Will Hammond is commissioning editor at Viking Books, and edited Rhidian Brook's emotional wartime thriller The Aftermath, out today. He assisted Brook during the process of turning his original film script and 60-page treatment into a novel; now, the journey is set to come full circle with the news that The Aftermath is to be adapted into a film. Here he argues why the story of The Aftermath is one that needed to be told as a novel, and examines why film-makers consistently look to the publishing industry for inspiration.
One way to measure a novel’s success is to ask whether they’ve made a film of it yet. The Third Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Graduate: dozens of screen classics began life as Penguin Classics. A film adaptation is a sign that a book has made its mark in the culture. And in some exceptional cases, such as Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath, a film is already in the works, despite the fact that we are only publishing it today. Is this a sign that The Aftermath has some classic quality to it? What is this love affair between films and books?
When these film adaptations hit the screen, the publisher will usually see a handy boost for their author’s book. Hence Penguin’s tie-in editions of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Watch out next for the tie-in edition of The Great Gatsby alongside Baz Luhrman’s remake. For some reason, the experience of watching a film inspires people to seek out the novel on which it was based. If they’ve enjoyed the experience in one form, the other form presents an opportunity to enjoy it all over again in a different way. The book leads to a film, which in turn leads back to the book.
No wonder, then, that book editors are continually scouring for news of forthcoming film adaptations in the hope of acquiring rights in novels that have films in the works. One particularly canny colleague of mine at Viking acquired the UK publishing rights in two books that last year became the films Argo and Lincoln. If push comes to shove, a publisher might even commission a novelisation of a film, which results in good books such as John Briley’s Cry Freedom on the one hand, and far more dubious creations on the other.
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to understand why book publishers greet news of film adaptations with relish. Happy the publisher of Life of Pi when that chicken came home to roost. Indeed, it’s now almost expected that a big book launch comes with a film-style trailer, and some of these, such as John le Carré’s this week, have such high production values that you might be forgiven for mistaking them for actual film trailers. Online, meanwhile, publishers need ways to communicate their verbal or written content visually: hence the remarkable rise of Cognitive Media, famed for their RSA animates.
But what’s interesting is that just as often, it’s the film industry who look to the book industry to take the lead, and not the other way round. Film scouts are continually asking book editors what’s hot so they can pick up the film rights in a book in advance of its publication. What is it that draws the film industry time and again to books -- even those that seem to defy adaptation, such as Cloud Atlas? What is it that draws film-goers, who know how the story pans out, back to the original prose?
An extraordinary novel that Penguin is publishing this week illustrates the situation perfectly. The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook is set in British-occupied Hamburg in 1946, a city utterly razed by the Allies’ ferocious bombing campaign of Operation Gomorrah. It tells the story of Colonel Lewis Morgan, whose job it is to rebuild the devastated city, and it begins with an extraordinary choice.
At its opening, Lewis is awaiting the arrival from England of his grieving wife and only remaining son. Like all British officers of the time, a large house has been requisitioned for him and his family to live in. But rather than turf out its owners, a German widower and his teenage daughter, forcing them into billets, he decides, in a spirit of reconciliation, that the house is big enough for both families. He decides that they will live together – with the enemy.
It’s a brilliant premise, spring-loaded with tension, and the story that unfolds from it is intensely involving. It was on this premise that Viking – and eighteen other publishers around the world – entered into highly competitive auctions to acquire the rights to Rhidian Brook’s novel. For at that point, Rhidian Brook had written only its first 60 pages.
But he had also written a film script, based on the same premise, which had been commissioned by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and was in development with BBC Films, with the backing of one of the major global film distributors. It goes without saying that, at this point, there was no guarantee that the film would ever be made. But once a deal for the novel was in place, it would take exceptional circumstances to prevent the book from being published. The possibility of the film no doubt played a part in publishers’ interest in the novel, but no publisher would acquire a book purely on the basis that a film of it might be in the works. It was the brilliant premise, conveyed in 60 brilliant pages of prose, that had everyone convinced – not the script.
Having begun his writing career as a novelist, Rhidian Brook had long wanted to write the story of The Aftermath as a novel. But having turned his attention to screenwriting over the last ten years, it was as a film script that the opportunity finally presented itself. In the event, Rhidian Brook’s agent convinced him to put the script to one side after a first draft, and to tell the story in the form in which he had first conceived it – to write those fateful 60 pages. So was this a case of a publisher acquiring rights in the book of a film? Or was it actually a case of a film producer taking an option on a novel in progress? Which came first, the book or the film?
The answer is neither. What came first was that extraordinary choice: a choice that Rhidian Brook’s own grandfather made as a British army officer when he was himself based in Hamburg after the war, when he decided that his family would share their home with a German family. It was a choice that had lodged itself in Rhidian Brook’s mind many years ago as the beginning of a story that had to be told.
As Chuck Palahniuk points out in his essay ‘The Guts Effect’, prose has a power all of its own, as he found when reading his short story ‘Guts’, which had the alarming effect of inducing vomiting and fainting in some of his listeners. When reading (or hearing) prose, the action takes place in our heads – not on a screen in front of us. It’s an invasion of our minds. When reading of Colonel Morgan’s choice in prose, we feel that we are making it ourselves.
Publishers are no doubt attracted, for quite straightforward commercial reasons, to books that are made into films. But as with all readers, perhaps what attracts film-makers to books is the experience of inhabiting a character’s mind entirely – the experience, in fact, of experience itself.