December 30, 2019

Book adaptations struggle at the box office in 2019


Warner Bros

As noted by Paula Bernstein in Fortune, the big screen adaptations of several blockbuster novels of years past failed the impress critically or at the box office throughout 2019.

These include The Goldfinch, John Crowley’s adaptation of Dona Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller; Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s long overdue passion project based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel; and Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Richard Linklater’s take on Maria Semple’s comic novel.

Bernstein’s theory for their failure is rooted in the storytelling required in each:

Though the three novels tell three wildly different stories, they all rely heavily on a strong first-person narrator and involve intricate backstories and plots—which means they don’t exactly lend themselves to adaptation.

We’d like to humbly submit that, maybe with the exception of The Goldfinch, most of these adaptations are also long overdue.

Bernadette came out in 2012, and Motherless Brooklyn made a splash on the literary scene in 1999.

Whatever the engine is that drives readers to watch movie adaptations of their favorite books—morbid curiosity? the need for familiar subject matter?—it can hardly be counted on for an audience long after readers have moved on to the next big thing in literature many times over.

There is also another consideration that Bernstein might have noted, which is that TV mini-series based on books have gained considerable cultural currency even as the major-motion-picture-based-on-major-novel system seems to be crumbling.

Besides Reese Witherspoon’s frighteningly acute work at acquiring novels and grooming audiences for their adaptations, HBO also put out an adaptation-heavy slate of shows in 2019, including another attempt to bring Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series to life (which was adapted into a movie that did not gain many fans in 2007) and a continuation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel (which was also the victim of an anemic movie adaptation in 2009).

So, book people, no need to take this as a sign of the end of movie options. Just keep up with the times. Netflix and Amazon are dismantling and restructuring the movie industry, TV is still kind of cool sometimes, and our taste in novels has simply shifted too much in the last decade to count on books that were barely published in the … what are we calling this decade, again? teens?—to succeed.

In other news, can’t wait for those 20’s. It will be so much easier to make broad and completely baseless speculative proclamations about not one, but two industries at the same time with that in hand.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.