Hollywood Arrogance and Superstition in Movie Making

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Note: We have previously discussed this author in regard to content and themes. That is not the subject of this post; if you wish to discuss her writing, please comment here. The topic of this post is the arrogance of the Hollywood establishment coupled with its superstition about success – not the content of the particular movie/book in question. Thanks!

I recently caught the BBC World Book Club broadcast on satellite radio while travelling. The author who was being interviewed is massively successful with a devoted fan base and the book that was being discussed had been made into a movie, although I had not heard of her, her books, or the movie (apparently I’ve been living under a rock, also known as living my own life). Still the author spoke well and being the BBC, the questions were engaging. The author was Jodi Picoult and the book My Sister’s Keeper. The question that made the interview cross over from filling time while driving through rural Arkansas to making a post on Hathor had to do with the way the movie version of the book changed the ending of a book that was both controversial and, to fans, imperative. The author was asked if she took this experience in a cautionary way and was now going to be more careful what contracts she signed or what she approved for future film versions, and gave, to the uninitiated, a surprising response:

It’s not quite that simple. Most people do not realize how little control an author has when you sign the rights away to Hollywood…Most of the time, if you sell the rights to Hollywood, you have zero control over what happens, you are not consulted, nobody cares what you think. Hollywood believes really strongly that they know better, and that readers do not matter, really. They think that they can tell a better story and that you are only source material.1

This attitude is easy to see. We have talked about the arrogance of the Hollywood establishment many times on Hathor and we’ve talked about how superstitious belief in whatever the hell they want to believe in keeps eyes closed to obvious facts.

In this case, with this author and this book, the author had a lot of access to powerful people who refused her advice summarily and condescendingly:

And then, one day I got an email from a fan at a casting agency in Hollywood and she said “We just got the script in for My Sister’s Keeper, did you know they changed the ending?” So I called Nick at home and he wouldn’t talk to me. So I went to the movie set in LA and he threw me off the movie set. So I went to go talk to the head of New Line Cinema, and I said “I think you’re making a really big mistake. The target demographic for your film are the millions of people who read this book and they’re waiting for that moment.” And he said, “No no, we know what we are doing.”2

Even with all of that access and influence, she was still persona non grata when her opinion was no longer wanted. So that’s the arrogance. We know better, you are stupid, go away now. Now comes the supersition:

Well, they lost a lot of money on that film. And, the interesting thing, is that I now look like a genius in Hollywood because I predicted this. Even more ironic, is that, because I was able to predict this, I have more control now, than I ever did the first time around, when it comes to saying I need to have the ability to look at the script before it goes into production that is something they never would have given me as an author when I was signing the contract to My Sister’s Keeper.3

What did the Hollywood Establishment learn from this experience? Humility? Listen to authors more? Keep book endings when the intended audience is the fans of the book? Or even stick to your guns if you think you are making a better story? Nope. They learned that this particular person is a genius and a psychic and you should listen to her. That’s probably the same reason why success in Hollywood is so convoluted, and success gives you power. In fact, that’s probably why the whole damn culture is like that – failure in one respect means nothing you have to say is worth listening to, and a big success means you are to be listened to about things that aren’t related, which is a really bad way to run a company or a country.

1As I could not find a transcript of the interview on the BBC website, I did a transcript myself of the section involving the question about the film, which was about 5 minutes in length. This quotation is from timestamp 35:57-36:05 and 36:30-36:47. The entire interview is available currently at the link provided above and I have the transcript I did on my computer.
238:02-38:33
338:33-39:02

Comments

  1. Red says

    The exception to this rule of Hollywood? J. K. Rowling.

    Due to the tremendous and overwhelming popularity of the Harry Potter series, Warner Bros. KNEW that if they changed the stories from the books to the film in any major way, the International outraged reaction from fans would have been astronomical. They didn’t DARE make any changes without Jo’s say-so.

    But Jo’s situation is, as demonstrated time and again, unique. Not often a book series like hers comes around.

  2. Quib says

    Did they actually narrow it down to dislike of the ending?

    I always wonder when a bad movie gets made, how aware the people involved are that they made a bad movie. On the one hand, I can’t imagine how one could make movies at all, professionally and successfully, without the cognizance to know good films from bad, and some idea about what the difference is. On the other, I can see how it could be a lot of fun to make a bad movie, and for a lot of people in the movie making process their job is probably less to think critically, and more to be enthusiastic no matter what.

    I don’t know if My Sister’s Keeper was a bad movie, but on the topic of adaptations that defy the source material and original creators, there are a lot of bad movies.

  3. Gabriella says

    Anyone read Forrest Gump? It makes me wonder why they bothered buying the rights to the book when they changed it so much. But unknown author of an unknown book? Winston Groom didn’t stand a chance.

    I actually referred the movie ending of MSK to the book ending, though yeah, I do think it’s pretty atrocious to change the story so much. Why bother buying the rights in the first place? And how can anyone *know better* about the story than the author? (Except maybe if we’re talking Francine Pascal and the Sweet Valley universe she abandoned by, what, the tenth book?)

  4. Periwinkle says

    Quib,
    I get the impression that you can’t tell if a movie is good or bad while you’re making it. Consider Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The location shoot is Tunisia went wrong in every possible way. The newly-formed Industrial Light & Magic staff goofed off and fell way behind schedule. George Lucas showed an early cut to some friends (including Steven Spielberg) and most of them thought it stank, but tried to be polite about it because Lucas was so on edge.

    What saved the project? They fired the editor and replaced him with Marcia Lou Griffin [Lucas's wife at the time], later assisted by Richard Chew Paul Hirsch. They still needed some competently shot scenes to start with, but these are the people who turned Star Wars from a bad movie into a good one (for a specific definition of “good”).
    http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/marcialucas.html

    On the other hand, consider the 1994 “The Fantastic Four”. Everyone seems to agree that the cast and crew took their jobs seriously, without understanding that it was doomed.

  5. says

    Periwinkle,

    I totally agree with that, but I think in this case we should stick with the scripting process for comparison. For example, everyone knew the script for A New Hope was pretty much crap with a glimmer of something special, and the question was: would the something special prevail, or would it all get lost in the crap? And when the something special prevailed, a formula emerged.

    Conversely, these filmmakers with Picault were working from a best selling novel. Hollywood keeps claiming that they don’t mean to be unimaginative and keep making movies about white men and patriarchal values, it’s just they have to repeat what’s worked before (the formula) so it will work again. But then they take a best selling book, which has already “worked” before, and change the ending of it? Why? Surely they had a hugely detailed explanation for why they didn’t “stick to the formula” in this case. Surely they had reams of data to support how their ending would assure the financiers a better return than the original.

    But that doesn’t seem to be the case, if they’re acting like Picault had to be psychic to realize the ending that already worked would work again. Here she is, preaching their gospel, and they’re acting like they never heard this shit before.

    And that must be because it really is all shit. They don’t repeat the formula for money reasons. They repeat it for ego reasons, and the minute some bitch-I-mean-woman comes along with a really successful story, well, THEY can do better. They just know they can. Until they don’t. And then SHE must be some exceptional prophetess to have outwitted them.

    It really is that transparently ridiculous.

  6. Deborah Bell says

    Red,

    Ms. Picoult actually mentioned two exceptions to an author not having control of their work when they sign the rights over for a movie adaptation. One exception she gave was J.K. Rowling (although she named her as “Jo Rowling”), saying that there would have been a mass riot if “they” had messed those movies up. The natural assumption is that the Harry Potter novels are so hugely popular that the fans would have had conniptions if the movies had not been made well, but for an author, Ms. Picoult sounded like a fairly well-known, popular and successful author with a large and obsessive fan base also. While her books are not household names like Harry Potter, one would think that she would have had influence on the order of Ms. Rowling rather than on the order of Joan Blow who no one has heard of and who has sold few books. Perhaps the fact is that she actually did have more influence – she talks about calling the director/screenwriter at home, going to the movie set, and sitting down with the head of the studio in his office – she may have been brushed off but she had a lot of access.

    The other exception she gave was that of the author of The Help, who she said sold her novel’s rights to a close friend, which she said was another way to keep a hand in on making the movie.

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