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The Most Successful Book to Movie Adaptations

by Tom Ashford

The Self Publishing Formula team were at the London Book Fair last week. Along with dozens of lovely indie authors, we met somebody who wrote in a slightly different medium: screenplays for movies.

Not just any movies, either. No, we bumped into none other than Terri Tatchell, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of District 9!

And that got me thinking. Whilst there probably aren’t many indie screenwriters amongst our SPF readership (and once you’ve written something the size of District 9, can you even describe yourself as indie?), there are plenty of novels, both traditionally and self-published, that have made a tonne of money at the Box Office. Let’s take a look through some of the biggest!

The First Book to Movie Adaptations

Though hard to say for sure, two of the earliest book adaptations for the screen were in 1899 by Georges Méliès – Cinderella (based on the Brothers Grimm story) and King John (the first ever Shakespeare adaptation). These weren’t particularly long of course – it was still quite a few years after this that feature-lengths became plausible.

Jaws and Jurassic Park

Here’s a (relatively) early one: Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, it went on to gross $260 million (which would be seen as win even by today’s box office standards).

Spielberg then went on to adapt Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park (Crichton also wrote the 1993 film’s screenplay as well). Overall (and after 26 years), it has brought in over a billion dollars in revenue – not bad for a film that cost $63 million to make.

Sparkly Vampires

You thought you were rid of them, but then I went and brought them back up again. The Twilight films, adapted from the book series of the same name, have grossed over three billion dollars in total box office sales. And of course, Twilight fan fiction led to…

Fifty Shades of Grey

Love it or loathe it, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey was a massive literary hit (and started off independently published, before the traditional publishing houses snapped it up). It’s not quite as popular or successful as its original source material, but I doubt the studios are too disappointed with the franchise’s $1.3billion earnings.

Lord of the Rings

And don’t forget the Hobbit trilogy (though I wish I could). The first three of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books brought in almost three billion dollars; Peter Jackson’s triple-adaptation of The Hobbit earned a little more, totalling six billion dollars in all.

Harry Potter

Can we find a bigger blockbuster series based on books? You bet we can.

The eight movies in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (not including the Fantastic Beasts films) took ten years to develop on our screens, but took in a total of $7.7billion (nine billion including Fantastic Beasts 1 and 2). And it’s like a perpetual motion machine of success for J.K. – she gets the majority of royalties from Harry Potter ebook sales, not the traditional publishing house that puts out her paperbacks.

James Bond

Let’s not forget the longest running film franchise based on a series of books – Ian Fleming’s James Bond. After twenty-six films (though not all of those are considered ‘official’), it’s brought in a total of over seven billion dollars.

Marvel Comics

Not technically a book series, of course, but adaptations all the same. Even if we don’t count the pre-Holland Spider-Man films, or the X-Men films, the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone have brought in total box office sales of over eighteen billion dollars – the top earner being the recent Avengers: Infinity War (over £2billion just by itself).

Stephen King

The man who seems to be the hottest property in having books turned into films right now, Stephen King has had seventy-five books adapted for the silver screen (including those coming out soon, and not including any of the many TV series and TV movies). If there’s anyone who’s had more novels adapted than King, I’d like to hear of them!

Indie Authors

Believe it or not, there are indie authors who have had their books adapted by Hollywood – and I’m not just talking about J.K. Rowling’s lucky ebook deal or E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series. Hugh Howey self-published Wool, and sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. Andy Weir self-published The Martian when every agent rejected it outright, but Ridley Scott picked it up and directed the movie version starring Matt Damon. Legally Blonde was originally self-published as a print-on-demand book, and only traditionally published after the success of the film. Still Alice, the film starring Julianne Moore, was self-published (but picked up for a trad deal before the movie was made).

And the movie landscape is changing. With Netflix throwing money at movies and adaptations, it’s likely never been easier for an indie author to get their book onto the screen… whether that screen is at home or in the theatre.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.