Stars in Our Eyes

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

Why do writers want to see their books made into movies?

Not everybody does, of course. Many novelists, if not most, will express deep reservations about the thought — after all, they’re only going to screw up your book, right? They’ll cut things, and dumb it down, and turn the black lesbian private investigator into some blonde bimbo gossip columnist. But despite that, I think a lot of writers are secretly or openly excited by the thought, despite those reservations. And I admit, I’m one of them.


The obvious one, of course, is money. Before a book even gets within sniffing distance of actual film existence, there’s the option — the money somebody pays to “call dibs” on turning your masterpiece into a movie. For a writer, anything that involves making more cash off a title without doing more work on it is awesome. And these days options only last for a while, so if the guy is serious, he has to keep re-upping the option, which means extra injections of cash. If they buy the book for real, then there’s even more money involved — probably not a lot by Hollywood standards, but it doesn’t take much to get your average novelist excited. Supposing the book makes it all the way to the screen . . . however much it got butchered, they say no publicity is bad publicity. People will see the movie and then buy the book, and that means — you got it — more money.

But we’re not all mercenary hacks, right? Well, we are, because that’s how we pay for things like mortgages and college tuition (our kids’ or our own). But that isn’t all of it, especially since most writers are hard-nosed enough to recognize the minuscule likelihood of making it all the way. You could also say it’s the reach, above and beyond the money that comes with it; even a flop at the box office generally draws a larger audience than most SF/F novels. (Though if they’re filming you, you were probably pretty successful to begin with.)

I think there’s one more aspect, though — something about the prospect of a movie. (Say the preceding words in suitably awed tones.) Is it that we think movies are somehow better or more special than books? Probably not, given the line of work we’re in.

No — I think it’s the thought of the characters coming to life.

Someone, I forget who, once said writing is a kind of telepathy. I have a thought in my head; I put it down on paper, you read it, and then the thought is in your head. Magic! I don’t even have to be present for it to happen! But from the writer’s point of view, sometimes that’s hard to trust. There are all these people inside our heads, and then we send them out into the world and short of some e-mail from readers, maybe a bit of fanfic or fan art, the occasional discussion at a con . . . it’s really hard to believe anybody else sees them. (We’re like delusional schizophrenics, in a way. Does anybody else see that guy over there, the one with the eagle on his shield . . . .?) But if they get up on the screen? There! See that? That’s my character. And you can sit in an auditorium with other people and know, they see him too. Real as life, and twice as large! (More, on some movie screens.)

I think that illusion is what puts a sparkle in a writer’s eye. Not because the visual enactment of a character is better than what we do on the page. There are things books do better than movies, and vice versa; I can think of some fabulous characters who would lose nine-tenths of their depth on the screen. You’re dependent on the right actor, physically and performatively. But when we get that sparkle, we’re not thinking of the practicalities of casting and budgets. We’re imagining our characters standing in front of us, where everybody else can see them.

Me, I admit it: I get a bit sparkly at the thought. And if it ever happened — if that particular bolt of lightning ever struck me — well, I can dream . . . .