Brad Pitt in Fight Club/Image © Twentieth Century Fox
In the eternal and epic battle between “high art” and “low art,” the general consensus is that the book beats the movie. To quote the latest f-bomb laden comedy video burning up the interwebs, “Rage of Thrones” by Axis of Awesome, “Hollywood can not live up to the power of your imagination!” But as much as one could write on the overall superior quality that a novel has to its corresponding film, it’s a given that a movie studio’s decision to adapt a book can generate huge interest in the source material, and even possibly the creator.
Even the most hardened bibliophile will admit to seeing a trailer for a movie with the words “based on the [insert praising descriptive adjective, like “groundbreaking” or “critically acclaimed”] novel by [author you’ve never heard of] emblazoned across the screen and then running to the bookstore to pick it up. Or the reverse, spotting a familiar miniaturized movie poster on a book cover while browsing through the bookshelves and being drawn in to read it.
So for many writers, getting the call that Hollywood wants to turn his or her relatively unknown literary opus into a screenplay can be the boon needed for their career, whether that be a career that’s either just starting or has languished in obscurity. Here are six prominent examples of films that garnered enough distinction and recognition for their book’s author to launch or revive their careers. Be sure to scroll to the bottom to watch a video playlist of all the movie trailers.
“Fight Club” (1999)
Every guy who loves to read goes through a Chuck Palahniuk phase. That’s not to say that women don’t enjoy his work, it’s just The New York Times bestselling author of Choke, who’s known for reading short stories that make people in the audience faint, does well with male readers. And it all started with Fight Club. Although it was the third novel Palahniuk wrote, the book was his first ever published. The initial hardcover run was well received by critics, even winning a couple of regional awards, but reportedly only sold about 5,000 copies. That all changed when 20th Century Fox adapted the novel for the screen. The film version of “Fight Club,” directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, was a box-office failure and received mixed reviews from critics. However, the film then found success on DVD, developing a cult following, inspiring real fight clubs, and eventually leading to Palahniuk’s success as a fiction writer.
“Murder, My Sweet” (1944)
Raymond Chandler is one of the undisputed founding fathers of American crime fiction (the others probably being Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson). The failed journalist turned failed oil company executive published his first short story in his mid-forties and his first novel, The Big Sleep, which introduced his famed private detective protagonist Philip Marlowe, when he was fifty-one. But it was the second film version of his sophomore novel “Farwell, My Lovely” that first brought Marlowe to the big screen. (An early adaptation of the book, “The Falcon Takes Over,” shoehorned the plot into an already existing film series about an English gentleman-detective nicknamed “The Falcon.”) The movie was a hit and is often credited as helping actor Dick Powell reinvent himself from a song-and-dance funnyman to dramatic actor (the title was changed to feature the word “murder” so audiences wouldn’t assume it was a musical). It also introduced moviegoers to the classic Chandler style: hard-boiled, wisecracking anti-hero; slang-filled narration; a plot complicated to the point of becoming convoluted, all of which is imitated and parodied to this day. Chandler parlayed the success into a short-lived stint screenwriting. He wrote the 1946 film “The Blue Dahlia, ” was instrumental in helping director Billy Wilder create the screenplay for the definitive film noir tale “Double Indemnity,” and even earned a writer credit on the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Strangers on a Train.” But he soon burned all his bridges in Hollywood through his drinking and caustic personality.
“Blade Runner” (1982)
There was a time when Philip K. Dick dreamed of being a literary author. That dream never quite materialized and Dick spent most of his career struggling financially. By the early 1960s, he found some success writing science fiction, winning the Hugo Award for his alternative history classic The Man in the High Castle, but mainstream recognition and its big payday always remained elusive. Then came Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” Although a fairly loose adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film nailed certain aspects of Dick’s style. In a letter just before his death, which was only four months before the film’s release, Dick wrote that his “life and creative work are justified and completed by ‘Blade Runner.’” The movie’s success would lead to a race by the studio to adapt screenplays based on Dick’s work and the last thirty years have seen more than a dozen films with the words “based on a novel by Philip K. Dick” printed on the movie poster. The movie adaptations have run the gamut from blockbusters like the original “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” to cinema garbage like the remake of “Total Recall” and “Next.” Hollywood’s attention has made Dick a household name with most bookstores stocking shelves of his titles in the sci-fi section, and a few volumes in the literature area as well.
“Forrest Gump” (1994)
The name Winston Groom probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but without a doubt you know the name of his most famous character, Forrest Gump. Groom, a Vietnam veteran and former journalist, was making a living as a relatively unknown novelist and nonfiction book writer when he published his fourth novel, Forrest Gump, in 1986 to favorable reviews and decent sales. But it was when the adaptation of the same name starring Tom Hanks came out eight years later that Groom became a bestselling author, with over a million paperback copies sold. The Forrest Gump in the book differs from the one on the screen, as more of a hulking idiot savant than naïve man-child, and his adventures in print go a little further than the ones in the movie; in addition to his experiences in Vietnam, playing Ping-Pong, and launching his own shrimp company, in Groom’s novel, Gump becomes a pro wrestler, astronaut, and Hollywood stuntman. Groom immediately cashed in on the success with a quickly produced book of Forrest Gump aphorisms, the sequel novel Gump and Co., and two Forrest Gump cookbooks.
Legend has it that Irvine Welsh wrote his first book, Trainspotting, in between breaks while working on his MBA thesis at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. An oft-cited book in the “is it novel or is it short-story collection” debate, Trainspotting made a splash in the United Kingdom when it came out, dividing critics. It was reportedly denied entry onto the shortlist for the Booker prize because it offended a couple of judges. But when director Danny Boyle brought the tale of Scottish heroin addicts to multiplexs in 1996, Welsh made the jump to international literary star. He’s since published a dozen more books, including a sequel to Trainspotting, Porno, on which movie adaptation Boyle recently made claims with (hopefully) the original cast.
“25th Hour” (2002)
There’s no denying that David Benioff’s debut novel about a drug dealer’s last night in New York before going to prison was critical success when it first hit shelves, but it was the big-screen adaptation directed by Spike Lee that helped Benioff, like Chandler, make the leap to Hollywood. Benioff, who was teaching high school English at a prep school in Brooklyn when he wrote the novel, worked on the screenplay for the movie. His collaboration with fellow New Yorker Lee produced a film that is considered by many critics to be the best cinema reaction to 9/11 – a feat even more noteworthy when you consider it was released just over a year after the attacks. Benioff has since published a short story collection and another novel, but it’s his work in Hollywood that has had the most impact. After writing the screenplay for the Brad Pitt vehicle “Troy” and enraging comic book geeks by penning the script for the woeful “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Benioff was tapped to help adapt George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire & Ice fantasy book series for television, otherwise known as HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” where he acts as co-executive producer, writer, and showrunner.