From Self-Published To Silver Screen
By Emma Regan and Jordan Maxwell Ridgway
Book-to-movie adaptations are either something you love or hate. They can either be incredibly accurate and give the source a breath of fresh air or diverge from the book and leave fans of the book wishing they could forget what they had witnessed. There is even the rare occasion of the movie being considered better than the book. And with book-to-movie adaptations slowly feeling like they’re becoming the norm (along with book-to-TV show adaptations), the variety of books to adapt from is constantly expanding.
According to Publishers Association in 2018, book-to-movie adaptations gross 44% more in the UK box office, and 53% more at the worldwide box office compared to original screenplays. The report also showed between 2007–2016, 43% of the top twenty highest-grossing in the UK were book-based, and another 9% were comic-based and with the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the last five years, the latter will have increased exponentially. Yet the variety doesn’t stop there. There are a number of movies adapted from self-published books too, which might come as a shock to its viewers.
Twenty years ago, Legally Blonde made its debut in cinemas and gave the world Reese Witherspoon as an iconic wannabe lawyer who looked like a Barbie in a hot pink suit and heels. A lasting Hollywood favourite that secured Witherspoon’s rising stardom, the film has become a movie night-in staple. But did you know it started as a self-published book?
In 2001, Marc Platt took a chance to produce a self-published book by Amanda Brown titled Legally Blonde. Self-published as a semi-autobiographical novel, the book narrates Brown’s experience as a blonde woman attending Stanford Law School, who also had a passion for fashion, a passion Amanda was made aware of not having in common with her peers. It wasn’t taken seriously by the publishing houses Brown sent the manuscript to (on pink paper no less), and after no success, it was finally sold as a print-on-demand book through AuthorHouse, a self-publishing service which has helped publish over 96,000 books in over twenty-three years. After the success of the film, the novel was acquired by Penguin Plume in the States and “officially published” in 2003.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last time, a self-published novel went on to have a hugely successful afterlife as a film franchise and a West End production, and now a potential third film in the works. It is but a sparkling illustration of what can be achieved by self-published writers.
Another example of a self-published book becoming a global phenomenon is The Martian by Andy Weir. Weir struggled to find a publisher which was interested in his fictional tale about an astronaut, Mark Watney, who struggles to survive on Mars after being stranded there, so he began posting each chapter for free on his website. He then published it on Amazon Kindle for ninety-nine cents (the lowest price available on Kindle) and within three months, it had reached the bestsellers chart for science-fiction titles, selling over 35,000 copies. Weir then managed to sell the print to Crown publishing so it could be printed for $100,000, also selling the audiobook rights to Podium Publishing.
The Martian was adapted in 2015, directed by sci-fi enthusiast Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan and many more famous cast members. It went on to become a blockbuster at the movies, receiving various industry awards and nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (there’s even been a species of potato named after the book’s main character, Solonam Watneyi). It became the tenth highest-grossing film of 2015 and the highest-grossing film directed by Ridley Scott to date.
The success isn’t unique to Legally Blonde and The Martian, of course, other novels including The Shack, another self-published work, and World War Z and Hidden Figures, not self-published but had film rights bought pre-publication, also illustrate the power novelists still hold in Hollywood. There is a suggestion that film powerhouses don’t just receive traditional film scripts anymore, but novels too. Hollywood also has to compete with streaming giants like Netflix these days, and Netflix has shown confidence in indie writers to help pull audiences in.
If you need more proof that self-published work has been hitting big in Hollywood for decades, consider that Eragon, Still Alice and, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey were all self-published before making it onto the screen and later being acquired by publishing houses.
Now, whilst these are all successful examples, not every self-published work will get picked up by a big studio. The film industry, like publishing, is still highly competitive, and whilst social media has made garnering an audience that bit easier, it’s still important to stand out.