Should Authors Have More Say in Adaptations?

Should authors have more say when their novels are adapted to TV or film?

Short answer: Absolutely. But the long answer is a lot more complicated.

For one, authors write novels for a reason. That’s how they like to express themselves. TV and movie writing is a completely different ballgame. When I studied screenwriting in college, for instance, I had never felt so lost in my life. That being said, I don’t think authors should be entirely removed from their work when it is adapted just because it’s a different art form. In fact, I think it benefits everyone to work together. (I also understand that TV/Film rights have a lot to do with the author’s literary agency and how they negotiated a deal.) After acknowledging that, though, I want to talk about why I wish authors had more say so in the end.

Do you watch Shadowhunters on FreeForm? No. Don’t worry. I’ll write this article around it, but I think it’s a great, modern example of how adaptations can go wrong, even in a damaging way, so it might be easier to understand if you do watch the show or read the books or check out the article I discuss below.

Recently, Cassandra Clare did an interview about the adaption of her popular YA series, The Mortal Instruments, both with the flop-film in 2013 and the current TV series, Shadowhunters. I highly recommend you read this (and share it): Cassandra Clare Shares the Troubles and Triumphs of Seeing the Shadowhunters World Onscreen

Listen, I’m a HUGE Cassandra Clare fan. I’m also a pretty open-minded fan. In fact, I rarely complain about adaptations, because that’s what they are—adaptations—and I even enjoyed the movie. (No, seriously, I own it and watch it all the time.) I was also a fan of the show…until recently.

Returning to the interview (which again, please read), I was appalled by some of the changes and ideas strewn throughout the show.

It grosses me out that FreeForm’s original goal was to take away Alec and Magnus’s relationship, because they are gay, while adding unnecessary violence against the female characters “to attract a male audience.”

Um…excuse me?

I mean, seriously? Does that not gross you out? That entire concept?


Spoilers ahead for books and show. If you want to skip, look for next bolded line.

I was always bothered by Alec’s fiancée Lydia in Season 1, but I can also admit that I didn’t notice the difference in violence against the female cast until last week’s episode. Between Lydia’s attack, Izzy’s attack, Clary being “stabbed” in a dream sequence, and Jocelyn’s death that never happened in the books, I found myself highly uncomfortable and trying to figure out why. Then I read Cassandra Clare’s interview, and it all made sense. I am all for adaptations, but last week’s episode was wrong, whether or not Jocelyn comes back to life in tonight’s episode.
 (Which, I think, she most likely will.)

End of spoilers.

The new team claims to have a different stance than the previous producers, but last week showed much of the same problematic instances, including unnecessarily violence against the female cast and keeping a gay couple apart because “no audience wants to see that” (insert middle finger here). I also did not find it a coincidence that they only sent Clare the first three episodes of Season 2 for her approval and then this fourth one followed the original, damaging aspects. Granted, will I watch it tonight? Probably. I want to see if they’ll change their ways before I judge too harshly. But that doesn’t change my opinion about last week’s episode or what we learned through Clare’s interview—an interview, I will add, that was very brave. Authors aren’t normally so open and honest about this topic. Mainly because there is a conflict of interest, but also because we expect authors to simply be grateful that their work is being adapted at all. A sentiment I disagree with.

I am so glad Cassandra Clare fought to change some of the script, because the changes didn’t just misrepresent the story; the changes misrepresented the work (and the author) entirely.

If an adaptation is homophobic, racist, sexist, or otherwise damaging, shouldn’t an author be able to step in and stop it?

Again, I’m ALL for adaptations. I’m not saying that an author should have the final say over every little thing, or even over major aspects of book-to-movie life. But I do believe in creating better, positive pieces of art. And if a director told me they were going to start abusing females and tearing LGBTQIA characters apart because “men like that”, I’d hope that the world would back me up in stopping such an atrocity.

What do you think? Should authors have more say-so in adaptations? If so, what should they have control over and when? Where is the line? And should they draw a new one?



25 thoughts on “Should Authors Have More Say in Adaptations?

  1. The second I read your title I automatically thought, “Yes. Because Shadowhunters.”

    I’m not even a fan of the books and I think they deserved WAY better adaptations then they got. And I think both the movie and the dumpster fire of a TV show are perfect examples of why authors not only should be, by NEED to be more involved.

    An author obviously knew what they were doing to create an audience big enough to make an adaptation in the first place. They’ve been listening to fans for years about what they’ve liked about the books. That feedback is way more important than what a network “thinks boys like.” Especially if it’s something as gross and degrating as violence towards female characters (seriously, WHAT?! If a real boy came up to you and said that, would you seriously be okay with that? I digress).

    If studios want good adaptations, they need to tap into what that author did right in the first place. If they want to do that, I think they need to invole the author, at least in the big picture stuff.

    1. YES. YES. And YES. Thank you for reading and adding to the conversation. 😀 I definitely think adaptations are fun and exciting, but I wish that they tried to stick with the original concept and audience. And that whole “boys like female violence” aspect absolutely disgusted me. I could not BELIEVE that.

  2. Yes, I absolutely think that authors should have more control over adaptations of their work. But it’s not that simple. As you said, books are a very different medium so there must be some changes. Some producers might be afraid that if they let the author to have a say, they’ll nitpick about absolutely everything. Some producers might not even be fans of the original work! They like what they see in sales figures and think they can top that by mixing their own ideas with the author’s. By, let’s say, changing the target audience.
    Then there’s the “Hollywood problem” which to me means streamlining the plot so it works for just about everyone. No straight romance in the original work? We’ll add it. The plot is heading to a sad ending? No worries, we’ll flip it around! So, even if fans love the book, it might not be enough to convince the producers that it’ll attract enough people to cover their costs.
    But where to draw a line? I’ve never even been near an adaptation contract so I don’t know how they work, but I think it’s hard for many authors to change it much. You either take the deal (which states you’ll stay in the background) or you hope someone else will come along. Authors could push for a clause stating they must approve major changes but then it’s a question of what’s major. In this case the show is clearly homophobic but the producers seem to think they’re changing something that could be damaging to the show.
    Then again… Even if you have an approval clause, is it going to make working with people like this any easier?
    Maybe the solution is for the author to have a long talk with the producers and where they want to take the show before signing. Might not always work, might sometimes scare the contract away, but it might just mark the difference between a good adaptation (say, Game of Thrones) or a bad one.

  3. Its a difficult argument isn’t it? Because the mediums are so different the point of view is bound to change. I think that the author should speak up if the story falls off track, but at the same time the new input should be allowed to breathe. Whatever happens you’ll need a good mediator at hand lol!

    1. Absolutely difficult! And I know I’m very much talking as if we live in la la land, because contracts bring a whole new aspect of this conversation. But it is starting to seem like they give a little too much power to the adapter. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      1. No problem, this is definitely a conversation that could go on, and on. Because- and I don’t want to sound ponsy [Corny for my American friends lol]- but artistry sees no boundaries so where do you draw the line?

  4. Wow. Didn’t see that kind of example coming. Authors really should be included in the adaptation progress and I mean for all scripts instead of whatever this trick seems to have been. The world is in their head, so they can help make the changes fit into the world that fans are expecting. You also have the creator there to defend these changes instead of shrugging helplessly. ‘Shadowhunters’ seems like it’s become a bad adaptation like the second Percy Jackson movie or ‘The Hobbit’ stuff. I’m guessing this all comes down to contract negotiation. Betting some companies see the basic concept surrounded by dollar signs and then figure they can add the usual TV/movie fare to draw in the right audiences. Why do so many people forget that there’s an established fan-base that aren’t normally receptive to big changes?

    I’m still lost on the ‘beat female characters to draw in male audience’. How does that logic work? I can understand adding more violence in general for the male audience, but not the female specific thing.

    1. RIGHT?! I thought their “method” and how they “explained” it was deplorable. And it does make you wonder why they want to change audiences so badly. Do they think readers don’t watch TV? I can admit I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I ALWAYS make exceptions for shows/movies based off my favorite books, and I’m more than likely going to tell everyone and my neighbor to watch it, too. (If I like it, that is.) But maybe they know readers will show up anyway, so they try to get a new, different audience? I don’t know. I found this example very strange – and I hope it isn’t a sign that it’s about to get worse than it’s already been for the past couple of years. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      1. My two best guesses are that they think the readers will accept anything or hate everything. So they go ahead without them in mind. Did they do these changes from the start or after season one?

      2. They had them from the start. The topics above were technically discussing last season, too. (The whole writing crew/film crew basically got fired.) Then the new crew promised to lean away from those hateful ideas for Season 2, except they only sent her episode 1-3…and Episode 4 was a disaster. (Hence the interview release.) So tonight is Episode 5. I will watch, just to make sure, but if they continue with the hateful ideas that Season 1 had and the last episode showed, then I’m calling it quits.

  5. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great post from Shannon A. Thompson on the topic of book adaptation that resonates with me after having seen the latest Jack Reacher movie starring Tom Cruise. For anyone who has read Lee Child’s books, Reacher is 6’5″ and very muscular, more like The Rock than Tom Cruise. Anyway, enjoy this post.

  6. Never read the books, seen the movie or TV show, but absolutely agree that adaptations should be a collaborative effort, far more than it is now. And, seriously – the reasoning for the changes? What men are they talking to? I don’t know what’s more disgusting, that they said it or the fact that there is evidently signs in viewing habits that would make them think this was the right way to go…

    1. Agreed! Could not BELIEVE they said that and think that way. It’s absolutely awful. Hopefully, they will start working with authors more so this doesn’t happen again.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  7. I 100% agree with you, Shannon. I know that there are a slew of Hollywood and T.V. adaptations of wonderful works that really did NO justice to the source material (I’m looking at you, The Golden Compass!) Not to mention that the anti-Gay and pro-sexist agenda that is STILL plaguing our entertainment industry are two things that we as writers must continue to actively speak out against.

    One positive example of a wonderful book-to-film adaptation: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s the best movie adaptation I’ve ever seen, and that’s because Mr. Chbosky was fortunate enough (and worked hard enough) to earn the director’s chair for his own work. He translated his vision very seamlessly to the big screen and imbued it with just as much emotion and nostalgia as he did on the page. I would love to learn more about how he accomplished that, so that other authors can learn from him and do the same with their own works!

  8. The ideal circumstance for an adaption would have to be an amalgamation of both the author and a talented screen writer. The problem would be the difficult of finding a good fit. Had it been me, and if homophobia, racism, or bigotry become a factor i would have wanted the screen writers sued for defamation and any contract terminated. Hell, can I sue them for crimes against humanity while I am at it?
    In cases where issues like violence and discrimination are a part of the narrative then the presence of such things need to be addressed intelligently in the narrative as well. When they simply throw it in there it only causes harm. Incredibly daft move on then screen writers part. It seeing examples like that one that make us feel a need to maintain control over our intellectual property. But, and this is a very annoying but, I and many others lack the skills a screen writer ought to have. The only solution I can think of would be turning down any offer that doesn’t come from someone we know to have the talent we demand. In the meantime, carefully worded contracts and author veto seem like necessary evils.

  9. Reading this reminded me of Stephen King’s lawsuit when “The Lawnmower Man” was made. He fought (and won) to have his name removed from the film title because it bore little resemblance to the book.

    Yes, most adaptations benefit when it is a partnership between film makers and authors (Like Water for Chocolate, Joy Luck Club, Raisin in the Sun, to name a few).

    Sad to hear a network thinks ‘violence against women to gain male viewers’ is necessary, let alone altering a couple’s existence.

    Thanks for sharing this Shannon!

  10. Okay, I wasn’t going to comment and then you said:

    “It grosses me out that FreeForm’s original goal was to take away Alec and Magnus’s relationship, because they are gay, while adding unnecessary violence against the female characters “to attract a male audience.””

    And now I sort of have to rant because that is absolutely disgusting. To think that we are in 2017 and TV people think there has to be violence against women to attract male audience? And if this is a thing, then I am utterly disgusted with the business. There are so many things wrong with the world in general, and not mention the new US president, that shouldn’t Hollywood be promoting healthier images of gender equality, LGBT rights, and race relations? I may not have loved the TMI series and I haven’t watched the series yet, but I did think Cassandra Clare did a good job of portraying these social issues. It’s a shame that these things aren’t being portrayed in the TV series.

    *End of mini rant*

  11. For me, I guess, it comes down to the contract the author signs. If she wants to have veto-power on a production, she needs to get that in the contract. If she can’t get it in the contract, then she shouldn’t sign that contract. Even if it is there, she needs to fiercely defend her rights under the contract or it won’t be much help to her.

    Harsh as that sounds, Hollywood is notorious for fine turns of phrase and clever bookkeeping tricks to cheat people out of their due, whether that means a cut of the profits or script control.

  12. HOLY COW!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There is enough material in this post and the comments for all of us to gather around a big table, drink sixteen-upteen pots of coffee and salon for days! Yes, I turned salon into a verb.

    I think it boils down to clout and how much the writer has.

    If a production company bought the rights to one of my works and changed it into something that went against my core personal values, then I would holler at the top of my lungs. We all know that as writers, our characters speak to us. So if we wrote a gay couple, there is a reason for that, and no way would I let a TV show change that. Let alone going against something that turns my stomach, mainly violence against women. As a victim of violence myself, I can’t see anyone reasoning that to gain viewers.

    And when did TV become so fractured we need to play to a niche audience?

    And to be clear, I have never read the books or watched the TV shows mentioned. Just putting my two cents in.

  13. Yes! Of course they must have a say! Not everyone reads the source material first and those viewers will assume that YOU, the author wrote it like that. If they didn’t like what they saw they’re never going to buy the book (or, indeed, anything else you write).

    Conversely, if they DID like the bad adaptation they might just buy the book and then be disappointed. Tough! No refunds!

    In the late 1960s I got heartily sick of friends who had been to see “2001 A Space Odyssey” telling me that they didn’t understand the movie’s ending!

    “Read the book!” was my response because I did that first and it was all perfectly clear to me!

    I hope to have this problem myself one day – thank you for bringing it to my attention in advance.

  14. In a perfect world an author would have more of a say in adaptions of their work on screen, but I think once you hand over your rights, it’s not up to the writer any longer as the TV show or movie isn’t the author’s . If a producer or someone wants the author to be involved, great, but isn’t a guarantee.
    I remember Anne Rice being less than impressed with the Queen of the Damned Movie and I think the author of Forrest Gump didn’t like the film version of his book.
    Even if an adaptation lets readers or the author herself down, at least the novel will always be there to enjoy.
    And I too love The Mortal Instruments film and watch it again and again. The books are one of my favourite series also. I watched the first season of Shadowhunters and thought it was a particularly poor interpretation of Cassandra Clare’s novels. But I saw the most recent episode and the writers of the TV show, I think, anyway did a good job with Alec’s and Magnus’s relationship and tackling the subject of sex and Alec’s virginity.

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