Why Hollywood and the television industry are turning back to the bookshelves

With a record number of scripted TV shows in production and movie studios desperately seeking a ready-made audience, producers are raiding bookshelves like never before.

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. AP Photos
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Gutenberg, wherever you are, take a bow. Television acts pretty smug these days with streamers and hand-held digital devices delivering entertainment at the tap of a screen – but it would still be lost without your printed word.

And with the boom in high-quality television series so voraciously gobbling up so many good scripts before they can get anywhere near a movie screen, Hollywood is more desperate than ever for gripping new yarns – and so producers are turning to bookshelves like never before.

Yes, even in our dazzling digital world, where it feels like the future is arriving faster by the day, so much still depends on the novelists burning the midnight oil and ink-stained printing presses.

To put it simply: a high-profile boom in literary adaptations is gathering speed.

Is the book better than the movie?

While degrees of success vary, the days of glibly dismissing such adaptations with the throwaway phrase “The book is better” are long behind us.

“The use of that phrase has gradually faded, replaced by enthusiastic shouts on social media when Hollywood grabs the rights to a classic work of science fiction or a modern twist on fantasy,” says Andrew Liptak of The Verge, an ambitious multimedia project founded in 2011 to examine how technology will change life in the future for a massive mainstream audience.

"Book adaptations have simply, swiftly improved. Beginning with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, filmmakers have been paying more attention to their source material. Jackson's trilogy, in particular, helped demonstrate that a sprawling, complicated novel could be filmed, and it helped lead to shows such as HBO's Game of Thrones, Syfy's The Expanse, Amazon's The Man in the High Castle and Starz's Outlander, which are earning critical acclaim and legions of fans."

Still too much television?

In August 2015, FX Networks chief executive John Landgraf declared that there is “simply too much television” to sustain healthy ratings. That year set a record with 420 original scripted series on broadcast, cable and streaming services, according to his research department.

Landgraf even coined the term “Peak TV” to describe this programme proliferation, which he expected would have peaked by now.

Yet the following year the number rose to 454 original, scripted programmes in production – a new high – with even more expected next year. Landgraf now predicts at least two more years of steady growth.

According to Stephen Battaglio of The Los Angeles Times, this expansion is being driven entirely by the growth in shows from streaming services. These go far beyond big hitters Amazon, Netflix and Hulu to include start-ups such as NBCUniversal's Seeso and even comedian Louis CK's website.

Online services accounted for 92 scripted original programmes last year, compared with 46 in 2015. In 2009, there was only one online series out of 210 scripted TV shows.

Television’s insatiable hunger

With television caught up in a free-for-all content binge of reboots and spin-offs, it is proving to be a tough competitor for Hollywood moviemakers, as it scoops up ripped-from-the-headlines books for original movie and “event series”.

Two recent examples include HBO's The Wizard of Lies, based on The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and The Death of Trust, a look inside the biggest investment scam of the century by The New York Times investigative reporter Diana B Henriques; and 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix buzz-maker series about teen suicide, based on Jay Asher's bestselling novel.

TV has even turned to modern-day literary classics, such as The Handmaid's Tale, a futuristic dystopian novel about the repression of women, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which is now a 10-episode series (with a second season already commissioned) on Hulu. A multi-season adaptation of American Gods, based on the acclaimed fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman is on cable network Starz, with a six-part adaptation of his book Good Omens, co-written with the late Terry Pratchett, also in production by Amazon and the BBC.

So what’s left for filmmakers?

Don't feel sorry for filmmakers just yet – they are also feasting on popular books. Six of the movies in the running for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival were based on books – although the winner, The Square, was conceived when director Ruben Östlund and producer Kalle Boman entered an installation into the Vandalorum Museum in Värnamo, Sweden.

Sofia Coppola has rebooted the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie The Beguiled, casting Colin Farrell as an injured Union officer during the American Civil War. Both movies are based on Thomas Cullinan's classic Southern Gothic novel, published in 1966.

Meanwhile, director François Ozon turned up the heat with his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's Double Delight (1977) to almost excruciating levels for his L'Amant double (The Double Lover).

Specialised “pitching sessions” emerge

In fact, the demand is so great that many filmmakers are not even waiting for books to be published – snapping up rights at the galley stage, and minimising risk to investors.

This has led to the creation of specialised “pitching sessions”, from Los Angeles to Shanghai, where publishers present new releases and upcoming novels to film and television buyers in hopes of having them optioned for the screen.

In Cannes, for example, more than 130 international producers took part in a special book-rights market. The Berlin festival also has its own showcase – Books at Berlinale – linked to the world’s biggest book market, the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It’s all about managing risk

“Established, popular books are a comparably faster and data-supported way for studios to develop film and TV plots,” says Liptak.

"It's all about managing risk for the studios," adds Hawk Otsby, a producer of Syfy's The Expanse. "It's extremely difficult to sell a blockbuster original script today if isn't based on some popular or recognisable material.

“Audiences know the story, so they’re sort of pre-sold on it. In other words, it has a recognisable [intellectual property] and can rise above the noise [and] competition from the internet, video games and Netflix.”