And on this week's Entertainment Weekly cover, readers get a choice of a cover featuring the clothed Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence or a very naked, mostly faceless woman rubbing her shoulder blade (or shaving her armpit) with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey.
The continued media saturation around 50 Shades, especially as it's cast alongside the Hunger Games movie, got me thinking about book-to-movie deals, and how some of them, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Hunger Games for example, became hugely successful film franchises. I started wondering if there's a formula, or a storm of specific elements that coalesce into film success. There are a lot of similarities between these books and their film successes.
First, all of these books have a sizeable readership. With Lord of the Rings, there was a huge readership of several very different groups of people, and a set of books that have been available since 1954 — plenty of time for plenty of people to have read them, especially as the books have been honored several times as being among the best of the century.
The first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, and the final book released in 2007 to an audience of adults and children who had grown up with the characters over the 10 year span. Twilight and The Hunger Games, published in 2005 and 2008 respectively, also amassed large and vocal fan bases with the first books in each series. The Twilight audiences grew as the next three Twilight series books released in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, was released in 2009, and the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, was released in 2010.
Though over a much shorter period of time, 50 Shades of Grey follows a similar release pattern. It was first published as Twilight fanfiction titled “Master of the Universe”, and 50 Shades of Grey appeared in its current form in June 2011, with 50 Shades Darker appearing in September 2011 and 50 Shades Freed arriving in January 2012.
I'd argue that the first major element to book-to-film success is that blend of growing an audience through timed releases. There has to be some time for the audience to grow, for word of mouth to spread, and, with series books such as these, for momentum to build as each new book appears on the market. Plus, there's timing meant in part to tantalize: Twilight and the Hunger Games books were released one per year, and I well remember folks itching to read the next one, and feeling the misery that they had to wait so long. The release of Twilight's and the Hunger Games' final books were events for fans of those series. With 50 Shades, that growing audience online was satisfied within three month increments, and, as we've seen, the media saturation has increased the audience for the book – but what more is there to say? The shorter release schedule makes me wonder if the audience growth for 50 Shades was stunted by the quick release, and the shorter build time, and now, there's nothing but the possibility of a film to look forward to.
So in these examples, the fanbase of each novel (or series) increased to the point that there were recognizable and somewhat quantifiable audiences for each one. The books were/are bestsellers, and reached a sort of saturation point, where more people had heard of them than not. This alleged quote from a review in the Sunday Times of Tolkein's books the year they were published made me smile: “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.” I know that feeling – and I felt similarly with Twilight, the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games and, to a lesser extent, 50 Shades of Grey.
Thus we have Books With a Big Fanbase, step one in my theory. The books have to be successful and popular, with time to grow an audience, especially if the books are part of a series.
Step two: actually making the film. Because reading is inherently a mentally creative exercise, the movie has to, in some way, top what each of our imaginations create as we read the text. The film should be, in some manner, exceptional eye candy. It has to be visually captivating and, as much as possible, as powerful a story told visually as it was in text.
I've called the Twilight film series “tree porn” – it's a truly beautiful setting for a film. You can mute the film and look at the trees and have a fine time, even when Edward sparkles. I'm not admitting that I've done this, but it's possible. The Hunger Games, while being graphic and at times heartbreaking, as I've been told be those who have seen it, is also visually appealing. The stills from the forest, and of characters like Effie and others from the Capitol, are color saturated and very curious. The Harry Potter movies also caputred the ethereal and menacing magic of Hogwarts, and each movie has moments of visual fascination. The power of the Potter film franchise continues: props, costumes and items from the filming still attract attention. And few movies qualify as eye candy as much as Lord of the Rings did for me. It's stunning, from the scenery to the effects to the elves.
So the movie has to not suck as a visual enticement, and as a narrative that follows the plot of the source material. Fans of a book who go to a movie based on that book most likely expect the story to be close to the original. I admit, I honestly thought the movies based on the Meyer series were going to stink, simply because I couldn't figure out how the first person narration would translate to film. The story still wasn't my taste, but I admit I was wrong about the movie version: it's drenched in beautiful lighting (and tree porn) and it's close to the original material. Harry Potter stayed close enough to the source material that the movie for one book was broken into two parts of about two hours each – as was the last of the Twilight movies. Hunger Games is also close to the original text – though the director did, I believe, drop and merge some characters.
It also helps to have some WTF? fan responses during filming. This cover for Twilight on EW did not help – was Edward ill? why is his hair orange? – and I recall there was some negative response to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss initially. That's natural, I think, given that the books had already active and eager readers behind them before production began, unlike other book-to-movie films where the success of the movie far exceeded the popularity of the book upon which it was based – Forrest Gump, for example. The readers who are invested in the book and in the story are built-in critics of the movie versions.
Controversy about the filming of something that is so loved by so many helps keep the film in progress in the consciousness of the targeted audience. I think that may be why Robert Pattinson's hair was powdered until it was orange: just to stir up some pre-film drama.
So the fanbase has to be met with a film that's filled with visuals that are as good, if not better, than what might have been in the imaginations of the readers, and that stays loyal to the source material as much as possible. In short, in a few key ways, it has to not totally suck.
Then comes media saturation when the film is released. That's an important step, I think, especially because the media exposure feeds the (one hopes) already-curious audience, who in turn create more media exposure by talking about it. The Harry Potter movie releases were timed for huge exposure as movie events, and I saw advertisements for them on television, in trains and on buses, and in just about every magazine I picked up. And I don't have the faintest idea how much the saturation I saw with Twilight and the Hunger Games movie coast in total. I do know that the Hunger Games was Everywhere. I joked at one point that the movie was more pervasive than Adele and likely to come in my house and steal my beer if I wasn't careful. And I remember during the release of the first Twilight movie, there were spoken ads on every radio station in New York, from the top 40 station to the light and easy listening station. The Lite-FM DJ ads were the most awkward, too. You know how the DJs on lite-FM stations are often really earnest and jocular in a false and sometimes irritating way? Imagine that guy talking about Bella and Edward in the same tone of voice you'd hear used to describe Autoland's sale on used Hondas. It was baffling and weird, but it was everywhere.
There were subway ads for Twilight everywhere, too – I remember thinking that Kirsten Stewart's face had been altered to look very, very young in the ads, and wondering why Edward's eyes weren't straight.
With media saturation, and the accompanying expense, the other two factors still have to be present. Media exposure alone won't help if there isn't an audience to market to, and a film that is rumored to be horrible or very far away from the source material won't appeal to that audience. The Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games films had to represent a story that many, many people already loved deeply. The films had to be visually appealing in stills and clips, so that, even without the already-built audience and the stealing-your-beer promotional effort, the opportunity to see it is alluring.
So how does this translate to 50 Shades? I honestly don't know, and think that Universal and Focus Features have taken a really big risk. There's a fair amount of disadvantage at the 50 Shades movie's prospects, for example, when compared to its source material, Twilight. Twilight focuses on teen(ish) vampires and a high school girl in the Pacific northwest. There's otherworldly elements, plus tree porn, to film. 50 Shades focuses on a secretive, wealthy CEO and an in-over-her-head-at-times college student, and their conflict, instead of sparkly vampirism, is largely centered on sex.
That makes me question what the film rating will be, based on whether it stays as true to the source material as the audience might wish. Twilight and Hunger Games were rated PG-13, which makes sense since they were both based on YA novels, (though some are questioning the Hunger Games' rating based on the violence in the film). 50 Shades is not a YA novel, and I don't think there's a chance of getting a PG-13 rating if the content stays loyal to the books. 50 Shades as a trilogy already has a strong fan base, and has a wealth of media exposure already – and surely those factors influenced the amount paid for film rights. Whether the movie delivers the visual allure necessary to draw that audience remains to be seen – as does the ability of the promotion to reach the level of saturation and popularity as the other examples I discussed.
Delivering the visual allure and staying loyal to the source material will present the biggest challenges to the success of a film based on these books. I think the challenge will be enticing that audience to re-experience the story in a new medium, because it's one thing to read a sexually-explicit story, and another matter to go to a theatre with other people in the room to watch it. 50 Shades has a good number of explicit sexual depictions in it: how can a film stay loyal to the explicitness while not landing itself an NC-17 rating? Moreover, most of the press coverage has been tied to the ever-delightful term “Mommy porn.” That might have helped the book gain attention, but would it help the film version? I suspect not.
ETA: E! Online's Ted Casablanca also wrote about the question of film rating earlier this week, wondering similarly if the film could stay true to the book without landing an NC-17.
Further, as Jim L. wrote in an email exchange with me earlier this week, “how would a mainstream movie handle [the presence of] kink? For the most part, movies tend to treat the kinky as either comical (the film of Exit to Eden, Eating Raoul) or menacing (plenty of villains, 9 1/2 Weeks), with romantic of positive examples being few and far between (the great flick Secretary being a rare example).” Setting aside the portrayal of BDSM in 50 Shades for a moment, Jim poses a salient question. If the film depicts the kink in the book accurately, the movie may end up nowhere near an R rating, unless it somehow becomes a comedy.
I think the successful formula for making a successful movie from a much-loved and popular book includes these specific parts: a present and interested, active and reachable fanbase, a film that adheres to the source material as much as possible while also presenting something visually unique and interesting, and a media campaign that reaches and builds upon that existing fanbase. Whether 50 Shades can achieve film success remains to be seen, but I am not optimistic about its future success as a movie because I am having trouble envisioning a film that would stay close to the material while offering something visually unique. It has a fanbase and media exposure seems a given – but the film itself I'm not confident about at all. But perhaps, like with Twilight, I'll be surprised.
What about you? Do you think this book would translate well to film? What other book-to-movie projects do you think could have been done better, and why? What do you think makes a hugely successful book-to-movie?