Screen does not boost print

Screen does not boost print

Film-maker Tan Bee Thiam has never seen a live staging of the play Fundamentally Happy, but fell in love with the work of playwright Haresh Sharma while reading the published script a few years ago.

Over the last two years, Tan put in $30,000 of his savings to make a 61-minute film based on the 2006 play about the consequences of child abuse, hoping this would eventually interest more people in Sharma's writing.

He is among several Singapore film-makers who are trying to revive interest in their favourite works by adapting them for the screen - though publishers say such print-to-screen works have yet to boost book sales.

The film Fundamentally Happy, starring Adibah Noor and Joshua Lim and co-directed by Tan and Lei Yuan Bin, will debut on April 24 at a sold-out screening during the Southeast Asian Film Festival at the Singapore Art Museum. Tickets for an additional April 30 show go on sale today.

"I've always been very interested in adaptations of local and regional literature because they're underappreciated," says Tan, 37, who read the original play in Trilogy, a 2010 publication of three of Sharma's scripts by his theatre company The Necessary Stage. "I'm so glad it was published, otherwise I would never have read it."

Other print-to-screen adaptations coming up include a full-length telemovie version of Daren Shiau's 1999 novel of HDB life, Heartland, to be screened on Okto channel later this year.

It is directed by K. Rajagopal (I Can't Sleep Tonight, 1995) and produced by Verite Productions, which also adapted three other works of local literature into telemovies that aired on Channel 5 last month in the series Straight From The Heart.

These were The Playground, based on the late Arthur Yap's well-known poem 2 Mothers In A HDB Playground; October: The Dreamboat, directed by Wee Li Lin and adapted from playwright Sharma's 1996 play October, about HDB upgrading projects; and Cats And Dogs: Chronicles Of A Pest Detective, an adaptation of Wong Swee Hoon's short story Of Cats And Dogs And HDB Flats.

Channel 5 says viewership for the series was 700,000, certainly more than lifetime book sales of any of the works involved. In overseas markets, a film or television series can lift sales of a forgotten or less well-known book.

The young adult novel If I Stay, by Gayle Forman (Penguin Books), made no ripples when it was published in 2009, but became an international bestseller last year, including in Singapore, because of the film adaptation, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, which was released in September.

J.R.R. Tolkien's children's novel, The Hobbit, first published in 1937, catapulted onto bestseller charts in Singapore and overseas from 2012 to last year because of the Peter Jackson-directed film trilogy shown in the same years.

As is common industry practice, to further boost sales, publisher HarperCollins re-released The Hobbit with three different jacket covers, each featuring a scene from one movie in the trilogy.

In Singapore, most screen adaptations of print titles are commissions for television, given the poor box-office takings at theatres in the past - the 2008 romance The Leap Years by MediaCorp's Raintree Pictures, adapted from the Catherine Lim novella Leap Of Love, made $1 million, for example, covering only a third of its estimated production budget.

Even the 1998 movie Teenage Textbook, which rode on the buzz over an existing bestseller by Adrian Tan, made only $680,000, though it cost an estimated half a million dollars to produce.

Television adaptations can be done for a tenth of the cost of a feature film and may also receive funding from government bodies, says director Lee Thean-Jeen, who produced the adaptation of Dave Chua's 1997 novel Gone Case into a two-part telemovie that aired on Channel 5 last year.

This was funded by the Media Development Authority's PSB Contestable Funds Scheme.

While Lee, 46, hopes the adaptation "drove more people back to the book", the truth is that sales were barely affected, according to the book's publisher Ethos Books. Gone Case has sold an average of 200 copies a year since 2011 and this did not change after the telemovie.

Chua, 45, says he saw a handful of orders come in for the 2010 graphic novel adaptation of his story about a troubled heartland family - the selfpublished illustrated version was done by Koh Hong Teng - but adds: "The amount isn't much to shout about."

Ethos Books founder Fong Hoe Fang, 60, says: "There is a slight take-up in sales usually, but not enough to make publishers millionaires. The more controversial titles usually attract more sales. I think it's a reflection of people's need to hear alternative voices and a sign of growing maturity."

He refers to the Function 8 publication Escape From The Lion's Paw: Reflections Of Singapore's Political Exiles, edited by Teo Soh Lung and Low Yit Leng, which Ethos Books distributes. The 2012 non-fiction title inspired Tan Pin Pin's documentary on the same topic, To Singapore, With Love.

As controversy raged last year over the film, which was not screened here, Ethos Books saw more orders online and from bookstores for the book.

Singapore publisher Monsoon Books has sold television adaptation rights to three short stories from various anthologies over the years, which inspired the 1998 miniseries Keong Saik Street on Channel 5 and two one-episode dramas on Arts Central in 2008.

Rights have also been sold to a non-fiction book on the sex industry, Invisible Trade by Gerrie Lim, but the screen adaptation has not yet been produced.

Publisher Phil Tatham says: "We do not have enough data to show whether a TV adaptation of one of our short stories has helped sales of a book." However, he continues to mail his catalogues to film and television companies every year.

Three years ago, Okto aired a 10-episode drama, The Diary Of Amos Lee, based on the best-selling children's book series by Adeline Foo published by Epigram Books. After the 2012 television adaptation, Foo and her publisher released a fourth book in the same series, titled The Diary Of Amos Lee: Lights, Camera, Superstar!, which has sold at least 10,000 copies.

However, a spokesman for Epigram Books points out that the series was a bestseller and had sold at least 200,000 copies even before the television show.

Using screen to sell print requires more collaboration among all parties involved, says Mr Fong. For example, theatre company Wild Rice keeps him informed of upcoming productions so he can place the published play scripts at the front of house for sale.

In contrast, a spokesman for MediaCorp's Channel 5 says publishers have not approached the channel for cross-promotion activities, such as to use stills from the Straight From The Heart telemovies in reprints of the books.

Writer Foo, 45, did not choose to capitalise on an opportunity to market her little-known young adult novel, Thomas Titans: Men Among Boys (2012, Om Books International).

The book is available for sale only in India. Neither Foo nor her publisher has moved to bring the book to Singapore, even though in January, Channel 5 aired a film version of the book, 2 Boys And A Mermaid, which was directed by Lee.

Foo says she did not follow up on this marketing chance because she was busy writing.

Other print-to-screen adaptations from Singapore writers this year include an animated version in August of author Chua's The Beating And Other Short Stories (Ethos Books, 2012).

Another publisher, Bubbly Books, has also seen much interest in its titles for children, including Jessica Alejandro's children's series about bullied kids who become unusual superheroes, Extraordinary Losers, as well as founder Eliza Teoh's bestselling Ellie Belly series.

Ellie Belly has attracted the interest of animation companies and Teoh, 42, is looking at a webisode model, where episodes appear online rather than on television or in the theatre.

This will hopefully attract a new generation geared towards viewing content online and on smart devices.

While increased sales drive her as a publisher, as a writer, Teoh finds screen adaptations of her books fulfilling on a different level. "For a writer, there's also the validation that you've created something that appeals to people and the thrill of seeing your creation come to life," she says.

This article was first published on April 7, 2015.
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