Hollywood Killed the Literary Star

Dreaming big is a disease among writers, and I’m afraid it’s contagious. I would say that almost every writer who has sat down and put chisel to stone, ink to papyrus, pencil to paper, or fingers to keyboard has—at some point—had dreams of wealth, fame, and Oprah dancing in their heads. Oh sure, when friends and family put the spotlight on our ambitions of being published we say something deflective like, “it’s all about artistic integrity” or “I’m not trying to kick Harry Potter’s wand waiving butt in sales.” In reality, many of us would be so jazzed to have someone in our neighborhood read an article we’d written for the annual Boy Scout newsletter that we’d immediately start planning a tour and signings in our minds. If our writing income bought our next latte we’d start surfing the web looking for that perfect summer home in the Hamptons or Tuscany.


Jo Rowling likes foie gras you say? Perhaps I’ll just have to purchase my own obese goose farm when my article “10 Ways to Help the Elderly in Your Community” gets picked up by the New Yorker, Forbes, and Maxim magazines. We’ll have liver fat morning, noon, and night!

For authors in the modern industry, to attain such notoriety almost always means some form of crossover success on the silver screen. If your book or characters are going to truly become household names, an industry unto themselves if you will, then a deal with Hollywood (i.e. the devil) will surely have to be made. If you’re going to enter the authorly stratosphere, you’re going to have to get by the tuxedo wearing movie guy at the gate who’s smoking a cigar made of hundred-dollar bills and waiving a contract in your face.

This ‘partnership’ doesn’t always turn out badly for the author or the work. The movie industry is full of folks just like us who are inspired by the things they read and see, and aim to lovingly recreate them using the puzzle pieces of their own imagination. There have been many Hollywood adaptations of fiction that have matched or exceeded the glory of their paper-bound muse. I would argue that the movies Stand by Me, The Green Mile, and Shawshank Redemption all stand toe-to-toe with the stories Mr. King originally dreamed up. Unfortunately, for every one of those gems you’ll find fifteen made-for-TV monstrosities that would send Cujo back under the porch with his tail between his legs. Alas, for every Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone there is a Golden Compass, and for every Lord of the Rings there is a Scarlet Letter. Oh Demi Moore, if only we could see in you what Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher see in you …

That brings me to my latest escapade. When I learned that the Percy Jackson & the Olympians book The Lightening Thief was coming to the big screen I let out a school girlish giggle that any TwiHard would be jealous of. A book I loved getting the blockbuster treatment, what could go wrong? As I nestled into my over-priced seat I found my author’s mind starting to wonder, “How cool would it be to sit down in a theater to watch a movie based on something you wrote?” To have someone interpret your words into a spectacle of sight and sound that would be seen by millions seemed like it would be such an overwhelming honor!

Then I watched the movie.

It wasn’t horrible. There were cool special effects, some of the actors did a very good job of bringing the characters to life, and I laughed at a couple of the jokes. In the end, however, it just didn’t live up to the story I’d read. They’d gotten the tone all wrong (there is no overt sexuality in the books, of which there is plenty in the movies), changed major plot points, and really didn’t convey the depth of the story at all.

You see, being an aspiring YA author, I love these books. They’re a great example of the kinds of stories I hope to write: action packed, fun-loving, and thoughtful reads with characters even the Wicked Witch of the West would cheer for. Plus, adults love them, too. I first took notice of the series last year when I kept seeing the middle school students that I work with toting around beaten up paperback copies. As I do with every book that I see them reading, I said, “Is that a good book?” To which they replied, “I guess,” which is eighth grade-ese for, “If I’m taking precious time away from video games, iThings, and texting to read it, it’s awesome.” Long story short I picked up the books, burned through them, and then proceeded to force every human I came into contact with to read them also. They’re that good.

Rick Riordan (author of said books AND fellow San Antonian – RICK, HAVE YOUR PEOPLE CALL MY PEOPLE, WE’LL DO LUNCH AND I’LL BRING THE SANGRIA!) is a master story teller when it comes to pacing and creating reachable characters. Percy is the flawed hero every author wishes they came up with. To top it all off, Mr. Riordan expertly blends Greek mythology into a modern context in such a way that you forget all about mythology being that hated semester of high school that you had right before you started Shakespeare. By the gods, it’s now cool to speak Greek!

In the end, I left the theater that day with a completely different thought than the one I’d entered with: How disappointed was the author watching this? It has to be incredibly difficult to see your idea, your baby, be taken and pulled in a direction that doesn’t seem to fit with the original vision. I realize that is the tradeoff authors make when releasing the movie rights for their stories (once you sign it away, it’s gone), but I can’t imagine Mr. Riordan was 100% pleased with the translation. I suppose I’d just be thrilled to have my story get the Hollywood treatment (many are optioned, few are made), but it’s the first time I really considered the compromise authors face.

12 comments:

  1. E.J., I saw the previews for this movie -- looked cool -- then I read the reviews. Nuts! Another movie not to see. The books, on the other hand, are going to have to go onto my "ToRead" list. Fortunately I was planning to stop at the library tonight -- pray that they're in ...

    As to the author thing, I'd be absolutely thrilled to have a book of mine optioned, let alone make it as far as a movie.. even though I know I'd be frustrated if it didn't live up to my expectations.

    Peggy
    http://www.margaretfieland/com/

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  2. I can't recommend the books enough, Peggy. I'd say rent the movie, and you don't need to worry about the movie spoiling the books, because they really changed a bunch of the main plot.

    Also, you should check out Riordan's website. He's got some very helpful info for aspiring authors tucked away on the site.

    Thanks for the comment!

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  3. My son loves this book and he just found out his school library purchased the whole series!

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  4. Good for his school! They should be a must for every library.

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  5. Hey, EJ! Love your blog. You have an intriguing and humorous point of view.
    I took my 5 year old son to see Percy Jackson (because he was too freaked out by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.) We exchanged our Wonderland tickets and saw Percy Jackson. I've never read the books, but I got a good feel for the story and really liked it. There are so many great books out there (that I'll never have time to read) and even tho the movies rarely do the books justice, they offer a nice peek into which stories I may want to make a point to devour in book form. It's always a treat to enjoy a movie, then explore the story even more later in a book.
    BTW when I write, I always imagine my story as a film. :)

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  6. PK,

    I think people who hadn't read the books would come away thinking that the movie was fun, and probably check out the books (which is the best marketing you could hope of for as an author, I'd imagine).

    Glad you two enjoyed it! I saw Alice, too, and I think he'd get a kick out of it (although he's right; Depp is WAY creepy). I def. try to write like I'm watching a movie, and I think that can be an important view for YA/middle grade material. We have to keep their attention, after all.

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  7. I totally feel you on this post. I watched Eragon before I read it, and it totally turned me off of the series. Then when I came to Japan, I found it in my house. And I loved it!

    Movies so often misrepresent the books.

    But I don't blame the moviemakers. The media are different: some things that work in books don't work in movies, and movies can't contain half the volume of a book.

    So, it's with mixed feelings that I say: I can't wait for the day I'm approached for my rights!

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  8. great post, e.j. i agree with all the points you made about PJ the movie vs. the books. i am a HUGE fan of the books, and as soon as i finished the first one i watched the movie. (no joke, like, right away, lol.) and i was left wondering, what did they do this movie?
    as an author id be thrilled my book (MY BOOK!) was being made into a movie, but id hate to see it getting butchered. ah, well. not everyone's as lucky as J.K.

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  9. i meant, what did they do this movie*
    i should really consider editing comments before posting them...

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