What does George RR Martin and JRR Tolkien have in common? Well, they not only gave life to the greatest fantasy fictions of all times — Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, respectively — but they also stood the test of time and kept growing in popularity as their literary masterpieces were adapted for the big and small screens. Both Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings saw their prequels (House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, respectively) getting released recently and receiving positive responses.
Closer home, Ponniyin Selvan: 1, a Tamil epic drama by Mani Ratnam, became a pan-India hit this year as it brought the grandeur and the power struggles of the Chola empire to life onscreen. The film was based on the book, Ponniyin Selvan (1954) written by Kalki Krishnamurthy.
Often, critically-acclaimed and exciting cinema have emerged from great works of literature. Take for instance, the Harry Potter series, Gone Girl, The Day After Tomorrow, Parineeta, Devdas—the list is endless. In the recent post-pandemic years, filmmakers are increasingly flipping pages of novels to find interesting stories that could be translated into movies or series as the hunger for content grows with the presence of OTT platforms, among others.
In 2020, when Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was released on Netflix as a series, it became a focal point of discussions on how suitably it had captured the essence of the book. The mixed reviews of the much anglicised series did nothing to stop the praises coming in for the flawless portrayal of characters by actors Tabu and Ishaan Khatter.
However, this year’s Laal Singh Chaddha, which was adapted from Forrest Gump, failed to impress the audience at a time when the industry was already in a slump. But take a look at classics like Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider and Omkara, which were adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello, respectively, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Padmavat and Imtiaz Ali’s Laila Majnu (adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)—they have all been successful adaptations of either historical texts or lores.
Book vs screenwriting
JK Rowling needs no introduction. The author is behind the hugely popular Harry Potter universe. Yet, when the film series on her books were being helmed, the screenplay writers turned out to be Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg.
An author would go in great detail in describing the settings of a scene, the character and their emotions in a novel. However, when the same goes for the screen, a scene is enough to put the sea of words into action. This proves that there is a significant difference between writing novels and movie scripts.
As author, screenwriter, columnist and speaker Anand Neelakantan puts it, “Screenplays are highly technical and the blueprint for the director whereas books are more expansive.” Meghna Pant, author, screenwriter and speaker, agrees with Neelakantan. “In novels, you can break the rules of writing. But in a screenplay, you have to take your character from point A to point B in a logical, rational and conclusive way. Screenplays are about showing, novels are about feelings. Books need only one person—the author, but movie adaptations need many people to come together in order to work. Movies are visual, books are sensory,” she explains.
Pant feels that adaptations can lift the book but never diminish it. She gives the instances of films like Guide, The Namesake, 7 Khoon Maaf, Omkara and 3 Idiots that have turned out to be better than the books on which they were based. However, films like Slumdog Millionaire, The Mistress of Spices and Atlas Shrugged did nothing for the books, but could not take away their ‘classic’ tags.
When a book is being adapted for the screen, creative liberties are exercised and with them, the originality of the book may witness a certain extent of cinematic twist. This may or may not go down well with the audience. Publishing houses, however, have no say in the way a book is turned into a movie or series.
Arcopol Chaudhuri, executive editor, rights and new media, HarperCollins India, explains the inevitability of creative liberties and says it is important to note that an adaptation is made by a filmmaker with a certain vision and that the onus is on them to make the film in a way that appeals to a film-viewing audience and not merely readers. As for Roli Books, its executive editor and rights manager Isha Maniar says production houses that they have dealt with recognise the need to preserve the integrity of the book even as they exercise creative liberties. “Of course, these liberties must be taken. When it works, it’s quite marvellous, but when it doesn’t, it’s not for lack of trying,” she adds.
In fact, some adaptations have turned out to be better than books and renewed interest in books. Natasha Kapur, senior vice president, marketing and digital, Penguin Random House India, gives examples of titles like The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru or Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra that were released as films or series years later and renewed people’s interest in the original work. “Successful adaptations give a new lease of life to the book. Viewers turn readers, often to find out how far or close the adaptation is, to find out if the screen version is better than the book,” she says. Penguin Random House India, which has seen several screen adaptations, has optioned titles like The Emergency: A Personal History by Coomi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar by Yaseer Usman, Bhujia Barons: The Untold Story of How Haldiram Built a Rs 5000-Crore Empire by Pavitra Kumar and more in the past two years.
Every year, several books are adapted for the screen and the numbers are only getting bigger with the presence of OTT platforms and demand for good and varied content. With this, arises the need for a platform to navigate the process. This is when Sidharth Jain’s brainchild The Story Ink, a book-to-screen company based in Mumbai, comes into play. While in Hollywood, several such companies exist and help in pitching new works to production houses, in India, it is one of its kind.
In India, book-to-screen deals are usually done through literary agents, authors or production houses approaching each other. However, Jain’s platform, which has done more than 175 book-to-screen deals in the last three years, is an example of how organised players in the field can help bring more meaningful content to the fore.
Jain, who is the chief storyteller and producer of The Story Ink, explains the role and functioning of his company. “The search for stories happens in various ways. While our team keeps looking for stories, we are regularly approached by authors, publishers and literary agents. We have a very focused custom recommendation curation process which connects the right story with the right storyteller. We usually charge a percentage of the value of the deal,” he explains. He adds that taking a story, developing a script that’s fundable and then packaging it with talent remain the toughest part of this process. Currently, there are more than 20 projects in various stages of development at The Story Ink.
As for an author, when their book gets picked up for adaptation, there are several steps involved. Author Meghna Pant shares that she had first sent a one-page concept note of her novel The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News (2021) published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, to Jain of The Story Ink and he loved the idea. She then wrote Badnam Ladoo (the name of the upcoming film based on the book) initially as a 20-page story, then as a screenplay, and finally as a novel. Jain pitched the screenplay and it was picked up by producer Tanveer Bookwala of DING Entertainment, a production house, along with few other studios and is currently under development as a movie.
As for the involvement of the author in the process of the screenplay, Pant, who is now venturing into screenplay writing, says that a writer can be involved till even after the release of the film, or sell their book/screenplay and be done. However, it also caters to the author’s personal choice. Anand Neelakantan, author, columnist and speaker whose Bahubali trilogy and Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara are being adapted for the screen, says he doesn’t get involved in the screenwriting process as he feels the author gets too attached to the book and wants to avoid conflicts.
To strike deals, publishing houses, too, have people to streamline the process. Natasha Kapur of Penguin Random House India shares that they have an in-house team to explore options and arrange deals with production houses. Arcopol Chaudhuri of HarperCollins India, too, shares that they have an in-house rights and licensing team that works on curating and identifying books that are suitable for screen adaptation, and then liaisons with producers after understanding their storytelling requirements. “If the producers like the subject and the story, they make an offer to acquire the rights. We ensure two things: that our authors get compensated fairly for a film deal and the producers can acquire the rights at a practical sum that can enable the screen adaptation,” he adds.
Isha Maniar of Roli Books says that so far, their editorial director Priya Kapoor and Maniar have been able to handle the deals with the rest of editorial and sales teams pitching in when needed. But with the flurry of acquisitions, they might think of a more organised setup for the future. Maniar believes that adaptation companies, though few at the moment, help in easing the burden of negotiations of contracts and help publishers focus on the actual bookmaking aspects of publishing, and must flourish.
The fact that the pandemic has seen newer authors emerge is one reason why diverse stories are being told. Adaptation rights of author Rijula Das’ debut book A Death in Shonagachhi have been optioned by Drishyam Films for a limited series adaptation. The book was longlisted for JCB Prize 2021 and won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award in fiction. The rise of OTT platforms since 2020 is also making space for newer stories.
Apart from her book, The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News, being adapted for the screen, Meghna Pant says there is a huge interest for her book Boys Don’t Cry and a soon-to-be-published young-adult novel that has been picked up for adaptation. Her short story Boongthing (published under the collection, The Trouble With Women), is also under consideration for a film adaptation and its screenplay is ready.
Natasha Kapur of Penguin Random House India says that of late, if there seems to be heightened interest in screen adaptations, it is because of the increase in the number of OTTs.
In the past two years, titles by HarperCollins that saw screen adaptations include Black Tornado: The Three Sieges of Mumbai 26/11 by Sandeep Unnithan (as State of Siege 26/11), Serious Men by Manu Joseph, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Made in China by Parinda Joshi. Arcopol Chaudhuri of HarperCollins India shares that their books are hugely sought after for screen adaptations, and currently there are multiple conversations going on about their published and forthcoming titles. “Despite the challenges faced by the film industry due to the pandemic, the ecosystem of OTT platforms has certainly helped energise the process and brought books into the spotlight to satisfy the content demands of filmmakers. The more book adaptations hit the screens and are enjoyed by audiences, the more it will encourage filmmakers to look at literature for sources for storytelling,” he adds.
Gaurav Banerjee, head, content, Disney+ Hotstar and HSM Entertainment Network, Disney Star, says their The Great Indian Murder is a story adapted for the digital screens from the novel Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup. “Starring critically acclaimed actors and helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, the series’ crossover of characters from different walks of life makes it a highly intriguing title that is sure to entertain audiences across the country,” he adds.
Last year, Roli Books, too, has been a part of five adaptation deals for its books and has more in the pipeline. Isha Maniar shares that one such adaptation of a bestseller was one of the highest-grossing book deals in India and is soon to be a marquee offering from a major OTT platform entering the Indian market. They’ve dealt with Ali Abbas Zafar Films, Applause Entertainment, Almighty Motion Pictures, Balaji and Confluence Media in the recent past.
However, this was not always the case earlier as the book-to-screen adaptation process largely remained informal and unregulated. Even so now as only few firms exist in India to bridge the gap. Jain of The Story Ink shares that he ventured into the book-to-screen business as he noticed the problem of content. “After I quit Hotstar in late 2017, I went to New York to study the theory of storytelling for a few months. When I returned, I figured that while there are many producers, studios, OTT platforms, directors, actors and talent agencies, the problem was what to make. So, I decided to set up the company in 2018 to solve the story problem for the premium video content industry at large,” he says, adding the market for book-to-screen adaptations is niche in India and largely focused on the top 30-40 production companies that have the resources to develop projects by buying screen rights of books.
Netflix, which has several adaptations on its platforms, says India is a treasure trove of untold stories. “India with its rich storytelling heritage offers a huge opportunity to bring the great work done by Indian authors to the service. This has put the spotlight on the writers as they are telling stories straight from their vantage point and not conforming to a trend,” says a spokesperson.