From 'Little Fires Everywhere' to 'Normal People': How Novelists Act as "Tuning Forks" to TV Scribes

Littles Fires Everywhere to Normal People - Graphic - H 2020
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The authors of the best-selling books 'Defending Jacob' and 'I Know This Much Is True' also reveal what it's like to see their stories adapted into limited series: "It's like speaking in a different language."

When Celeste Ng learned her novel Little Fires Everywhere would be adapted into a limited series for Hulu, she made a decision to let go. Instead of holding on to the story that lived in the pages she'd written, she recognized that translating the novel for television would require her to put her trust in other people.

"It felt really important to me that the people who knew what they were doing be allowed to do it, and that the project be given enough space to become its own thing," she says.

Ng, 39, along with three other authors of novels turned into limited series — Sally Rooney, 29 (Normal People); William Landay, 56 (Defending Jacob); and Wally Lamb, 69 (I Know This Much Is True) — spoke with THR about how choosing not to worry and relinquishing control allowed their stories to thrive as limited series.

"I wanted the filmmakers to feel free to create, using these characters and expanding the story that I created into something new and different that leverages the strengths of film to tell the story in a way that I have leveraged the strengths of literature," Landay says. "I never felt protective or threatened … by the adaptation at all."

Such was the case for all four authors, whose biggest concerns centered on making sure the shows' creators had all they needed to invent their own versions of their stories rather than line-by-line replicas of the books. Most of the novels could have been adapted into something much shorter than an hours-long limited series. Depending on the length of each episode and the number of episodes, these limited series range from six to 10 hours — much more expansive than a two-hour film adaptation.

In the case of Defending Jacob, which hinges on author Landay's understanding of the country's complex legal system and the culture in suburban Massachusetts, this meant extensive conversations about how the events laid out in the novel could be realistically expanded.

"Unlike [adapting into a] film, which is about cutting material to make it fit the time constraints of the movie, [we were] expanding what was in the book to fill eight hours of screen time," Landay says. "Mark [Bomback, the show's writer] and I would speak about problems and creative decisions along the way. Mark is a wonderful, sensitive writer and very experienced at his craft, [but] he'd never been to Boston and had no experience with criminal law or local culture. So, there were things that we necessarily had to talk about."

Lamb's behemoth I Know This Much Is True benefited from the limited series treatment because its length made it difficult to condense into a film. Twentieth Century Fox originally purchased the rights after the book's publication in 1998. But as the studio struggled to adapt the 900-page novel into a two-hour film without losing integral parts of the narrative, the project sat in development limbo for more than a decade.

In 2014, Lamb reacquired the rights to the novel and, when HBO and Mark Ruffalo came knocking, the author knew the story needed to be told in a longer format. "Mark and I put our heads together," Lamb says. "He was in agreement that this was going to work better as a series, so that was the way we entered the whole thing."

Lamb is no stranger to the art of screenwriting. It's a skill he admires after attempting to adapt his first novel, She's Come Undone, which is why he gladly turned over the responsibility to writer-director Derek Cianfrance.

"I tend to overwrite," Lamb says. "[Screenwriting] is a good discipline for me to learn, because it would teach me how to be more concise, but it's not something I think I would be very good at."

Rooney, on the other hand, kept Normal People quite short, opting to skip most of the fluff and jump to the pivotal moments between its main characters, Marianne and Connell. The result is a novel that reads episodically, making a limited series the perfect format to bring her story to life.

"The book often just leaps forward a couple of months, or a couple of weeks, because I wanted to skip parts of the narrative and go straight to the turning points," Rooney says. "So, because the book was constructed that way, it's difficult to confine that to a film without using the episodic moments in these characters' lives. It felt like the most natural way to preserve the division of time in the book was to do it through episodes of TV. It felt like a much more natural form of storytelling."

Filmmaking is a far cry from the solitary act of writing a novel, where all the decisions come down to the author's discretion.

"You have to trust that the actors and the director and everybody involved will help to build up that picture," Rooney says.

Each novelist had a different level of involvement with his or her book's adaptation. Neither Ng nor Landay adapted their work, but they did provide feedback when the scripts were in development. "I was sort of like a tuning fork to them," Ng explains. "They had an idea of what they wanted, and then they checked with me to see if their idea was hitting the right notes."

Lamb, on the other hand, opted not to read any scripts for the HBO series. "I said, 'I don't want you to ever feel that you have to be tied down to making this an exact replica of my book, because I know that books and film scripts are apples and oranges,' " he recalls.

The stories changed quite a bit on their journeys to becoming limited series, as the screenwriters added elements in order to fill several hours of screen time and tried to externalize characters' inner monologues. Instead of worrying, the novelists say they chose to recognize that changes — sometimes drastic ones — are sometimes necessary to make their stories engaging onscreen.

"It's not just [taking] the novel and [putting] it onscreen. It's like speaking in a different language. There have to be some changes," Ng says. "I tend to be a very interior writer. I have a lot of characters stopping and remembering things or realizing things quietly, and you can't do that onscreen. You have to dramatize everything through action."

It helps, of course, to have high-caliber talent backing the project. Lamb recalls his agent sending his book to Ruffalo on a whim and receiving a glowing response from the actor.

"I cannot tell you how much I love this book. It is so deeply moving and so personal to me in some ways," Ruffalo's letter to Lamb's agent reads. "I know these people. I grew up with them. … Please let Mr. Lamb know that I am doing my best and that I already know that I want to do this. It means so much to me that someone with his talent would think of me for this. The time is right for this to happen."

After nearly two decades of hearing people tell Lamb his book was worthy of a film adaptation, Ruffalo's words struck a new chord.

"You can always tell when somebody is bullshitting you if they use the word 'passionate,' " Lamb says. "They say, 'We are passionate to do this.' Mark was the only one who didn't use the word 'passionate,' but he sounded as if he was."

The same was true for all the novelists, who were lucky enough to hand their works over to producers like Reese Witherspoon, who co-stars in Little Fires Everywhere, or directors like Lenny Abrahamson, who helmed half of Normal People. Knowing the projects were in good hands made the process exciting for the novelists rather than nerve-wracking.

"[They] would often invite me when scenes were being shot that came directly from the book, so I could hear actors delivering the words that I had written," says Landay, whose Defending Jacob was adapted for Apple TV+ and stars Chris Evans. "It's a surreal experience. It's so odd to sit on the set and see people working on this story that you just created out of whole cloth."?

And when they finally had the chance to watch the shows, the novelists knew they'd made the right decision in handing off their stories. In fact, not only did stepping back from the confines of the book allow the authors to be more open-minded about the adaptation process, but it also gave them the opportunity to view their own stories through a new lens — the way that readers saw them.

"I sometimes forget that this [series] is based on [my book]," Ng says. "When we were watching screeners, I turned to my husband and I said, 'I wonder what's going to happen next!' and he looked at me like, 'You know what's going to happen. This is your story.' "

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.