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In which John discusses the process of a book being adapted into a movie, the decisions authors do (and don't) make, whether movie studios care about fans, and whether the book is always better than the movie.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

Several great books by people I know have recently been adapted into movies, or will be soon, and today I thought I would talk about misconceptions around that process.

But first, some personal news. I have just read a screenplay adaptation
of my book Turtles All the Way Down, written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who wrote Love, Simon. And it's a really beautiful script and I'm excited now because I think it might actually become a movie. But I am also nervous which I'll explain later.

But first, almost always book authors make exactly one decision in the movie creation process, which is whether to sell the rights to their book. If you don't sell the rights, no one can make a movie. If you do sell the rights the people you sell the rights to can usually make whatever movie they want to.

Like after I sold the film rights for The Fault in Our Stars to Fox 2000 they could have set the movie on Mars. Only very occasionally do authors get approval over the casting or the script or the director or anything. Now some authors, and I am lucky to be among them, do get a seat at the table when those big decisions are being made. But you get one seat and it is a big table.

Which, by the way, is often good news because I think usually casting directors are better at casting movies than authors are. Like when the casting for The Fault in Our Stars was announced people were really, really mad that Nat Wolff was gonna play Isaac because Isaac has blond hair in the book. And I was also concerned about that. But then, in point of fact, Nat Wolff turned out to be the perfect Isaac and also he is a national treasure and one of my all-time favorite people

Now of course sometimes bad decisions get made but that's rarely the fault of one person, and authors often get criticism for decisions they didn't make and cannot control. I don't just mean casting, but also when and where a movie is shot, which in the U.S. is determined mostly by tax incentives. Or when and where a movie is released, which is determined by marketing executives that most authors never meet. Authors are, however, often asked to communicate those decisions to fans of the book, which can be a difficult thing to navigate and I have messed it up a lot in the past, hence part of my aforementioned nervousness.

Which brings me to a second misconception, that movie studios do not care about fans of the book. In my experience, anyway, they care a lot about fans of the book. They just can't care exclusively about them. Like my third novel Paper Towns made the New York Times bestseller list and sold much much better than either of my previous books. Paper Towns sold about 50,000 copies in its first year, which was amazing. But if movie sells 50,000 tickets in its opening weekend it is almost definitely going to lose a lot of money. In fact, even selling 500,000 tickets in an opening weekend is usually considered a failure.

So studios have to balance the concerns of fans with the need to reach a much larger audience than most books reach. That's one of the reasons books can do so many things that movies can't do. I mean, even cheap movies usually cost like plural millions of dollars to make, whereas books can be financially viable on a much smaller scale.

And also the cost of writing a car chase scene with robots that are on fire is the same as the cost of writing any other scene. And yet, even though it's free, I've still never succeeded at writing a car chase scene with burning robots. I will someday. Who are you kidding it's never gonna happen. You can't write plot.

"Welcome to my book. Two people are talking in a room. Sometimes they go outside."

Lastly, I'm not sure it's fair to say that the book is always better than the movie. The book is different from the movie. It has to be. I don't really think there's such a thing as a faithful adaptation, because you're turning scratches on a page into visible humans speaking audible words.

The life a written story has in the mind of its reader will always be intensely personal in a way that movies can't be. And movies will always engage the senses of sight and hearing in a way that books can't. Movies are literally sensational. And so for me the question is not is the plot the exact same or does the actor look like the character I imagined.

Because if you go to a movie expecting to see a book, you're always gonna be at least a little disappointed. But a great movie adaptation can explore the same questions as a book and it can crack you open in the same places and it can give you that same self expanding experience of empathy. In the end a movie will never succeed at being a great book but it can be a great movie.

If you have questions about the book to movie process, please leave them in comments I'll answer as many as I can.

Hank, I will see you on Friday.