Selling Books to the Movies and Television: The Fiona Fiasco!

I get a lot of emails each week from authors asking questions about optioning, selling or adapting their work for the movies or TV. While I always try to answer as best I can, nothing comes close to hearing about the actual process in action.

My latest Hollywood war story concerns the licensing of my mystery character, Fiona FitzGerald, the heroine of my six mystery books, to Lifetime Television for a potential one-hour series.

Tottering between hope and reluctance, I allowed my agent to proceed with the deal. I was partnered with a Producer who was supposed to shepherd the development through the network minefield leading to a pilot from which the network would judge whether to move forward to a regular series.

As always, I assumed that as the creator of the material, my input would be solicited and respected as the project moved forward. It is, of course, a weakness in my character to be addicted with such a delusion since I know from bitter experience that once my work falls into the hands of the Hollywood crowd it disappears into a mist of creative confusion and imaginative paralysis.

Fiona’s character and the geography of her world was so clearly defined in my six books that I could not remotely contemplate any but the most minor changes. In my stories, Fiona is a woman in her early thirties, whose father had been a respected Senator from New York, now deceased. She has been brought up in the privileged environment of Washington, where her schoolmates and friends had been the progeny of the so-called power elite.

Alas, it was not be. No sooner had I granted the license than I was exiled to oblivion. A committee sprang up, none of who had the slightest experience with the Washington scene nor had they any insight into the character of Fiona. The script was then “Lifetimized,” meaning special moments that were thought to appeal to their female audience were sprinkled throughout. This led to characters saying things like, “Shoes make the moment,” and “The big party is tonight and you still need a fabulous dress!” The last line sounds like it comes from the mouth of a teenager – but no, it is Fiona’s sister.

I was never invited to attend any so-called “creative” meetings and, although I did see script draft after script draft and fired back numerous memos to little effect, I could see that poor Fiona had been figuratively raped. Her adored father was brought to life as a rainmaking lawyer, her wise coroner friend had become a politically correct Latina, and her best friend had become her sister.

Clichés infected the script like viruses. The plot – thankfully, not based on any of my stories – dealt with a Congresswoman caught on tape having sex with a yoga instructor. She is then blackmailed by a tabloid writer who is subsequently murdered by the Congresswoman’s limousine driver. He keeps his gun in the refrigerator! Good God! Worse, when discovered, the Congresswoman utters the immortal line that what one saw on the tape, “Was not really who I am.” Yikes!

Never mind that the actress playing Fiona was about ten years too young or the Washington connection, both visually and script wise, was absurd and almost non-existent.

The pilot was a well-deserved turndown by the Lifetime folks, not to mention a million and half dollars on production down the tubes. Not to worry. Television burns at least a hundred million on no-go pilots.

Call it carping, second-guessing, sour grapes, hindsight, spite or whatever nastiness comes to mind; I blame no one but myself and my addiction to optimism for the fiasco. Everyone connected with the project really believed they were doing the right thing. Need I repeat the homily describing what the road to hell is paved with?

The experience did, however, afford me a few extra bucks to add to my children’s inheritance. And in 18 months the rights to Fiona will return to me and I will fight the battle again at some future time. Of course, the books are still available and, as solace, I’ve just completed a new one.

In baseball and in life, it’s not too shabby to bat .500. The movie adaptation of The War of the Roses was fabulous. The PBS Trilogy The Sunset Gang based on my short stories was marvelous. I wrote my opinion about Random Hearts in the New York Times and now you’ve got a good idea of how I feel about the Fiona fiasco.

I could write a book about it, but I’m sure you all get the idea. So you want to write for the movies?

– Warren Adler

Ask your questions of Mr. Adler in his Ask the Author forum.

Find out more about the entire Fiona FitzGerald mystery series.