From ream to reel: The boom in book to screen adaptations in India

Thanks to OTTs, book-based productions will grow by leaps and bounds, say experts.

MUMBAI: From golden age classics like Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, to the more recent young adult adaptations of the 2010s like The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars, Hollywood has a legacy of churning out book to screen iterations. Fortunes in tinseltown have been built on entertaining the masses with 70mm productions of their favourite tomes, be it children's stories (Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter) or suspense thrillers (The Shining, Gone Girl), historical dramas (Schindler's List, Argo) and romantic fiction (Pride and Prejudice, The Notebook). While there have been constant refrains of "the book is better than the movie" by the public, Hollywood has seldom been inclined to buck the trend of motion picture or TV adaptations of mass-market publications. In fact, the massive success of Game of Thrones, whose original source material is A Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R R Martin, led to a renewed interest and spurt in adapting novels for the small screen (think The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, Big Little Lies et al)

But when it comes to Bollywood, historically there has been a dearth of book to screen adaptations. While they have been around for a long time – Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's novel of the same name – their frequency became too few and far in between to really count. Indian audiences were blessed with the occasional gem like Mira Nair’s The Namesake, but mostly, they're used to sub-par replications of frothy Chetan Bhagat paperbacks.

However, book adaptations in recent years have improved, in both quantity and quality – in fact, we appear to be in the midst of a high-profile book-based production boom. Adapting a hit book isn’t a guarantee of success, but producers, more than ever, are perusing bookshelves for inspiration for the next big show or movie.

So what has changed? When did books become a foundation for popular films and series? And what does it mean for the future of producers, authors and book publishers alike?

If one were to pin-point the resurgence of this trend, it was Sacred Games, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap’s cerebral tour de force adapted from Vikram Chandra’s massive 2006 tome of the same name, which proved to be a game-changer in the Indian OTT space. The dystopian series Leila was also based on the book by Prayaag Akbar; and the cricket drama Selection Day had its roots in the novel by Aravind Adiga. Red Chillies Entertainment’s Bard of Blood was penned by the young Indian author Bilal Siddiqi.

Beyond OTT platforms, other content producers are also looking at books as source material. Endemol Shine India has recently acquired rights to Richa Mukherjee's Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt Ltd, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's unreleased book Lioness: The Last Queen, Salil Desai’s novel The Sane Psychopath along with Damyanti Biswas' crime novel You Beneath Your Skin

Book to Screen adaptation

HarperCollins India rights and backlist manager Arcopol Chaudhuri mentioned that in India, screen adaptations from novels have gathered pace over the past five years thanks to new and emerging broadcasting platforms, primarily driven by OTTs.

Endemol Shine India CEO Abhishek Rege explained that adapting a book comes easy to content producers. “With adaptation, it is like a certain level of the story is already prepared and the other important aspect is popularity. If you have a certain book that is popular, you would want to use it for your story because there is a certain type of fan following which will come to watch it. I think it is something that will be continued as a book right acquisition model. Currently, OTTs need content to fill up their library, and books offer ready material, it kind of cuts short the mainline process. That is why book rights are going to be popular in the coming years.”

Applause Entertainment content head Deepak Segal also highlighted that long-form dramas have opened many opportunities for content creators. The episodic format allows creators to deep dive into the storyline, sketch different and longer character arcs and allows them to innovate with the plot. With the digital boost, it has become one of the important mediums of storytelling as earlier the adaptations were restricted to films. This helps create more opportunities for everyone – creators, talent, platforms etc.

Choosing Stories

For Segal, the story is one of the key deciding factors while choosing a book. Aspects like relevance and connectivity with the audience are thoroughly examined. He said, “With India’s Most Fearless, we knew that this subject is of national importance and we wanted to highlight the storyline in four parallel tracks which the audiences have not seen.”  

Another parameter that Applause Entertainment looks into is the shades of the character, the uniqueness to bring out a progressing reaction in the audiences. Segal further discusses the subject with the creative team, on how to pan it out into eight to ten episodic series, keeping the audiences engaged and entertained with strong storytelling at the core. Then the creative team makes an observation on how the characters will scale and how much potential it offers to build a room for innovation.

To help writers sell their books to filmmakers and content producers, Sidharth Jain has started ‘The Story Ink’, India’s first story company. Jain said, “There are very few players in India who have been pursuing screen adaptations. But what we are doing new is to take the screen adaptation business from mere agenting to curating content strategy. I don’t think of us as an agency as it is more like a platform for writers. While we work on a fee model, we are in the business of turning books into projects.”

Picking Genres

Rege discovered that post Covid2019, audiences want to see happy stories. The studio is currently focusing on creating light-hearted shows. In terms of understanding viewers’ preferences, Rege uses metrics that are released by some agencies as a report for digital media consumption. Apart from this, there are different reports available that talk about genres. He also reaches out to OTT platforms to understand their research and consumer feedback.

By contrast, Segal is looking at all sorts of genres as he wants to reach out to all buckets of audiences. “Today the viewers are open to exploring different genres and as content creators, we want to have diverse offerings. Digital has become a great way to gather insights, understand consumer psychology and their points of view on topics. It gives leverage to mould out setup, characters and storytelling,” he added.

Jain stated that biographies and real stories have been in great demand recently. But a solid thriller, horror or mystery always makes for a good adaptation.

Process of book adaptation

Rege revealed that the team at Endemol Shine directly reaches out to authors and inquire if they are represented by any agents or publishers. Nowadays there are a lot of agents that work on book to series productions, and it is not the publishers who hold the rights. There is a set structure on how books are adapted to screen. Endemol Shine follows rules from global learning and then applies that to the contract. It also keeps the rights of all languages as well. When the story pans out the team decides on what could be made from it, whether it is for film, television, OTT and in what language. Packaging is another critical aspect. Post that, the director for that genre, writer, and then the cast is finalised.  

At The Story Ink, the team has a recommendation-driven approach to pitching. They study the content strategy of the platform, map access to talent and available resources of the producer – and then recommend the right story to them for consideration. Jain added, “We don’t send out lists or catalogues. Our approach is very boutique and curated. I work with authors, publishers, and literary agents. Usually, I find a book that I feel should be adapted and then I reach out to them (the author first and then the publisher). But now, increasingly, authors are reaching out to me on their own.”

Chaudhuri mentioned that the process involves the licensing of audio-visual rights to the producer, for a fee. The publisher or the author can reach out to the producer to pitch a book and solicit interest to license the rights. “Alternatively, producers/filmmakers themselves reach out to the publisher to acquire the rights for books they're interested in adapting for the screen.”

According to Neelakantan, in India, the concept of IPR is still in its infancy. Usually, the writer is paid a lump sum for the book adaption rights. Theoretically, an author can put any conditions, but in practice, once the rights are sold, the author does not have any control over the product, he claimed. “Unlike books, films and television are industries and have their own constraints and demands and has scant space for writer’s ego. Once you sell the rights, it is better to forget having any creative control over it.”

Jain disclosed that writers get somewhere around Rs 15-30 lakh and then the amount is divided between the agency and the writers, and sometimes, the publishing house.

New Found Interest

Is content producers newfound interest in books as source material for films and series because of the success of big-screen adaptations of Chetan Bhagat’s novels? Jain held the view that the real reason is the entry of international streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix. They are seeking better content and that’s putting pressure on the limited talent and story pool that is there in the industry.

On the other hand, Anand Neelakantan, the bestselling author of Asura: Tale of the Vanquished and the Ajaya series, opined that not all books lend themselves for film or TV production. “The screenplay is a concise art, and many stories cannot be told in a short time of two hours. That is why there are so few screen adaptations that have lived up to the standards set by the books. Original series is a better medium to adapt novels, while the film is better served by adapting short stories or novellas. Of course, exceptions are there to this rule,” he shared. Neelakantan has written screenplays for several popular TV series, including Star TV’s Siya Ke Ram, Sony’s Mahabali Hanuman and Colors TV’s Chakravarthi Samrat Ashoka.

According to Neelakantan, creative writing, on the whole, is moving towards the screen these days – be it movies, television or the OTT platforms. “It is the way to go. That does not mean other forms of writing would die out but would become more and more niche. Films did not finish off plays or poetry but superseded most other forms of storytelling in sheer reach and commercial power. Like any other field, those who keep pace with change in society and technology would retain leadership.”

Impact of OTT platforms on writers 

The question arises: are streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+Hotstar and various other platforms changing the way books are being written, especially in India? There is a possibility that more and more writers are writing with a view of making their books accessible across audiences through these multi-media platforms.

Jain pointed out that authors pen stories that inspire them, and OTT platforms rarely, if ever, influence how they write. Good and compelling stories will always work, in any medium. He said, “Thousands of books get published in a year, but a fraction of those will make it to screen. But yes, I believe some writers will make a lot of money because of the emergence of new platforms. Also there is no time for creators to write stories. It is at times difficult to meet the demand. In certain cases where we take on development of the scripts for books to screen adaptation, we always stay focused on what’s the best way for the audiences to enjoy the story – whether they have read the book or not. Organic and honest storytelling, keeping in mind the expectations from the format+medium will always work best.”

Future of book adaptations

From content creators, agencies to authors, everybody’s of the opinion that going forwards, book to screen adaptations are bound to grow by leaps and bounds. With the focus of strong storytelling at its core, this is something that will be explored more and more in the future.

Chaudhuri contended that due to increasing demand, studios will invest more in writers' rooms. Said he: “A few years down the line, the film industry awards and the National Awards will have a category for 'best adapted screenplay', like they always do at the Academy Awards.”

Neelkanth held the view that more books will get adapted as there is a paucity of content in the show industry. He concluded, “Book adaption does not depend on the commercial success of books. If you have a compelling story and you know how to tell it well, it does not matter how many copies the book sold. The film/ TV industry would lap up the books that would yield you a lifetime worth of royalty of a best seller in one go. So, all the writers out there, keep writing.”

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