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3 Oct 2014
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Hollywood's Literary Love-in
by Razia Iqbal

It's no secret that Hollywood is dominated by the films it makes for the teen and pre-teen market. Although the adult market doesn't generate enough money to be a priority, it's clear in the run-up to the Oscars that when Hollywood does consider ideas for grown up films they are almost invariably based on novels.

In the next few months, there are at least half a dozen films being released which are based on best-selling novels. There's Iris - starring Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch, in a film based on the best selling memoirs written by her husband, John Bayley.

The film's director, Richard Eyre, started out on the project with a potential $20m budget, but ended up with only $5m. He didn't find it easy to sell a serious subject to Hollywood.

"You go to them and you say I've got Judi Dench and I've got this story about two English intellectuals and one of them dies of Alzheimer's disease and how do you feel about investing in it? Well, fairly reasonably they say we don't feel particularly good about investing in it", he said.

But the film has been well received in America, and Judi Dench is almost certainly on her way to an Oscar nomination.

The novelist, Robert Harris had difficulties of a different kind when his novel Fatherland, about the Second World War, was optioned by Hollywood.

"They did some audience research and they found that most of their target audience - which was the 15- to 19-year-old American market - didn't know there had been a Second World War, let alone who had won it", he said.

"And so it was not possible to make that book as a feature movie, because it would have been impossible to sell it."

That story goes to the heart of what matters in Hollywood. But from an actor's point of view, it's irrelevant where the story for a film comes from. The star, Kate Winslet, who plays the young Iris Murdoch, appears in her fifth film adapted from a book:

"A film doesn't work unless it's got a good story and a good script, and it doesn't really matter where that story's come from", she said.

A man who knows a lot about film adaptations, is the award-winning director, Anthony Minghella. After The Talented Mr Ripley and the hugely successful English Patient, he's about to embark on his third adaptation: Charles Frazier's best-selling novel, Cold Mountain. Yet he still thinks that it's untrue that Hollywood is led by books more than anything else in the adult market.

"There's very little interest in literature in Hollywood, there's only interest in story", he said.

"Often, particularly 20th century literature, has eschewed narrative. Novelists have stopped being storytellers in important literature. Very few books become films, very few films are based on novels."

Despite Anthony Minghella's protests, coming to a cinema near you in the next few weeks, are Charlotte Grey from Sebastian Faulks's novel; Last Orders, based on Graham Swift's Booker prize-winner; Iris, of course, and Annie E Proulx's Shipping News. And the book that's already been tipped as the novel of the year, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, has been optioned by Hollywood. Time to sit back and think ahead to the Oscars.

Visit BBCi Films' special feature on Iris

Kate Winslet and Richard Eyre filming
Listen - Razia Iqbal's report
Dame Judi Dench also stars in the film
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