The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. AP Photos
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. AP Photos

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

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.”

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UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”


July 5, 1994: Jeff Bezos founds Cadabra Inc, which would later be renamed to, because his lawyer misheard the name as 'cadaver'. In its earliest days, the bookstore operated out of a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington

July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

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