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‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Will Tell Us If Blockbuster Novels Have a Theatrical Future

This weekend is literally one for the books. "Where the Crawdads Sing," "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," and "The Gray Man" defy current film trends.

Young Kya (Jojo Regina) in front of the shack in Columbia Pictures' WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING.

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

Michele K. Short

Like “Gone with the Wind,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “The Help” before it, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is the adaptation of a native Southern female writer’s best-selling debut novel that sold millions. Its predecessors were box-office hits and Best Picture Oscar nominees, each winning in a least one major category. However, “Crawdads” may see a very different outcome: To understand the radical changes in the theatrical landscape, look no further than the best-selling adaptation.

At the upper reaches of industry projections, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony) won’t provide memorable box office. Opening numbers range from $8 million to $18 million for the $25 million production, making it one of the lower opening weekends for a wide studio release this summer.

That’s also why it’s interesting: What’s it doing here? It’s the furthest thing from a franchise film. It’s also aimed at adults, skewed toward women. However, a deeper look suggests that success might have eluded it in earlier eras as well.

Until 1975, 15 of the 25 biggest domestic grossing live-action films were novel adaptations. Between 1975 and today, there’s only two in the top 25 with “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump.”

In the last four years, only three novel adaptations grossed $100 million: “Dune,” “Little Women,” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” The last was the biggest at $175 million, suggesting the massive success of the novel and its sequels provided a strong base.

It wasn’t long ago that the publishing and movie industries worked hand in hand. Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s fantasy novels, the plethora of young-adult series like “Twilight” and “Hunger Games,” the massively successful “Harry Potter” franchise. Even after 1975 — which launched the blockbuster era with a best-seller adaptation, “Jaws” — most years saw multiple adaptations among top hits. These included best sellers from Scott Turow, John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James.

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

“Crawdads” outsold most of those books. Published in 2018, it spent 166 weeks on the New York Times fiction best seller list and returned to #1 last Sunday., a strong a sign of renewed interest with the potential of carrying over to box office. However, unlike “Wind,” “Mockingbird,” or “The Help,” it doesn’t have major stars with a record of past hits. The first two also had top directors.

In past decades, a summer release for this would have seemed natural. Popular fiction ike “Rosemary’s Baby” and “True Grit” were released during the season. More recently, “The Firm,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Great Gatsby” are a few that were among their year’s biggest hits.

Yet “Crawdads” has the feel of a film with an uncertain audience. The common diagnosis is men’s tastes drive the movie audience and most of this book’s readers are women. There’s also the counter: In 2015, “Fifty Shades of Grey” opened to what would be over $100 million today. Like “Crawdads,” it had a woman director making her second feature and the first for a studio. Both received negative advance reviews (“Shades” with a Metacritic score of 46, “Crawdads” 47).

“Crawdads” is not the only adaptation to open this week: There’s also “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Focus) from Paul Gallico’s previously filmed 1958 novel (the first in a long-running “Harris” series; the prolific author also wrote “The Poseidon Adventure”); it opens in just under 1,000 theaters. The Russo brothers’ “The Gray Man” with Ryan Gosling and others from a 2009 novel (and a reported budget of $200 million) gets a week’s preview in around 450 theaters before streaming on Netflix.

MHP_17724_RLesley Manville stars as Mrs. Harris in director Tony Fabian’s MRS.HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Dávid Lukács / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd - Harris Squared Kft

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Dávid Lukács

“Mrs. Harris” overlaps in audience appeal somewhat with “Crawdads,” though without the same immediacy. But all three going in theaters is a distinctive and rare moment in recent theatrical play.

If “Crawdads” exceeds expectations, negative reviews might even help the broader cause of returning best-selling novels to the big screen rather than cable or streaming outlets. Series, mini- and otherwise, are the new norm for novels, from “Game of Thrones” and “Big Little Lies” (HBO) to “Pachinko” (Apple), “Conversations with Friends” (Hulu), and the upcoming “Daisy Jones and The Six” (Amazon). TV offers something that movies cannot with its extended run times and reduced truncation, but an adaptation’s successful theatrical release would remind studios that best-sellers still have a home on the big screen.

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