SALT LAKE CITY — “The Goldfinch” — Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel that won a Pulitzer Prize — still flopped at the box office.
The novel’s film adaptation opened last month to the sixth worst opening weekend on record in movie history. Pulling only $2.6 million in the domestic box office, “The Goldfinch” was also the worst opening of the year for a movie opening in more than 2,500 theaters.
But the film’s source material has remained on the New York Times bestseller list. Published in 2013, the novel sold 1.5 million copies in the first few months after its release and has continued to dominate sales since.
Clearly, readers were drawn to the story. So why didn’t anyone see the movie?
The film’s failure, paired with the novel’s runaway success, might seem like a win for books. But “The Goldfinch” is an outlier. Studies show that across the country, reading is on a decline, and adaptations of novels for both film and TV are rising to take its place.
In 2017, the number of American adults who read for pleasure fell by 30% from 2004, according to a report from the Washington Post. The report found that just 19% of American adults read for pleasure on a given day.
The Post cited a study from the Netherlands, which concluded that “Competition from television turned out to be the most evident cause of the decline in reading.” Americans spend an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes each day watching television. That’s nearly 10 times the amount of average time spent reading.
The rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have accounted for some of the rise in TV viewership, and have also been the forces behind some of the most successful book-to-screen adaptations in recent years. Netflix alone accounted for 10% of all time spent in front of the TV in the United States, CNBC reported in 2018.
With streaming services becoming increasingly competitive, content adapted from existing books has become more popular. Amazon is taking on a new “The Lord of the Rings” adaptation, Netflix is in the works to adapt “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and Hulu is set to release John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” — all in TV series format. Books are appearing on streaming services more and more often, and they’re beginning to resemble each other.
With reading on the decline and streaming services on the rise, does that mean TV series are the new books?
Books and TV: a match made in heaven?
Books adapted to the small screen have seen success, and there’s a reason for that, according to Kyle Bishop, who teaches courses in film and television studies at Southern Utah University.
“TV serials are novels,” Bishop told the Deseret News. “They are episodic. They have chapters. They develop over a period of time.”
Entire chapters can be represented by episodes, while each season is one book in a series. Netflix, for example, completed a three season-run of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” earlier this year. The Netflix series was able to adapt the entire series of books within the three seasons — no small feat, considering there are 13 books and a movie adaptation that failed to take off in 2004.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which ended in May after eight seasons, has seen enormous success. Its controversial finale drew a record-breaking 19 million viewers, and the show won 12 Emmy Awards last month. Other book-to-TV adaptations have also won Emmys, like Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The series has released three seasons that have long since outpaced the source material (much like “Game of Thrones”), and a fourth season has been confirmed.
If TV series are novels, then movies are short stories, according to Bishop. They can be completed within one sitting, usually in two or three hours. For that reason, “a novel never was analogous to a film,” Bishop explained.
TV adaptations, then, may have the advantage over film versions. A TV series allows coverage, Bishop said, and “can break it into more episodes, they can cover more story, they can know more of the characters.”
To Bishop, it seems likely that book-to-TV adaptations will only continue increasing in the near future.
“I think the fans are going to increasingly be unsatisfied with a film adaptation because they know that the alternative is possible — that a much longer, richer, fuller realization of their beloved novel is possible, if certain studios are willing to put in the time and money and effort to make it happen.”
The audience problem
TV adaptations are increasing in step with reading’s decline, and that brings its own set of challenges to adapting novels for the screen.
The most successful adaptations are those that broaden their appeal to large and diverse audiences, like with “Avengers: Endgame.” Yes, the film was based on comic books, but the story was mostly original. As such, fans were less likely critique it for how faithfully it adapted the source material.
“The Goldfinch,” by contrast, seemed to target those who’d already read the book, said Thomas Leitch, who teaches film adaptation studies at the University of Delaware. This approach might have been a mistake. In the case of “The Goldfinch,” myriad factors could have played a part in its box office failure. Some critics have suggested the novel’s length could have played a part: The book is 771 pages, and there just isn’t time within the film’s 2.5 hours to explore all of the book’s twists and turns.
This, of course, is a complaint fans of books-turned-movies have been making for years. Consider the “Harry Potter” films, which faced a number of complaints from irate fans about favorite book moments or even whole characters that didn’t make the cut.
A movie targeting people who have already read and loved the book might not be the best approach, especially since those who loved the book are those most likely to be watching a movie adaptation with “knives out,” Leitch observed. Take Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” book series. Though studios had hoped to branch the beloved children’s books into a “Harry Potter”-style movie franchise, only two films were made. And fans weren’t the only ones disappointed — Riordan himself was vocal in his displeasure with the films.
According to a blog post on Riordan’s website, he told the producers “the script as a whole is terrible” after seeing the script for “The Lightning Thief,” the first of the two “Percy Jackson” films. He claimed the script deviated from the novel “to the point of being almost unrecognizable as the same story. Fans of the books will be angry and disappointed. They will leave the theater in droves and generate horrible word of mouth.”
Riordan wasn’t wrong. By the time the second film, “The Sea of Monsters,” was released, box office numbers weren’t high enough to justify a third film.
These challenges aren’t just limited to movies, though — the same can be said of TV adaptations.
The 2013 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome,” which aired on CBS until getting canceled in 2015, is instructive. Its premiere saw strong ratings, but fans were concerned over changes to the storyline — so concerned that King even wrote a letter addressed to the fans, assuring them he was fully on board with the changes.
But ratings were still low, and CBS chose to cancel the show.
According to Leitch, it takes a certain kind of audience to fully enjoy an adaptation.
“People who enjoy watching or reading or listening to adaptations ... enjoy feeling at once inside the story, at the mercy of the whims of a storyteller who could take the story in an unexpected direction at any time, and outside the story, coolly comparing it to its source as better, worse, or different — or, more precisely, the same but different.”
TV can bring people back to books
It might seem ominous that we’re seeing an increase in screen adaptations at the same time that reading is decreasing. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to see the end of the written word.
Sarah Sinwell, a professor of film at the University of Utah, said she sees the relationship between novels and their TV adaptations as complementary. Sinwell noted that “The Handmaid’s Tale” novel returned to the top of the bestseller lists after the release of the Hulu series in 2017.
After the series’ first trailer was released during the 2017 Super Bowl, the 1985 novel not only leapt to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, but it sold so fast that it temporarily went out of stock, according to a report from HuffPost.
The series “encouraged people to revisit ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Sinwell explained. “Maybe they’ve always wanted to read it but now they are going to, or they’re going to read it again in 2019, even though they read it when it first came out quite a few years ago.”
In 2014, the bestseller lists were dominated by novels that had film versions released that year, including John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
Libraries have benefitted from this trend as well. At the Salt Lake City Public Library, it’s typical for them to purchase extra copies of a book before a film or television release, said Frances Brummett, the library’s circulation manager.
Brummett noted that the library has purchased “quite a few” more copies of George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” and other books in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series. Most recently they’ve noticed an increased demand for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” which was adapted by Netflix and has been renewed for a second season.
But sometimes, even after purchasing extra books, the library isn’t able to keep up with the demand.
“We purchased extra copies of all of the ‘Wrinkle in Time’ series before the film came out,” Brummett said, but there was still a waiting list for the books.
It seems as though books not only draw people to TV, but that for now, TV draws people back to books, too.