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Adapt Or Die

After writing prime time TV drama for approximately one bazillion years, I'm delighted to find myself dubbed a ‘debut author’. My first novel, Without Trace, is the first in a series of psychological thrillers featuring Morgan Vine, a single mum and investigative journalist obsessed with miscarriages of justice. While you might reasonably expect a seasoned TV writer to know the ins and outs of publishing a book, the two worlds are very different - almost parallel universes. Different techniques. Different processes. Different people.

Sometimes the worlds collide, such as when a book is adapted for the screen. I've worked on many BBC1 and ITV adaptations, ranging from Richmal Crompton’s children’s classic Just William to The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, based on novels by American author Elizabeth George, and The Mrs Bradley Mysteries starring Diana Rigg and Neil ‘Midsomer’ Dudgeon. The Mrs Bradley books were penned by prolific British novelist Gladys Mitchell. She wrote nearly 80 crime novels. What on earth was she on?

I've also created original TV dramas, including psychological thrillers such as ITV’s The Stepfather starring Philip Glenister, and romantic comedies for American TV including Perfect Strangers starring Anna Friel and Rob Lowe. (Yes, his eyes really are that blue.)

As a rule, I prefer to adapt the work of authors who are - not to put too fine a point on it - dead. This isn't simply in order to avoid disapproving glares at the read-through (often the first chance an author gets to learn about changes I've made to their work) but because it’s often necessary to be pragmatic (OK, ruthless) about cutting or altering an author’s favourite characters, themes or subplots. 

Between the pages of a book a novelist can let his or her imagination run riot: scores of characters, dozens of exotic, far-flung locations. With a TV version, there are practical constraints, even when you’re working with a budget of £20 million, rumoured to have been the case with the award-winning BBC1 adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, adapted for the screen by David Farr. Even then, the original story was given a complete overhaul, the on-screen version differing from the book in substantive ways while remaining faithful to the spirit of the source material.

As in this instance, the sometimes uneasy collaboration between novelist and adaptor can turn out in such a way that makes everyone happy. On other occasions, the reverse is true. I once adapted a book by a Well Known Crime Writer, labouring hard to shore up myriad holes in her plot. The series was broadcast to millions on ITV, garnering glowing reviews, stellar ratings and boosting sales of her book. Years later, I encountered her at a party. Introducing us, our hostess mentioned that I had written the adaptation of her book. The Well Known Crime Writer sniffed. ‘Oh, yes,’ she drawled. ‘That was a dreadful production’. Mercifully, such encounters are rare. 

Without Trace introduces my protagonist Morgan Vine as she fights to prove the innocence of her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon. He’s in prison, convicted of murdering his teenage stepdaughter, a crime Morgan believes he could never have committed. To her relief, the appeal court exonerates him and he is released. But when Morgan’s own daughter goes missing under mysterious circumstances, Danny becomes the prime suspect. Morgan is forced to question her faith in her old flame. Is he the innocent she believes him to be or a ruthless killer who has duped her along with the entire criminal justice system?

It was a challenge to write a 400-page novel but one I enjoyed - insofar as it’s possible to actively enjoy writing anything longer than a shopping list. I’m with Dorothy Parker who said, ‘I hate writing. I love having written.’ Published by Bonnier Zaffre. I'm delighted that Without Trace has garnered many 5-star reviews on Amazon. (My favourite so far: 'enough red herrings to open a stall at Billingsgate’.) 

Publication can be nerve-wracking for authors, just as transmission is a jittery time for screenwriters. After a year - often several - of hard graft, the fruits of your labour are unleashed on the world. In my own case, I was convinced there would be at least one sniffy critic unable to resist the temptation offered by my surname. ‘No prize for this Booker’…  It hasn't happened yet but there’s still time.

Meanwhile. Without Trace has been optioned for TV by a leading independent production company but I'm not getting overly excited about seeing my story translated to the small screen. The development schedule for TV projects is longer than the gestation period of an elephant and, while many books are optioned, few make it to the finish line. 

One thing is for sure: if I write the scripts I’ll have only one person to blame if the finished product proves disappointing.


Simon Booker is one of a series of authors and publishing industry professionals that will lead a workshop as part of From First Draft To Final Draft, our exclusive ten-week writing course with William Ryan. View full details

You can visit Simon's website or follow him on Twitter.