Many vintage books have been made into what are now old movies, and many contemporary books have been made into newer movies, but it is surprising how many really old titles have been adapted for film decades after first being published.
I’m not talking about classics that return to the silver screen every few years as a remake, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I mean old novels that were popular as first editions, but have fallen into obscurity with the passage of time, such as the not-so-recent but definitely familiar titles, The Blue Lagoon (Henry De Vere Stacpoole, 1908), A Room with a View (E.M. Forster, 1908), and Brewster’s Millions (George Barr McCutcheon, 1902).
The reasons for the reemergence of slightly moth-eaten stories as movies vary, but one of the most likely is that after 75 years, copyrights expire. In other words, anyone can adapt older works without having to pay royalties. Since the titles have fallen out of the public eye, the plots seem fresh and new, and audiences have no, “I hated the movie because it wasn’t like the book,” complaints.
Frequently, these titles were written by once-popular novelists, but are not known as the authors’ defining works. The movie thence enjoys a shirt-tail association with fame, but is able to capitalize on the unfamiliarity of the plot. (McCutcheon was most famous for Graustark and its sequels, Forster for A Passage to India.)
I think that if I were to attempt a screenplay based on an old novel, it would be Elsie Dinsmore, by Margaret Finley. Written in 1867, it is about a young Northern sympathizer in antebellum times, and was the beginning of a series that remained popular with young girls well into the 1940s. Although the Elsie books were what made Finley famous, if it were to sell, there is a stream of ready-made sequels.
How about you?
Brewster’s Millions, by George Barr McCutcheon, 1902
Brewster’s Millions, starring Richard Pryor, 1985
The Blue Lagoon, by Henry De Vere Stacpoole, 1908
The Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, 1980
A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster, 1908
A Room with a View, starring Helena Bonham Carter, 1985