How Hard Is It to Make a Movie?

For the folks who have been wondering where the movie adaptation of Old Man’s War is, this Los Angeles Times story on the trials and tribulations of getting the book Meg (about a really big shark) to the screen should give some perspective on the matter. Bear in mind that the studios involved spent millions acquiring rights to this particular book, so they were motivated to get a return on their investment. They still couldn’t manage to get the thing going, and now it’s 12 years later.

Lesson: the natural state of any movie project is “development hell.” And none of my books has even managed to reach “development hell,” drat the luck. So, yeah. If you’re hoping to see John Perry on the screen, you’ll be waiting a while longer, I expect. The good news is: there’s the book to keep you company until then.

33 Comments on “How Hard Is It to Make a Movie?”

  1. spacejock – Simon Haynes is the author of four Hal Spacejock novels, a number of articles on writing and publishing, and several short stories, one of which collected an Aurealis Award in 2001. He divides his time between writing fiction and computer software, with the occasional round of golf thrown in for a laugh. Born in the UK and raised in the south of Spain, Simon emigrated to Australia with his family in 1983. He's a founding member of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and lives in Perth with his wife and two children.
    Simon Haynes

    More to the point, “How Hard Is It to Make a GOOD Movie from a book?” .. and the answer, judging by past results, is that it’s damn near impossible.

    Anyway, if you thought the publishing industry moved at a snail’s pace, the movie industry takes that same snail, encases it in carbonite and then straps on a few thousand pounds of baggage.

  2. Getting started isn’t the only snag. I’ve worked on five movies that shut down before they started filming and one movie that shut down on day one of shooting. I worked 20 weeks on a movie once and then the director was fired and the movie shelved. There’s another movie I worked on a few years ago that was completed and still will never see the light of day.

  3. Just out of curiosity, does the transition from book to TV movie/mini-series pretty much work the same way, or is this just the way the theater movie studios work? I know HBO is supposedly doing something with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and ABC is putting together Goodkind’s Sword of Truth for a regular series (which, after reading the basic plot synopsis online somewhere, I twitched a little). Granted, these are both fantasy examples, but there seems to be plenty of quality books that could make awesome transitions into TV movies or mini-series, OMW being one of them.

  4. Look how long it’s been since Ender’s Game was published. (20 years?) And Card is still trying to get the movie made.

    On the other hand, trash like Saw 4 can zip through in months.

    I for one would rather never see Old Man’s War on the screen than see a Tom Cruise vehicle by that name.

  5. Jason Mayo:

    Producers generally buy movie and television rights as a package and then make decisions from there as to which is the best medium for the project.

  6. JJS@4: Ender’s Game is a special case — OSC insists on control over everything having to do with the story, which makes it a lot harder to get things moving. That’s a rarity in filming, where the standard agreement is “Thanks for the rights, we might invite you to watch the filming, but please, don’t talk to anybody.” The fact that Card could get that kind of agreement in the first place is pretty amazing.

    Note also that a 2-hour movie typically has a 120-page shooting script, with big spacing. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds since the shooting script is only the dialogue and major scene indications like “INTERIOR: SPACE BAR” — the nice descriptive stuff doesn’t have to get in there. That’s the #1 reason why movies from books suck — too much has to be cut out. Miniseries are nice, but just don’t bring in the bucks that a theatrical release and subsequent DVD does (sales of season DVDs are changing that, but slowly).

    Example: The best movies from Stephen King’s stories are from less-than novel length: Stand By Me (from The Body), and (Rita Hayworth and the) Shawshank Redemption. “Brokeback Mountain” is another case of a short story adapted to a full-length movie.

    Of course there are exceptions to the short story rule: PK Dick’s short stories have been trampled into very different, often awful stories (yes I love Bladerunner, but it’s got almost nothing to do with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”). “Johnny Mnemonic” sucked wet farts out of dead pigeons.

    A full-length novel can be adapted well: “The Silence of the Lambs” for instance, and “The Princess Bride”. But it takes a lot of skill to cut down to the essence of the story without losing the point.

  7. …and before somebody jumps on my previous post, I know “Johnny Mnemonic” isn’t by Dick, it’s Gibson — I needed a conjuctive clause in there somewhere.

  8. To top it off, ‘Meg’ is kinda stupid – basic plot: “it’s like Jaws, but a much bigger shark”; it was one of those books where I was irked at myself for wasting my time reading it. I have to imagine that making a good movie out of a good book (say, OMW) is even harder.

  9. rishathra – I'm in my late 40s, reside in Queens, NY, and root for both NY baseball teams (yes, that's possible!). I do presentation graphics for a living, have two kids and one SO, and am owned by several cats. If it has strings and no hammers or keys I'll play it (no guarantees on quality). And I filk. Now let's talk.
    Bruce Adelsohn

    It’s not surprising that it’s hard to get movies made. They’re expensive (even before Hollywood accountants arrange for them to net as little as possible, for tax and points reasons) and large.

    Another example: I am given to understand that Stranger in a Strange Land has had its movie rights continuously held pretty much since publication, over 45 years ago. It’s written very visually, with scenes just begging to be filmed — and yet, not on the big screen yet. (Then again, given Hollywood’s track record of mangling RAH’s work, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all.) (I also note that it not being filmed yet has lent itself to the casting game, where I and friends discuss whom we’d use in it, for thirty years now. Which is my personal record, now that LotR has been done.) (Final parenthetical comment: if I’m wrong, and it’s been done, or its rights not held, sure, tell me. I can take it :-)

  10. I read an interview with John Varley once who swore he would NEVER make another movie after they made a movie out of his book Millennium. Something to the effect of to much movie studio politics and when all is said and done you have ZERO input in how your movie will turn out.

  11. The Princess Bride had the singular advantage of both the novel and the screenplay being written by somebody who was already an experienced novelist and an experienced screenwriter. William Goldman was already a pro at both media, and so presumably knew how to do his own translation.

  12. I read Meg, and still bitterly resent the period of my life I wasted on skimming it. Spoiler: the hero crashes a minisub into the giant shark’s mouth and right into its stomach, climbs out of sub into stomachand saws his way to freedom with a fossil Megalodon tooth, killing bad shark.

  13. Screw the movie, I want a damned video game made out of it! (Although I bet you’d probably prefer the royalties from a movie. Still, we’re talking about MY desires here…)

  14. To echo the Tom Cruise as John Perry comment, wouldn’t it be horrible to see “Old Man’s War: a film by Uwe Boll?”

    Sort of like how Katie Holmes’ parents must have felt at her wedding to Tom Cruise, to bring it all full circle.

  15. I suspect the best an author can hope for is to sell the screen rights, have the thing rot in development hell for years until the rights lapse, and do it over. I’ve heard a number of authors have made significant money on movie rights without anything ever seeing film.

  16. If I remember correctly, movie rights start at around $5000 to take the work out of circulation and the real bucks don’t kick in until something is actually produced. That $5000 would buy something like 2-5 years, so it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but not something you’re going to retire on.

    (BTW, I’m not talking about blockbuster books/authors here, so please don’t start throwing JK Rowling numbers at me.)

  17. I read the book, it’s probably best that the movie never be made. I really could use that afternoon wasted on the book back now.

    Another good read is Terry Rossio’s essay on trying to bring “The Puppet Masters” to the big screen.

  18. OMW would first need to be turned into a video game before Uwe would consider directing it. The man has his standards, after all.

  19. I’ve idly wondered how much would have to be cut out of OMW to bring it to film. Hopefully not too much, but one never knows. Just as long as it’s not Uwe Boll behind the scenes.

  20. During a recent producer dance (i.e., one interested in the book) I was asked if I had any particular requests, and I said that I would make it a contractual condition that neither Paul WS Anderson nor Uwe Boll were to be allowed anywhere near the film. The deal didn’t happen, but not, I suspect, for those reasons.

  21. Scalzi, so you’re saying the rights are not currently sold to OMW? Hmmm, sounds like its time for the scifi book fan community to step up and out fanfilm that “Fanboys” guy. Now to find the 90 million I need under my couch cushions….

  22. And on another note, MEG as a book isn’t that bad – there are two (soon to be three) sequels and they all read quickly and entertain. Sure, they don’t compare to Cussler and King (or even James Rollins and Matthew Perry for that matter) but they pass the time on a plane or beach admirably well.

  23. >>bensdad

    I would like to know more…

    And actually PV would do a better job than Ooovuh. Of course it would be a shot for shot remake of starship troopers because the last thing Hollywood understands is subtlety but oh well.

  24. paranoyd – I am a father, an aspiring writer, and avid gamer. I am also into horror and scifi. I'm currently the Adventure league Local Coordinator for my area, and I'm really into the new FFG Star Wars RPG system. And I love a good curry.
    Corby Kennard

    I think one of the things that audiences forget is that books and film are two different media, and scenes that work very well in novels, that ratchet up tension and poke the reader in the eye with a metaphorical sharp stick just don’t have the same ring of truth on a screen.

    Lord of the Rings is a perfect example. While Tom Bombadil may be very important to the concept of what the ring represents, he is just not very film-worthy. Imagine, if you will, a dark forest, dirty hobbits, undead wights, creepy trees, and one tree absorbing said hobbits as they are lulled to sleep. Now imagine a loud, yellow rain-coated, blue galoshed, Big Lebowski-type leaping through the rainy gloom and telling a tree to give the hobbits back, dude.

    While one can make the concept work in a book, to some success, making that work on film … not possible.

    So basically, making the film from a book involves much more than just taking the story and shooting it. The writer has to find a way of presenting the ideas of the novel in the film format, which usually results in many changes.

    One author, whom I cannot remember nor can I find this quote, was asked why he let Hollywood butcher his novels. He responded that his novels were over there on the shelf and they were just fine. I rarely feel that Hollywood has “ruined” a book. Sometimes I feel they misinterpreted it, and other times I just feel the film is or is not bad, regardless of source material.

  25. >>Nate

    You’re right, by worse I meant less faithful to the spirit of the originating work, not less watchable and enjoyable as a movie. I watch Starship Troopers again when I want a piece of visual candy and just shut my mind off to its rape and pillage of RAH’s work. Heck, I even own ST2 – Hero of the Federation on DVD (and wish that they would have made more) – but Uwe Boll and likeminded dreck will never have any space on my shelf (book or movie).

  26. There are several books I would like to see made into movies. I would not, however, want them in the hands of Hollywood.

    If I had ungodly amounts of money (yes, this is not going to happen, so my dream can be as big as I’d like), I would hire Joss Whedon to look at the first book on my list and tell me who to get to direct it.* (Bellwether, by Connie Willis— short novel, no special effects except for getting sheep to do what you want them to do.) When that project was completed to my satisfaction, we could move on to more ambitious projects.

    I would not consign that book to Hollywood. An indie studio working out of Toronto, maybe. Or Europe. But not SoCal, because they’d do it wrong.

    *If he said, “Me,” I’d say, “Awesome.” But I don’t know if that’s his speed.

  27. I seem to remember that Richard (K) Morgan was able to give up his day job after Joel Silver optioned Altered Carbon. The rumoured figure was $1,000,000. The IMDB page for Altered Carbon is enigmatically blank at the moment.

    Of course, Morgan has probably sold all his rights to everything ever and his firstborn into the bargain to get that deal.

  28. Agent to the Stars could be a brilliant movie. It has the distinct benefit as compared to Old Man’s War of needing a ton less special effects. Plus it just is amazingly funny.

    I read it and it almost seemed like a screenplay for a movie…. perhaps because it was about movies and movie stars?

    John have you sold the movie rights to this? Has anyone ever inquired about them? This to me could be a really good 1:45-2:00 comedy. The Premise is awesome… it could have parts taken out to a degree and maintain it’s story…. with the added visuals of a movie.

    Old Man’s War is an epic story. It would have to be a big-time production to really have the right effect.

    I’d love any of your stories to become movies because I think they would translate really well to the big screen.

  29. I haven’t sold the movie right to any of the books yet. I get offers, but so far none of them have been right.

  30. I haven’t read OMW yet (it’s on my list), but I just finished The Android’s Dream.

    The discussion above re: OMW being in development hell and OSC’s Ender’s Game leads me to the question of ‘Wouldn’t it be better to wave a good script in front of the good folks at Pixar or a similar animation company, who know a good story when they see one?’ Cheers –

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