Book adaptations into screen and stage: a powerful two-way street

Could you hazard a guess of the revenue difference between a film adapted from a book and an original screenplay?

The answer: book adaptations bring in an impressive 53% more revenue globally.

What’s more Frontier Economics’ analysis reveals that out of the 20 highest grossing films of all time, only 30% were original stories. Four are based on books, five on comics, two on fairy tales, two on TV series, and one on a historical event.

Likewise, television adaptations bring in an impressive 58% more viewers than an original screenplay, while adapted stage productions generate three times the ticket sales of an original.

Our report, commissioned by the Publishers Association, ‘Publishing’s Contribution to the Wider Creative Industries’, delves into the relationship between literature and adaptations and reveals that it’s very much a beneficial two-way street. Not only is a successful adaptation likely to bring in revenue for screen and stage, but it is also likely to see a significant spike in book sales long after the adaptation has been released.

Our report demonstrates how books are often sources of inspiration for characters, stories and ideas ripe to be adapted to other formats. Relying on adapted material can help alleviate part of the risk in the creative production process. This happens both through direct engagement between publishers and other creative industries, and through independent discovery of published material.

Publishing houses play a role in bringing an adaptation to life on screen or stage through their investment in authors, developing manuscripts and getting novels to publication. They also use their wealth of expertise and knowledge to identify potential adaptations that have an existing, engaged audience.

The report highlights My Cousin Rachel as an example of publishers and filmmakers working together with a mutually beneficial outcome. Daphne du Maurier’s 10th novel, first published in 1951, had several successful adaptations over the years including TV, film, radio and stage.

It was later picked up by publishers Little, Brown Book Group in 2003 and published as a Virago Modern Classic. The latest movie adaption in 2017 was directed by Roger Mitchell, who worked closely with Little, Brown to promote the film. Together, they produced a boxed hardback set of the author’s other works that were turned into films and used it to create an industry buzz.

The film was released in early 2017 and was a commercial success, with a total UK gross of $3.44 million and fifth place in the UK Box Office rankings in its opening week.

The film’s release saw sales of the book soar. The film release gave Little, Brown the opportunity to produce an edition with a special introduction from the film’s director Roger Mitchell, reaching a new audience in the process. In the course of 2017, the various editions of the novel sold 19,226 copies and generated £162,694 in sales – about eight times larger than the same figures for 2016.

One of the report’s case studies is The Night Manager, a 1993 John Le Carré spy novel that was adapted into a six-part TV mini-series in 2016. The  adaptation drove increased sales of the original book, as well as bringing in substantial revenue from a tie-in edition. In fact, although the novel has been in circulation for over 25 years, more than four in every five copies it has sold to date were after the adaptation was released.

Looking at the stage, the top four longest-running shows in the West End are all based on literary works. Plays and musicals based on literary sources accounted for over £25 million in theatre revenue in 2016 outside London.

As one example of a successful stage adaptation, Michael Morpurgo’s "War Horse" grossed almost $75 million over 751 performances on Broadway. In the UK, where the show ran at the National Theatre, the West End and two national tours, total book sales now exceed 900,000 and it is Morpungo’s best-selling work to date.

The book, film and stage worlds clearly have a reciprocal relationship. A successful adaptation often overflows to give a substantial boost to the sales of the original book. Consider the ripple effects: a book spawns a screen or stage version, the book’s sales increase, the author is able to write more stories which could then be adapted themselves, and so on. It’s easy to overlook the UK publishing industry’s pre-eminent role in screen and stage, but this report demonstrates that the total economic contribution of UK publishing goes far beyond the profits of publishing houses and the salaries paid to those working in the industry.

Andrew Leicester is a manager in Frontier Economics’ Public Policy practice.