For a lot of writers, it’s a dream to sell a book. Then, if you can sell a book, maybe you get a series going. And from there, if you’re lucky, a movie (or, lately, tv shows ala True Blood or Game of Thrones). But sometimes things don’t go as well, or as smoothly, as you’d hope.
In the last few years, at least two book series that are regularly on the New York Times (and other) Bestsellers’ List got made into movies. While the books have a lot of fans and faithful followers, there’s an order of magnitude difference between a successful book and a successful movie. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher both jumped to the silver screen, and both did poorly as movies. I’m a fan of both series, and movies in general, so I got to thinking about why that might be.
Disclaimer time: I am not a movie expert, although I’m a big fan of them. Nor am I (yet) a best- selling author. But I have a lot of experience in some areas, one of which is examining movie adaptations of already extant work. I’m a devoted comic book geek, in addition to being a writer, and comic book movies have been coming out more and more often in the last decade or so. I believe there are some strong parallels between comics and novels being turned into movies.
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is, arguably, the world’s worst bounty hunter. She’s a clutz with a heart of gold. She lives a life that’s part farce, part screwball comedy, and part action flick. Her cars tend to blow up. A lot. She has a crazy grandmother, withdrawn father, and long-suffering mother. Basically, although the word has been taken to mean something negative over time, Plum’s life is zany. And I think that’s both what endears her to readers and what was lacking from the movie.
One For The Money was the movie version of the first book in the series. It starred Katherine Heigl as Plum, and Jason O’Mara as Joe Morelli, who has been both an antagonist and a love interest for Stephanie. The story went from sort of zany action to a kind of romantic comedy. It wasn’t a horrible change, but it drifted pretty far from what the books are like. It ended up making something like half what it was budgeted for, losing about twenty million dollars. It got a 2% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s painful.
The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is one of the ones I consider to be a modern version of a knight errant (but that’s another article). When a lifelong Army man gets cashiered out as part of the “peace dividend,” he decides to see what life is like without having to answer to someone all the time. Reacher begins hitchhiking around the country, having adventures, fighting evil men. Reacher was a Military Police office, making him skilled at both investigating and fighting. After all, as he explains many times, his job is to handle people that are trained how to kill. Reacher also has another edge, he’s huge. Something like 6’6 and near 300 pounds of muscle, Reacher puts that mass to good use when he fights. He wanders with the clothes on his back, an ATM card, and a toothbrush. That’s it. When his clothes get dirty, he buys new ones and throws the old ones away. It’s a great action series of novels.
The movie was based on the novel “One Shot,” oddly the ninth book in the series. A strange place to start. The movie was budgeted at $60 million, and made $80. It didn’t lose money, but for an action movie starring Tom Cruise? That’s really not good. It got a 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is higher than I’d have thought. So, where did this go wrong?
Well, I gave a big hint above. Look at the description of Reacher, then look at who I said starred in it. Tom Cruise gave a decent performance, but he’s nothing at all like Reacher physically. Sometimes, that can just be nitpicking, but Reacher’s size is such a major part of the character. Cruise is a lot smaller than Reacher. Reacher’s philosophy behind his wandering ways is also absent from the movie.
Another interesting trait with Reacher is what his Army life has both prepared him for and left him lacking in. Reacher can drive, barely. He usually had a driver as he rose in rank, or rode Army transports. Because this is a modern action flick, they have to have car chases, and that’s just not something Reacher can pull off.
Amazingly, despite a not great performance at the box office, there’s apparently going to be a sequel. And, again, I can’t figure out how they chose what it was going to be. In 2016, Tom Cruise is supposedly returning as Jack Reacher in Never Go Back. The first movie was based on the ninth book, and this one is the eighteenth. Maybe the movie producers count in base nine?
There’s a big difference between a hit book and a hit movie. Sadly (in my opinion), a lot more people go to the movies than read. So, while both series I mentioned above are still best sellers well into the double digits, that doesn’t generate a massive audience in the theater. Add in that both movies drifted a good bit from the books themselves, potentially alienating the book fans, and you’re not looking at a recipe for success.
I personally am a fan of both book series, and I enjoyed both movies. But I understand why they didn’t become major hits. The characters aren’t hugely known outside the readers. Jack Reacher did better than Stephanie Plum, but realistically, Cruise is a bigger star than Hiegl.
I hope both authors made some good money from optioning their books. I’d like to see the series explored more, but One For The Money’s performance makes that one a bit unlikely. It’s something for writers to remember, though. Not every adaptation goes as well as True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse, or Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire.