Film follows fiction

Certain literary types once sneered about people who watched the film rather than reading the book. Possibly this is because film is the easier medium to absorb – involving sitting in a dark room for a couple of hours rather than spending days reading. The movie was considered to play second string to the more elevated novel, at least by our cultural guardians, for whom the written word is still the gold standard.

Thankfully, this snooty attitude is breaking down, and books and films are now considered complementary rather than mutually exclusive, not least because the two media are closer than they have ever been. Special executives have been hired by publishing houses to negotiate film and TV “tie-ins”.

Films are made of books, and the books given a further push on the market, usually with a still from the film on the cover. Then, in a reverse process, “novelisations” of films are published to cash in on cinematic success. Indeed, the “film-of-the-book” process is so ingrained into modern publishing that it starts at the very beginning of the production chain, whereby literary agents increasingly augment publishers’ advances for authors by selling film “options” to their books. And it ends in the concurrent book/film push, very often the result of a huge coordinated marketing spree. Naturally, the book cover has to refer to the film or TV programme. And the highest-profile type of tie-in presence involves using either a film still or some sort of promotional image on the cover, usually featuring the main star.

Does this inevitably take the book downmarket? “I don’t think it is viewed that way,” says Rodney Burbeck, editor of Publishing News. “It is seen more as an incremental market, and one that is certainly growing. It is actually quite a long-term trend which has been gathering pace for the past ten years or so.”

There are soon to be some high-profile additions to the tie-in canon. Alex Garland’s The Beach benefited in its earlier paperback incarnation from a sharply sinister photomontage, using pictures from The Image Bank and Telegraph Colour Library. It will be repackaged, no doubt with a film still cover featuring its star, Leonardo DiCaprio. This fact alone should open up the book’s adventuresome charms to a vast new market of young people. Esther Freud’s autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, having previously appeared with an illustration of the writer as a young girl by her father Lucian Freud, now appears with a photograph by Peter Mountain of the film’s star Kate Winslet.

These tie-ins have to be punchy, but their design process is relatively constricted by commercial considerations. “It is quite simplistic and has a lot to do with the film copyright,” says Dennis Barker, art director of a division within publisher Random House . And the rights are owned by the film company, which inevitably has quite a big say. If you’re going to use a film tie-in then you tend to use the film poster or some other high profile promotional publicity, which everyone wants to see.

While there are certain variations within this process, it tends to be relatively formulaic. “One factor is that the format of the promotional poster is usually landscape and you have to make it fit a portrait format,” says Barker. “If the film company is very particular, you might have to make use of the uncropped original artwork as a rectangular strip, otherwise you will probably have to crop into the image. Then they might want lettering to be smaller or something.” The film company may even have strictures about the kind of typography and logotypes used. “There is not much movement from a design point of view, but you have to realise that it is a joint effort and you listen to both sides,” adds Barker. As with any committee decision, it does not usually result in cutting edge design. But, he adds that “you’d be a fool not to use the film poster” as it is the iconic and instantly recognisable emblem of the film.

Design classics they may not be. But tie-ins do sell; and are often aided by mass market campaigns which get them into book shop “dump bins”, and popular outlets such as supermarkets.

An important thing about the tie-in is that it has a shorter life than the original book. “It might just be a month, or the film could be a howler in which case it might not make much impact,” says Barker. But as film imagery usually leaves a lasting impression, publishers try to push the tie-ins as hard as possible and not compete with the older cover at the point-of-sale. “We try to ensure that there are no old copies around, but we cannot control the fact that bookshops might have old stock,” he adds.

If both are available, people tend to go for the book of the film. “When The Horse Whisperer tie-in came out it was sold in two different formats; one with the original cover and the other with Robert Redford on,” says a spokeswoman for the book sales monitoring company, Book Track. She adds that within five months the tie-in had outperformed the older cover, with pictures from The Telegraph Colour Library and Jeff Foorr/Bruce Coleman, by about 50 per cent. “Given the choice of both on the shelf, the customers do seem to go for the film cover,” the spokeswoman says.

The English Patient was also sold in two formats; the later tie-in cover bearing an image of Ralph Fiennes. Indeed, there are currently two versions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the market; one with the original Ralph Steadman illustration, the other, also by Steadman, with a photographic image of the film’s star, Johnny Depp. This is one example where the tie-in could lose the cultish cachet of the original. But in certain cases the tie-in may improve graphically upon the original, most notably in Trainspotting’s tie-in cover, which was repackaged with the memorable frieze-style film poster.

It seems a shame to make changes if the extant cover is resonant, and at worst it can replace the imagery of your own imagination. Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières, is being made into a film, and will, no doubt, get the tie-in treatment, though I sense that its paperback cover, by illustrator Jeff Fisher, captures much of the charm which has made the novel such an unexpected best-seller. But the book might revert, once the sales spurt is over. It would therefore be foolish to get rid of the longer-running but slower velocity cover altogether.

In part, the design values are also affected by tight deadlines. “It’s often a rush to get the tie-in artwork done on time,” says Val Hudson of the film department of HarperCollins. He is involved in the other side of the film-book convergence: namely, the book of the film, where an original screenplay has been transformed into a book.

For instance, this summer Hodder Headline will be marketing Notting Hill in this format with the cover courtesy of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. These “novelisations” are nearly always sold with a photographic cover from the film. “It offers co-marketing opportunities,” says Hudson. “We tend to use artwork from the movie, like a recognisable film still. You have to get the message across immediately that this is directly related to the film.”

There is undoubtedly a greater convergence between books and films than ever before. In the US this market is particularly mature. The Star Wars prequel has resulted in four separate “collectors” book covers, according to manager of The Cinema Store in London Tony Martin.

Another cinematic tendency lies in the marketing of film scripts as paperbacks. Publishing house Faber & Faber is a key player in this growing market, its most notable product being the paperback version of the Pulp Fiction script. “The whole film area is a growing market in books,” says Rachel Alexander at Faber & Faber. “Screenwriting is a major aspiration and while in the past scripts had a small market of buffs, now we hope that they will cross over into the general market.” And again, the cover image tends to be a film still. It has also launched a diffusion range of scripts marketed as paperbacks, called Essentials with lower prices and typographic covers. Design is by Pentagram.

It is also Faber & Faber which has capitalised on another film and literature link: that of the poetry book of the film. Following the success of the WH Auden poem Funeral Blues, in Four Weddings and a Funeral which sold over 200 000 copies, the company has brought out Love Poetry by William Shakespeare, to coincide with the success of the film Shakespeare in Love. Its cover, by Lisa Lucas, depicts Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Such is the power of film imagery, it seems, that nothing else will do.

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