How My Psychological Thriller Became a Teen Slasher Movie

Denise Richards, Jessica Capshaw, Jessica Cauffiel, and Marley Shelton in ‘Valentine’ (2001) © Warner Bros.

Editor's Note:

Tom Savage is the USA Today bestselling author of seven novels and numerous short stories. His books have been published in fifteen countries, and his bestselling novel Valentine was made into a Warner Bros. film. His latest novel is The Woman Who Knew Too Much. Tom joins Signature to discuss the process of adapting Valentine to film.

Here are two facts about writers: We all dream about being published, and we all dream about Hollywood. Any writer who tells you otherwise is lying. As with every other author who ever lived, I dreamed about both of these things, but in my case there was a difference: Both of my dreams came true. Well, sort of…

Here is another fact about writers: We don’t know anything about Hollywood. When my agent told me that a famous producer wanted to make a movie of my third novel, Valentine, I was excited. I figured they’d pay me a lot of money for the rights. Then I figured they’d whisk me out to the coast, set me up in a beachfront bungalow formerly occupied by Hemingway, and put me to work banging out a brilliant screenplay. I would accomplish this in a week or so, and then Steven Spielberg would take it away and film it with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The movie would be a huge hit, smashing all previous domestic and foreign box office records, and two weeks later Steve, Tom, Meryl, and I would pose together at the Kodak Theatre, clutching our Oscars®. Then they’d take me to dinner at (fill in name of trendy L.A. restaurant) and beg me to write more movies for them based on all my other novels. I would cheerfully accept, and Meryl would kiss me. Slow fade, roll credits, The End.

Well, they paid me a lot of money for the rights. As for the rest of my fantasy, not so much.

I never went to Hollywood. Over the next five years, I was sent copies of three successive shooting scripts written by three separate groups of screenwriters, but I wasn’t invited to participate, or even to comment. One of the four writers listed on the final film told reporters that the director instructed them not to read my novel, so they didn’t–they were given a brief synopsis of the plot and told to work from that. (Many years later, the director told reporters that he was never given a script worth filming!) The film was released in 2001, five years after the rights were optioned. To this day, I’ve never met a single person involved with the movie version of Valentine.

That wasn’t all. You wouldn’t believe what they did to my novel’s setting, characters, and plot! Well, yes, you would–all you have to do is read the book and then watch the film. My New York City became San Francisco. My fortyish leads became college students. Instead of a long-range plan over several years, my titular psychopath decided to kill all of his enemies on one busy, bloody Valentine’s Day. In short, they turned my adult psychological thriller into a teen slasher movie. The only thing in the film I recognized was my name in the credits (Based on the novel by…). Can you imagine how I felt about that?!!


Photo © Warner Bros.

I was delighted.

(Wait…what? Did he say he was delighted?)

Yes, I was delighted. The movie wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t very faithful to my book. The teen stars were okay, but they weren’t Tom and Meryl. But it got made, whereas 95% of optioned film projects never get off the ground. It did reasonably well at the box office. It got my name around. It sold lots of copies of the movie tie-in editions of the paperback in several countries. It led to the optioning of two of my other titles (but they were in the 95%–see above). Because of the holiday theme, it regularly shows up on cable and pay-per-view services every February. The movie gave me “street cred” in the publishing industry. So, yes, I was delighted.

Here is a final fact about writers: We want to succeed in our profession. Few things help us to do that as much as film versions of our work. Think about that if you’re ever approached with a request for movie rights, even if you’re not crazy about the finished product.

The film industry is like the publishing industry–it’s a small, insular, contained, controlled group. They have their own people and their own rulebook. They probably won’t ask you to write the screenplay; in fact, you’ll probably never even meet them. The result may not resemble your story very much. But it’s money in the bank. It sells your books. And based on the novel by… is a solid, permanent, impressive detail in your author bio for all your future works.

Hooray for Hollywood!