Especially now, in the “source material”-hungry 21st century, when there’s scarcely a movie or TV production company that wants to run the risk of actually imagining anything original, we’ve all had that sinking feeling: learning that some book or book series we love has been optioned – that some production company has settled on our beloved book and is planning to adapt it for the screen.
That optioned feeling is never a happy one, for a number of reasons. One of the most shallow reasons is the creeping awareness even the least-savvy onlookers have that although some beloved “source material” is probably brought to the negotiating table by true believers, it’s immediately taken up by studio sharks in $40,000 suits who’ve never heard of the source material and are mainly concerned with hitting key demographics and maximizing marketing opportunities.
If given free rein, those studio sharks can do immense violence to the letter and the spirit of anything they touch. And since people tend to know that, they tend to worry. I’ve gone through that worry more times than I can count, and obviously, the more the “source material” means to a reader, the worse their anxiety will be. Back in the late ‘90s, for instance, I learned that ITV Meridian in the UK was going to produce a series adapting the great Horatio Hornblower novels by CS Forester. I’d loved the 1951 John Huston movie, but I’d never heard of Ioan Gruffudd, the star of this upcoming adaptation, and he seemed dismayingly young and pretty.
And I needn’t have worried: he was fantastic as Hornblower, and the whole series was every bit as fantastic. Gruffudd managed the nearly-impossible feat of conveying both the sterling, near-inhuman heroism Forester made Hornblower’s foremost characteristic and the more self-aware emotional interior life that modern audiences expect (Gregory Peck, needless to say, likewise managed this feat back in 1951). My anxiety about the series transformed into joy in less than an hour.
But the worry persists! Decades later, for instance, I learned that the Syfy Channel was going to run a series adapting the “Expanse” novels of James Corey. I’d read the first book in the series, 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, a bracingly complicated story of futuristic factional politics and partisan infighting, and it seemed extremely unlikely to me that the same network that gave viewers Sharktopus and Mansquito would do it justice.
And I needn’t have worried: the combination of a canny use of special effects and some solid acting, particularly Shohreh Aghdashloo, lifted the thing far above the muddled mess it might have been. Or rather, to be fair, it preserved the mess that’s so integral to the novels themselves, where no one character ever has anything but a fragmentary idea of what the heck is going on from one scene to the next. And the showrunners likewise preserved the dogged threads of actual idealism that run throughout the books. Again, my anxiety evaporated in only a couple of over-too-soon episodes.
But again, the worry persists! It was fanned to life again for me just recently by the announcement that Mark Greaney’s “Gray Man” series of novels is going to be adapted into a new movie on Netflix, set to star Ryan Gosling as the titular character, with the vague hope that he might be convinced to reprise the role in a couple of follow-up movies. The movie is to be made by the Russo Brothers’ company of AGBO, and every bit of advance word suggests that the production has been kept relatively shark-free.
Probably there’s nothing to worry about in this case either, in other words, and yet, the worry persists! I’m a huge fan of the “Gray Man” series, the action and sharp dialogue of it, and as I’ve thought about a coming filmed adaptation, I’ve been wondering why exactly that worry persists. After all, as many times as some “intellectual property” has been poorly served in a screen adaptation, there have been at least as many times when that didn’t happen, when the very enthusiasm that caused somebody to push for a particular book then manages to find its way to the screen. Thinking about this upcoming “Gray Man” movie, I wondered why I still worried.
A big part of the explanation, of course, is how intensely personal reading is for die-hard readers. But I wonder if a part of it isn’t also a kind of proprietary feeling. We become invested in the flights of fancy we love; we feel protective of them. And more: we become preachers of their virtues – and so we’re prone to worry when some rival preacher sets up shop at the local movie theater or on the nearest streaming service. We don’t want those rival preachers turning people away from the wonder we ourselves experienced.
That doesn’t lessen the strangeness of the reaction, of course! After all, a hundred tone-deaf or overdone or just plain bad film adaptations of the “Gray Man” stories wouldn’t put the smallest dent in the enjoyment of the books themselves. I’ll still recommend them far and wide, even if Ryan Gosling drops the ball.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.