From Book to Screen

Harry, relaxing with a book

Bestselling author Harry Bingham talks

I first encountered Harry in my capacity as editor of hagsharlotsheroines. We reviewed a couple of his (fine) books. Recently, we reconnected when he and author Claire King led a debate about the activities of Brit Writers. Today, Harry talks books and TV/ film deals. Many thanks for sharing your story, Harry.

I’ve been writing now for more than a decade: six novels, four works of non-fiction, more of both on the way. I’ve only twice in the past got close to any kind of film or TV deal. Once, I met a production company who wanted to pitch one of my non-fiction books as a documentary idea to Channel 4. The production company told me at the time that they got 1 in 20 of those ideas taken up and I was one of the 19.

There was another occasion when a production company wanted to buy the feature rights to my second novel. That novel, interestingly, was the worst I’ve ever written, although also the most compact and the most contemporary. And from a screenwriting point of view, the novel offered a couple of strong lead characters, a manageable budget, and a very topical, marketable concept. The novel’s actual quality wasn’t seen as particularly material, and nor should it have been. However, although the people behind the production company had strong track records, and although they made a written offer for the rights ($10,000 upfront, a further $90,000 on the first day of principal shooting), the deal simply disappeared for no known reason. My film agent was furious but also said that these things are commonplace. In the books world, an oral offer of publication is completely reliable. In the world of film, you actually need to have cashed the cheque before you can rely on anything. (Other film agents have said the same thing to me too.)

But forward to the present. My most recent novel is a crime novel that is being published in the UK, the US, and across Europe. It is genre crime, but with a twist: the detective is a very, very unusual woman and the strongest character I’ve ever created. Given that the various TV networks need a continual supply of same-but-different crime dramas, the book virtually begged to be marketed to TV.

My literary agent handles books only, as does his agency, AM Heath. But they work hand in hand with a well-known film-only agency, so I was in the happy position of having a film agent already on my side. She read the book, liked it, and thought it was saleable. So she sent it out to a number of production companies, both large and small.

We ended up with a number of expressions of interest and two firm offers. One of those two was from a major production company, associated  with a major TV network. You’d think that that offer would unquestionably be the superior one, only not. The production company works semi-independently from its parent network, so it is in effect having to pitch its product to all the networks out there, just as any regular indie producer has to do.

And the indie producer was just excellent. They ‘got’ the book. Got why the character was special. Wanted to preserve that specialness. I think they may yet take the risk of making a programme that alienates two-thirds of its potential audience in order to create something that’s adored by the remaining third. We’ll see. All that lies a long way in the future.

They are in the process of acquiring an option which will run for eighteen months. Their first job will be to pitch the idea to the networks. That means BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky. It also, increasingly, means finding an overseas partner too. Then a script needs to be written. I’ll be able to offer feedback on that script, but won’t be given the chance to write it. (Nor should I be, given that I have no experience in screenwriting.) With a script in hand, expressions of interest from the networks need to be fashioned into proper commissions. Actors and directors need to be located. And so on.

It’s often thought that film and TV money is huge and life-transforming. Not so. I’ll get a few grand upfront for the option deal, and of course my film agent will get her much-deserved cut. Thereafter, if the TV series goes ahead and if my Fiona Griffiths goes on to become as well-known on the small screen as Inspector Morse and the rest – well, there’ll be plenty of money, but the kind of dosh that would put me on a par with a moderately prosperous accountant, not the sort of money that will put me into the hot tubs and giant cigar bracket.

Then finally, comes the whole issue of creative control. I’ve left all financial issues in the contract to my film agent and am mostly being led her by on the creative stuff too. On the other hand, there are real creative concerns in play here. I need to establish my novels as the ‘core’ Fiona Griffiths, in the same way as Stieg Larsson’s books command the subsequent films. But my books haven’t yet been published and have no mass audience. The scale of audience that TV can bring is likely to dwarf book sales. And any successful screenwriting does, of course, need to depart from the underlying text, make its own creative moves.

So how are these things to be balanced? There’s an industry-standard clause which forbids the screenwriter to kill or maim any returning character who is not killed or maimed in the books. But that still leaves huge areas wide open. So, for example, Fiona Griffiths has a romantic interest, whom the novels portray as a decent, blokey sort of chap. A screenwriter would be allowed, in theory, to turn this character into a cross-dresser, or a stutterer, or be frightened of open spaces. Those things would unquestionably challenge the creative thrust of the books, yet can’t reasonably be prohibited by contract, because screenwriting does need creative freedom.

One answer is trust. Do I trust my production company? Yes, I do. I believe in their vision. But they’re only one part of the whole jigsaw. Maybe a big German buyer will send feedback on a draft script which pushes the whole project in some strangely unexpected direction. Or a UK network may want some very populist, safe show. These things may happen and I can’t prevent them.

I would, I have to say, one day like to take a good screenwriting course (maybe one of our own!) and start to learn the intricacies of that game. At least if I came to be in charge of the script some day, I’d have some slightly greater measure of control. But that probably won’t happen. Tom Clancy once commented that selling a novel to Hollywood was like selling a daughter into prostitution. Well, I know what he means. If you sell the rights, you sell ‘em. You have to recognise that they belong to someone else and that that someone else may do something unexpected with them. But that’s life. Me, I’m just happy to have got this far.

About the author

Harry Bingham is an author of fiction and non-fiction, including his forthcoming crime novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD. His editorial consultancy, The Writers’ Workshop, offers a variety of help for those wanting to write for the screen, including screenwriting courses, script feedback and help with film agents.



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