne says. "In terms of marketing your show, you've already got brand awareness. Also, novelists do plot and characterization really well. Doing an adaptation of something that works as a story is a win-win."
The U.K. production house Hera Pictures is feeling the literary rush, having recently optioned The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell and The Mighty Franks: a Memoir by Michael Frank (with Rachel Weisz attached to play the lead).
"About three or four years ago — connected to the rise of the streamers and a growth in both airtime and budgets, of course — it felt like there was a tipping point," says Hera's head of development, Chloe Dunbar. "The Night Manager, which was an early '90s novel [by John le Carré], suddenly became a huge international success, and that spawned many more of those kinds of pieces."
Literary adaptations on TV had long meant lavish period productions of books by Austen, Dickens or Tolstoy. The Night Manager, seen on BBC One and AMC in 2016, starred Tom Hiddleston — a Hollywood star on the rise — and it looked as good as any Hollywood film, if not better.
"You then had this moment in America where there was Big Little Lies followed by The Handmaid's Tale," Dunbar says. "Suddenly you had the most Hollywood casting ever — Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern — in this big book adaptation.
"Big Little Lies [by Liane Moriarty] was probably not the kind of novel that people would normally jump at adapting. But the filmic setting — combined with that killer casting and a very cinematic, prestige drama treatment — gave that book and story this incredible reach."
Adapted from a classic mid-'80s novel by Margaret Atwood, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale showed how an ambitious, relevant treatment can bring new life to older books. "It cut through in the way that sometimes only TV drama can," Dunbar says. "This creative, modern reimagining — very unslavish to the book — gave it this incredible sense of modernity and urgency."
Suddenly, development people at production houses were scouring libraries and chasing new authors for manuscripts. From 2017 on, more and more scouts from TV began attending the major book fairs, looking to bag options early.
For authors and agents, it has been a boom time ever since. "It can be really competitive," Thorne says. "There are masses of production companies out there. A lot of them have employed book scouts to help them get ahead of the market. With the books that are hot, that you know people are really going to want to do, it can be mayhem. I currently have a 19-way auction for a book proposal under way."
For the authors themselves this has been nothing but good news, of course. If an adaptation of their work goes into production, they are likely to get at least a six-figure check, a life-changing amount for people who earn comparatively little even when their books do sell. At the very least, a TV adaptation raises awareness and drives future sales.
For Edward St. Aubyn, whose acclaimed Patrick Melrose novels were adapted for a Showtime limited series in 2018 (one that was nominated for five Emmys), the best thing about the process was getting to work with other people.
"Writing a novel is such a solitary occupation: you can be alone in a room for years on end," he says. "When they made the television series and I went along to watch, I felt like a child on holiday: there were hundreds of people, and these ink marks I'd made on a page suddenly turned into generators and vans, wardrobe departments, hundreds of people milling around and carrying huge metal cases and cameras."
Other novelists have found themselves not just providing source material for TV drama, but adapting their own books. Megan Abbott's novel Dare Me was published in 2012. Last year she served as showrunner on her own adaptation of the book for USA Network.
"There's so much more TV than there was even 10 years ago, so that's part of it," she says. "But in the last five years, particularly in the crime genre, there's been a tidal wave. Everyone I know is dipping their toe in."
Abbott's first venture into TV was in the writers' room for David Simon's HBO period drama The Deuce. Simon is renowned for hiring novelists to work on his shows; Abbott says his influence helped bring the "first wave" of authors to TV, starting with The Wire.
But now, she adds, instead of just telling their clients to take the option and go back to writing novels, agents are proposing that writers chaperone their books all the way to the screen.
"Now we're encouraged to be a producer or write the pilot, or go forward and be a showrunner," Abbott says. "That feels like the biggest change." She's taken that leap, and Dare Me — which is not returning to USA, but may find another home for season two — has been critically acclaimed. Even so, her advice to young authors being courted by TV studios is to exercise caution.
"A couple of my books are under option and other people are going to adapt them. It's like your exes — it's somebody else's problem now. If you adapt your own, it's like your ex has returned and is never leaving your apartment. The thing to remember as an author is: you'll always have the book."
This article originally appeared in emmuy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2020