A number of years ago, Linwood Barclay attended the annual ThrillerFest for authors and fans in New York, where he found himself with a gang of other writers talking about Breaking Bad, Broadchurch and other crime dramas. After a while, it dawned on Barclay that they weren’t talking about the books they were reading, as they normally would, but were gabbing about this or that television series instead.
“Some of the best TV that has ever been made is being made now,” Barclay told The Globe and Mail this week. “And not only is it good, it’s being delivered in a way that you can consume a novel. You can binge. You can go to the next chapter.”
The medium is the message, and the message being delivered to television producers these days is that authors want in on the medium. And not only do they want their work picked up for television, they want to be deeply involved in those adaptations. Generations of novelists have been frustrated upon seeing their books interpreted onscreen. Now, in increasing numbers, the authors are instructing their agents to option their intellectual property with them attached as screenwriters as a condition of sale.
“Authors are excited by the process of transplanting their work to the small screen,” says Chris Bell, vice-president for scripted development at Toronto-based Entertainment One (eOne). “It allows them to think in a bigger way about what could exist as a single novel could live in the television world season after season.”
The slate of scripted projects currently being developed in Canada by eOne bears out the trend of increased involvement by originating authors. For I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, based on Jen Agg’s swaggering restaurant memoir of the same name, Agg is a creative consultant on the series and is expected to be a strong presence in the production.
For the creation of Find You in the Dark, an adaptation of Nathan Ripley’s creepy debut thriller, Ripley is working hand-in-hand with veteran showrunner Patrick Tarr (Cardinal, Saving Hope).
And for the television version of his Promise Falls trilogy, Barclay is penning the pilot and collaborating with Lynn Coady, who’s on board as a consultant. Coady is a celebrated novelist with TV know-how, having worked on Sensitive Skin, Mary Kills People, The Disappearance and Orphan Black.
Of course, the most notable conversions of books to small-screen situations of late have to do with Margaret Atwood; the everywhere author’s Alias Grace was turned into a 2017 CBC miniseries by Sarah Polley and her dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale is a Hulu-network hit that has won eight Emmy awards while single-handedly creating a bonnet boom not seen since the little-housing glory days of Melissa Gilbert.
Atwood’s involvement with the television version of Alias Grace and the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale involved onscreen cameo roles. For Alias Grace she was “Disapproving Woman,” a scowler who sat in a pew and delivered a line she improvised: “It’s disgraceful. Disgraceful!”
Well, there’s your meddlesome novelist, ad-libbing on-set like a scatting, be-bopping jazz singer. Is that a problem with authors, contributing unsolicited script add-ons here and shaking their heads (disapprovingly) at creative choices there?
“They’ve got to be flexible,” says showrunner Tarr. “They know what they’re getting into, and they know every step involved in the production of a television show takes it away from the source material. But they know their worlds better than anybody, and they’re a great asset to have on board.”
One of the reasons novelists are taking to television with more enthusiasm than they might with a one-off feature film is that with a big-screen movie their works are likely to be cut up in the screenwriting process. With a television series, however, they’re able to add new content as the series moves past the original novel’s narrative. Atwood, for example, was more involved in the current second season of The Handmaid’s Tale than she was with the first.
Barclay has previous experience working on onscreen adaptations of his property. He wrote the script for Never Saw it Coming, a feature-film version of his 2013 suspense-thriller currently on the festival circuit. A six-episode French version of his 2011 novel The Accident is set to premiere on French television later this month.
A self-confessed television addict as a teenager in the 1960s, Barclay relishes the opportunity to help get his books on the small screen today.
“I think a lot of writers might be horrified with the idea that what they wrote might be changed, but I’ve always pictured my books playing out on a screen somewhere,” he says. “For me, chapter breaks have always been commercial breaks.”
As for authors treating their novels as precious, Barclay doesn’t buy it. “Your obligation is not to be 100-per-cent faithful to the book, it’s to make the best show or movie that you can,” he says. “Sometimes that means making some changes. And I can live with that.”