Bestseller Hollywood, Part One – How Hollywood Cannibalized Hit Fiction

A 1960s novelist lucky enough to hit the bestselling jackpot could generally count upon another financial bounty when Hollywood came calling. Bestsellers came with the double bonus of a ready-made story and a ready-made audience. From the outset the industry had recognised the benefit of making pictures out of properties that had already gained a wide readership, hence the continual adaptation of Shakespeare and Dickens from the silent era onwards.

The combined hardback and paperback sales in the U.S. could amount to a couple of million copies, with double that number or more overseas, and of course some books hit the stratosphere – Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls, for example. Publishers had learned to slap one of two taglines – either “Now a major motion picture” or “Soon to be a major motion picture” – on new paperbacks which appeared to give a book greater status among the reading public while at the same time acting as advance buzz for a movie, paving the way for an onslaught of movie tie-ins.

Alfred Hitchcock became the main selling point for “Marnie” once his name
was attached to the film of the book.

In the 1960s, there were not only many more bookstores than there are now, but paperbacks were also widely available in department stores, newsagents, corner shops and kiosks. In fact, it was estimated there were as many as 125,000 outlets for books. Much as they had done with fan magazines Hollywood latched on to anything that would act as free marketing, book covers in shop windows provided a free promotional boost, in effect the publishers doing the studios’ job for them. As the cost of marketing continued to rise, movies made from bestsellers, with their significant public awareness, were seen as a very effective investment.

For a studio, books were often a cheaper investment than an original screenplays. Although some books were sold for substantial sums a good number were purchased for relatively small fees prior to publication with the author receiving further sums dependent on book sales and/or audience figures – Valley of the Dolls was sold in this fashion much to author Jacqueline Susann’s later chagrin.

From the Annual Top Ten Bestsellers, every year except 1965 the number one bestseller was turned into a movie. About four books a year on average from the top ten were made into pictures. The best year for books into films was 1962 when nearly three-quarters of the books achieving an annual top ten ranking ended up on the big screen. These were Ship of Fools (film released in 1965), Youngblood Hawke (1964), Fail Safe (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), The Prize (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and The Reivers (1969).

Bestsellers clearly created their own momentum and studios snatching up the movie rights tended to strike while the iron was hot, all except one of these 1962 bestsellers being filmed within three years of publication.

Sales of the third best-selling novel of 1961 were boosted the following year by the addition of Gregory Peck’s photo on the front cover. The gap between initial hardover publication, first paperback publication and the movie tie-in edition suited publishers who felt they would get a third bite of the cherry with the movie edition. The movie edition would usually be published several weeks prior to a film’s
release serving as a teaser for the picture.

Six films were adapted in 1965 and five in 1963. Most went into speedy production. Of the 1963 contingent – The Shoes of the Fisherman (released in 1968), The Group (1966), Caravans (1978), The Sand Pebbles (1966) and The Battle of the Villa Florita (1965) – three fell into the three-year bracket while one took five years to hit the screen and Caravans, although taking more than a decade to reach the screen, was actually on MGM’s production list for most of the 1960s.

Half those from the 1965 Top Ten list were as promptly made into pictures – Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Green Berets (1968) and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1966). Taking a slower route were John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War (1970), Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Morris West’s The Ambassador (1984). 

Of course, there was no guarantee that moviegoers would respond to a film of a bestselling book or in the quantities required to turn a profit. Even being the year’s number one bestseller could not shield a property from the vagaries of the movie business. Advise and Consent (filmed in 1962), The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Shoes of the Fisherman – all the top-selling books of their particular year – failed to make much of an impact at the box office. On the other hand, Valley of the Dolls (1968) and Airport (1970) most certainly did.

It is also worth noting that with the sole exception of Cleopatra (1963), none of the number one films at the box during the 1960s was an original screenplay. They all originated in another medium, either publishing or Broadway.

The movie tie-in was a different aspect of the publishing business and will be covered in a future Blog. And so might be novelizations.

Book Into Film – The Venetian Affair

Sometimes I wonder if studio executives ever read a book before they purchase the rights or whether they just rely on the assumption that a bestseller must have a storyline worth adapting for the movies. I always had the impression that in many instances producers were simply buying up what they saw as a ready-made audience, that if a novel sold a few million copies enough of those satisfied readers would turn up to see the adaptation which would more than pay for what the book cost to buy (not counting the automatic marketing bounty that came from bookstore displays). These days we are used to films rigidly following the storylines of bestselling novels, even expanding the movie version into two parts to accommodate it.

But that was far from the case in the 1960s. As shown previously in this Blog, some films – Fathom (1967) a classic example – bore little resemblance to the source material while others such as The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) were more faithful renderings and others (example: The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) built on what the author had originally created. I often wondered at the reaction of a screenwriter handed an adaptation of a bestseller. Is he/she instructed to junk the whole thing and start again, retaining only the title, or asked to see what they can make of it, making other stuff up as they go along?

Sales of Helen MacInnes books increased as the 1960s wore on with The Double Image in 1966 and The Salzburg Connection in 1968 both making the annual Top Ten list, the latter the last of her books to be filmed.

In this case, producer E. Jack Neuman hired himself as the writer so I’m guessing he already knew that, beyond a simplified version of the storyline and some of the characters, he was going to dump virtually every aspect of the Helen MacInnes novel.

There were two explanations for this. The first was Neuman’s record as a creative force and it occurred to me he saw his version of the MacInnes leading man as a potential movie series character. This was his movie screenwriting debut but he had been churning out episodes of television series – including Wagon Train, The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone – for over a decade. More importantly, he was showrunner of three series – two dramas Sam Benedict (1962-1963) and Mr Novak (1963-1965) and a western A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966) which between them clocked up over 100 episodes – so he knew how to keep a good character going.

The second issue was the difficulty in adapting the work of MacInnes. The Scottish writer had been turning out bestselling espionage novels long before Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and John le Carre picked up a pen, but only two had ever been turned into pictures. And the reason was simple. The plots were anything but simple. Not so much twist after twist but complication after complication. The Venetian Affair is dense and in particular, consists, in many scenes, of exposition with characters explaining to other characters what the hell is going on.

In fact, the plot for The Venetian Affair is so obtuse – although strangely enough, quite contemporary – that it would never have worked on film. The C.I.A. are trying to get hold of a fake letter that will implicate the U.S. and Britain in a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle (fake news in today’s parlance). So that was never going to work in a movie. Preventing an assassination, yes, but, of course, what a preposterous idea to think anyone could kill de Gaulle without having a time machine that could flash forward to Day of the Jackal. In any case, the C.I.A. only find out about the letter’s existence because someone picks up the wrong overcoat – so that’s not going to play either.

However, what the book does have is a good title. Venice is an excellent locale for a spy movie. The only problem is only half the novel is set there. The first half takes place in Paris. What else the book has from a screenwriter’s perspective is that the ex-wife, Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), of the central character Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn) is a Communist defector who is considering defecting back and to achieve that requires the presence of her former husband.

So that formed the emotional heart of the film, potential reunion or further betrayal, that Fane is just going to dupe him a second time. And that’s about as much as Neuman takes from the book. The rest of the plot – the bombing, Fane disguised as a nun, virtually all the action, the bad guy, the brainwashing, the mouse sequence – is the invention of Neuman.

In the book Fenner is not an alcoholic but it’s more dramatic in the film if he is. Some of the characters from the book such as hard ass CIA boss Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) appear on screen much as described. Others have characters enhanced – Vaugiround (Boris Karloff) here a global kingpin is a mere moral philosopher in the book. The character of Claire Connor (Felicia Farr) is hardest done by. In the book, she is a central figure, the widow of an agent, teamed up with Fenner in a pretend romance that turns real. But in the film, she has become the mistress of a diplomat.  

I had already enjoyed the movie but my appreciation of the creative endeavor that went into its making increased by reading the original material screenwriter Neuman had to work with.