Having her nonfiction book of essays, “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” turned into a streaming scripted comedy in 2019 checked many boxes for Lindy West. It directly responded to the book’s critique of the lack of visual representation of fat women in the media by making “a piece of representation that’s exactly the thing I’d been missing,” she says, while also fulfilling her dream of writing for television.
West didn’t just hand over her book to television producers for them to adapt; she stepped onto the show as a writer and executive producer, helping to shape the screen version. Historically, it hasn’t been that common for authors to get the opportunity to adapt their own work, but that attitude has been shifting in an industry claiming to be keen on authenticity in its storytelling. One of the spotlight panels at Variety’s Virtual TV Fest, taking place June 8-10, will tackle the topic with authors including West, “Bridgerton’s” Julia Quinn and “To All the Boys…” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty” franchise scribe Jenny Han.
Han recalls that just “10 years ago, people were not really open” to heavy author involvement in adaptations, perhaps because “there was a fear for a long time that an author was going to be too precious about the work — [that] they wouldn’t be able to let go of their darlings and see it as a new piece of work.” Instead, authors would sell the rights to their stories and sometimes get to offer opinions, but not truly have a say.
Even just a few years ago, Han wasn’t given the opportunity to adapt “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” herself. But since then she has made a deal to adapt and serve as showrunner on the series version of her 2009 novel “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”
“As we have more streamers and more places to watch [these projects] it’s just opened up in a lot of ways, and they need more storytellers,” she says. “And I also think they’ve seen people be really successful in writing novels and coming over to the film side.”
Still, adapting one’s own work is not for everyone. Quinn, the mastermind behind the popular “Bridgerton” literary franchise, serves as a co-executive producer on the Shondaland-Netflix drama series of the same name but did not participate in the writers’ room.
“I decided, straight up, to hand it over completely because it was Shondaland,” Quinn says. “I couldn’t imagine anybody better, and certainly I’m not going to tell Shonda Rhimes how to make television. I just align with this company, both in what they produce and also their ethics and what they believe in as a company, so I just said, ‘I trust you to take it.’”
Whether authors adapt their own work or step aside for someone else to bring their vision to life, the medium has the ability to reach a fresh audience, as well as touch those already invested in the property in a different way.
“Narrative hooks people in a way that nonfiction doesn’t: you get really invested in these characters, and that’s not something I can do in my book of essays,” says West.
Han adds that the adaptation process can also be a chance to update the way certain themes are discussed, as sensibilities and behaviors shift over time. For “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” which was set in a time before texting and social media dominated teenagers’ lives, she specifically wanted to “make [the TV series] feel like 2021” because “we’re living in a really different moment.”
“The film or TV show is just one person’s interpretation. It’s not the end-all-be-all; it’s just one take on it,” she says. Therefore, an adaptation should be “more about capturing the spirit of the books and the feelings you had when reading the books — that tonally it still feels like the same people — and less so about the details.”