While it will be a long long time before any book series rivals the enduring global popularity of Harry Potter, which jumped from books into films, it took a little less than one month for Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, about the lives of African American maids working for white employers in 1960s Mississippi, to make it onto the New York Times Best Sellers List. Granted, it was in the ‘Also Selling’ section, at number 29, but the book had only been out for three weeks.
This week, it’s at number one. What changed? The release of a paperback edition of the novel has certainly helped—between the second and third week after the paperback came out, the novel jumped from 23rd place (where it had been lurking after being in the top ten for most of a year) back up to 5th.
But there ‘s another key factor at play, and anyone who’s walked around a city in the last week can’t miss it. Advertising for the film version of The Help, due out next week, is in full swing (trailer below). And we’re talking the full force of the Dreamworks and Disney machine. There is no mistaking that The Help is on its way.
Clearly, having a major film adaptation and all the marketing that goes with it will help any book’s sales (despite the age-old wisdom that reading a book will never be as good after you’ve seen the movie version).
What’s more intriguing is the sheer number of books on the bestseller list that have had recent film adaptations. Right behind The Help on the New York Times paperback list is Water for Elephants, a book that came out over five years ago, but was the subject of a film version with Reese Witherspoon and Christopher Waltz earlier this year.
To take an even older example, George R. R. Martin’s 1996 book, A Game of Thrones, is currently in the fifth spot of the Times’s combined hardcover and paperback fiction list, no doubt because of a wildly popular, Emmy-nominated HBO series earlier this year that was picked up for a second season only two days after it premiered.
It’s no mystery how a contemporary adaptation of an older novel can make a huge difference in that book’s popularity. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy affirmed J.R.R. Tolkien’s books as an enduring classic. Just as importantly, though, it made them something of our own time. Jackson’s Middle-Earth is of the 21st century; it links us to the work that was written for another generation.
Still, despite the success of adaptations of older works such as Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones and even the Chronicles of Narnia series (which has proven to be more challenging to adapt to films), there is something different going on when it comes to the relationship between new fiction and the film world, one to which the TImes’s bestseller list holds a clue.
The massively successful eighth installation of the Harry Potter film series came out last month; not surprisingly, the books are number two in the Times’s children’s series list. (More in a bit on what’s beating HP out for number one.) Harry wasn’t even in the top five of the bestseller list for most of the weeks leading up to the film’s release. A week before it came out, the book was at number five; in the weeks after, it shot up first to third, and then to second, where it is now.
The pattern here isn’t hard to identify. We love film adaptations because we already know the characters and plots they present. Adaptations don’t have to do the heavy lifting of establishing a situation—a fact proven admirably by the final Potter film, which began took off where the last one left off, in medias res, without any explanation.
Stories that involve elements of fantasy, of course, make this even more powerful. No matter how good it ends up being, chances are that the film version of The Help isn’t going to bring anything radically new to the table, mostly because it’s historical fiction. Film series like Harry Potter or Twilight, on the other hand, take our imagination one step further, showing us a world we think we know through new eyes.
Enter The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins’ hugely popular young-adult science fiction series, which many hope will replace Potter and Twilight as the new fantasy franchise. It’s the NY Times number one on the list above Harry Potter (where it has been reposing for several months). Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) has already started filming an adaptation of the first novel, which Lionsgate is slated to release in March 2012. As we’ve reported, indie darling Jennifer Lawrence, who was excellent in the gritty Winter’s Bone, will play Katniss, the trilogy’s protagonist, opposite Liam Hemsworth (pictured) and Josh Hutcherson. (Not surprisingly, there’s already some requisite fan backlash.
Obviously, once a book hits number one on the NY Times list, it’s practically destined for Hollywood. But as the more recent print success of books such as A Game of Thrones demonstrates, the relationship can work in the opposite direction: a stellar film or TV adaptation can bump up a book that’s been relatively unknown for years. Now that the final ship in the massive Potter fleet has come to port, everyone is wondering what will be next. Perhaps only the Times may tell.