When Celeste Ng learned her novel Small fires everywhere would be adapted as a limited series for Hulu, she made the decision to let go. Instead of clinging to the story that lived in the pages she had written, she recognized that translating the novel for television would require her to trust others.
“It felt really important to me that people who knew what they were doing were allowed to do it and that the project had enough space to become its own thing,” she says.
Ng, 39, alongside three other authors of limited series novels — Sally Rooney, 29 (normal people); Guillaume Landay, 56 years old (Defend Jacob); and Wally Lamb, 69 (I know it’s true) — spoke with THR about how choosing not to worry and relinquish control allowed their stories to thrive as limited series.
“I wanted the filmmakers to feel free to create, to use these characters, and to expand the story that I created into something new and different that leverages the strengths of the film to tell the story of ‘a way that I drew on the strengths of literature,’ Landay says. “I never felt protective or threatened…by the adaptation at all.”
This was the case for all four writers, whose main concerns were making sure the show’s creators had everything they needed to invent their own versions of their stories rather than line-by-line replicas of the books. Most of the novels could have been adapted into something much shorter than a several-hour limited series. Depending on the length of each episode and the number of episodes, these limited series range from six to 10 hours, which is much longer than a two-hour film adaptation.
In the case of Defend Jacob, which is based on author Landay’s understanding of the country’s complex legal system and the culture of suburban Massachusetts, this meant long conversations about how the events depicted in the novel could be realistically developed.
“Contrary to [adapting into a] film, which consists of cutting the material to adapt it to the time constraints of the film, [we were] expand what was in the book to fill eight hours of screen time,” says Landay. “Brand [Bomback, the show’s writer] and I would talk about issues and creative decisions along the way. Mark is a wonderful writer, sensitive and very experienced in his craft, [but] he had never been to Boston and had no experience of criminal law or local culture. So, there were things that we had to talk about.
The Lamb Juggernaut I know it’s true received the limited series treatment as its length made it difficult to condense into a movie. Twentieth Century Fox originally purchased the rights after the book’s publication in 1998. But as the studio struggled to adapt the 900-page novel into a two-hour film without losing integral parts of the narrative, the project remained in limbo of development for over a year. decade.
In 2014, Lamb bought the rights to the novel, and when HBO and Mark Ruffalo came knocking, the author knew the story needed to be told in a longer format. “Mark and I brainstormed together,” Lamb says. “He agreed that it would work better as a series, so that’s how we came into the set.”
Lamb is no stranger to the art of screenwriting. It’s a skill he admires after trying to adapt his first novel, She got undone, which is why he willingly gave the responsibility to writer-director Derek Cianfrance.
“I tend to crush,” Lamb says. “[Screenwriting] is a good discipline for me to learn, as it would teach me to be more concise, but it’s not something I think I’d be very good at.
Rooney, on the other hand, kept normal people fairly short, choosing to skip most of the fluff and jump at pivotal moments between its main characters, Marianne and Connell. The result is a novel that reads episodically, making a limited series the perfect format to bring its story to life.
“The book often jumps ahead a few months or even a few weeks because I wanted to skip parts of the narrative and go straight to the turns,” Rooney explains. “So because the book was constructed that way, it’s hard to confine it to a movie without using episodic moments in the lives of these characters. It seemed like the most natural way to preserve the time division in the book was through television episodes. It felt like a much more natural form of storytelling.
Cinema is a far cry from the solitary act of writing a novel, where all decisions are at the discretion of the author.
“You have to trust that the actors, the director, and everyone involved will help build that image,” Rooney says.
Each novelist had a different level of involvement in the adaptation of their book. Neither Ng nor Landay adapted their work, but provided feedback when the scripts were in development. “I was like a tuning fork for them,” Ng says. “They had an idea of what they wanted, and then they checked in with me to see if their idea hit the right notes.”
Lamb, on the other hand, chose not to read any scripts for the HBO series. “I said, ‘I don’t want you to feel like you have to have to make this an exact replica of my book, because I know books and movie scripts are apples and oranges. “”, he recalls.
The stories changed a lot during their journey to become limited series, as the writers added elements in order to fill several hours of screen time and tried to exteriorize the characters’ inner monologues. Instead of worrying, novelists say they’ve chosen to recognize that changes — sometimes drastic — are sometimes needed to make their stories appealing to the screen.
“It’s not only [taking] the novel and [putting] on the screen. It’s like speaking in another language. There must be changes,” Ng says. “I tend to be a very interior writer. I have a lot of characters who stop and remember things or realize things quietly, and you can’t do that on screen. You have to dramatize everything through action.
It helps, of course, to have high caliber talent supporting the project. Lamb recalls his agent sending Ruffalo his book on a whim and receiving a glowing response from the actor.
“I can’t tell you how much I love this book. It’s so deeply moving and so personal to me in some ways,” reads Ruffalo’s letter to Lamb’s agent. these people. I grew up with them. … Please let Mr. Lamb know that I do my best and I already know I want to do it. It means so much to me that someone with his talent would think of me The time has come for this to happen.
After nearly two decades of hearing people tell Lamb his book deserved a film adaptation, Ruffalo’s words have struck a new chord.
“You can always tell when someone is bullshitting you if they use the word ‘passionate,'” Lamb says. “They say, ‘We’re passionate about doing this.’ Mark was the only one who didn’t use the word ‘passionate’, but he seemed to be.
The same has been true for all the novelists, who have had the chance to entrust their works to producers like Reese Witherspoon, co-star in Small fires everywhere, or directors like Lenny Abrahamson, who directed half of normal people. Knowing the projects were in good hands made the process exciting for novelists rather than nerve-wracking.
“[They] often invited me when filming scenes straight from the book, so I could hear the actors deliver the words I had written,” says Landay, whose Defend Jacob has been adapted for Apple TV+ and stars Chris Evans. “It’s a surreal experience. It’s so weird to sit on set and see people working on this story that you just created from scratch.
And when they finally got a chance to watch the shows, the novelists knew they had made the right decision in delivering their stories. In fact, stepping back from the limitations of the book not only allowed the authors to be more open-minded about the adaptation process, but it also gave them the opportunity to see their own stories through a new lens – the way readers saw them.
“I sometimes forget that this [series] is based on [my book]Ng says. “When we were looking at the screens, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen next!’ and he looked at me like, ‘You know what’s going to happen. This is your story.'”
This story first appeared in a standalone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here to subscribe.