Books to Film: Josh Malerman on Seeing ‘Bird Box’ Land on Netflix, 45 Million International Accounts Watch

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Michigan author Josh Malerman’s debut novel ‘Bird Box’ is an international release with staying power from Netflix in its Universal Pictures production directed by Denmark’s Susanne Bier with Sandra Bullock.

Sandra Bullock with Vivien Lyra Blair, left, and Julian Edwards in the Susanne Bier film adaptation of Josh Malerman’s ‘Bird Box.’ Image: Netflix

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Like Standing in a Wind Tunnel’

‘Bird Box,’ the HarperCollins US film tie-in cover

One major holiday season film release this year is getting a worldwide start that’s almost as layered as the book Josh Malerman wrote. And the author tells Publishing Perspectives that watching his debut novel go to Hollywood was a much “warmer” experience than he’d anticipated.

Netflix reports it operates in more than 190 countries at the start of 2019.

Streaming internationally on the service since December 21, this is director Susanne Bier’s relentlessly tense cinematic treatment of Malerman’s Bird Box (HarperCollins/Ecco, 2014). At this writing, the book stands at No. 1 in the Amazon Kindle Store in adaptations and in post-apocalyptic science fiction, the Kindle edition specially priced at $2.99.

Updates as of January 3:

  • On December 28, Netflix has announced that Bird Box has been seen by 45,037,125 accounts worldwide in its first seven days, the best performance to date for a Netflix film in its opening week.
  • Bird Box on January 1 was listed at No. 2 on the Apple iBooks iBook paid list and on January 2 entered the Amazon Charts Most Sold Fiction list at No. 3.
  • Also on January 2, Netflix has issued an appeal to fans of a #BirdBoxChallenge to avoid being hurt while trying to get around blindfolded, a dangerous meme the streaming network is working to distance itself from.

As in her award-winning direction of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager (2016), Bier never blinks: no camp, no send-ups, no comic relief enters the story that was first told—just as seriously—by Malerman four years ago when his book was released.

The author has returned to his Michigan home from both the Los Angeles and New York premieres, and organized a small local private showing of the film for friends and family in Troy in the weekend before Christmas, as Netflix began streaming the thriller to the rest of the world.

HarperCollins’ original cover for ‘Bird Box’

“I feel like I’m standing in a wind tunnel,” Malerman concedes. “But the wind is warm.”

How warm? Not only is the film directed by the Copenhagen-born Bier, but it stars Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, BD Wong, Sarah Paulson, Machine Gun Kelly, Tom Hollander, Danielle Macdonald, Rebecca Pidgeon, and more players who work for Bier in the kind of ensemble that Uta Hagen would recognize.

However “warm” Malerman might have found this theatrically fluent ensemble when he met the actors, cold isolation is the great terror of his tale, and it’s just outside the window, waiting.

If anything, Bier’s interpretation of the screenplay by Eric Heisserer—who won the 2017 Academy for his Arrival screenplay adapted from Ted Chian’s story—confirms what critics and book industry observers recognized in 2014: Malerman has a lot of Hitchcock in him as a storyteller. No less a reader than Rebecca Smart, managing director of Penguin Random House’s Ebury Publishing in London, tweeted about her experience in reading Malerman’s Bird Box in 2014:

Stephen King on ‘Bird Box’: The ‘Dread NP Syndrome’

Bier and Heisserer’s film is now the subject of a lively debate in entertainment media, and it’s not a chorus of hosannas. The film is being called “riveting, sometimes” (Aisha Harris, New York Times). The ensemble is described as “inexplicably bland” (Peter Debruge, Variety). The effects and story world are called by a fence-straddling Justin Chang at the Los Angeles Times, something “you’ve seen many times before, which doesn’t mean you’ll mind seeing it again.”

But the show also has friends in high places:

In his tweet from Thursday (December 20), Stephen King is flagging the digital disruption through which the film industry is transitioning. It reminds publishing professionals of the book industry’s initial efforts to blindfold itself to the glow of ebooks.

Notice King’s mention of “reviewers’ ambivalence to the streaming platform, as opposed to theatrical releases.” He tightens up that reference a minute later in his Twitter feed:

The film was made by Universal Pictures (optioned in 2013) with Bluegrass Films and Chris Morgan Productions.  It’s producer Scott Stuber who forms the link with Netflix. As Justin Kroll reported at Variety in 2013, Stuber originally was associated with the project at Universal, with Andy Muschietti expected to direct. And Stuber has become Netflix’s head of original films since literary agent Kristen Nelson (Nelson Literary) began shepherding that first option action ahead of the book’s publication.

Not least because the Academy requires a theatrical screening in Los Angeles County for a film to be eligible, Netflix has mounted exclusive theatrical runs this year, prior to streaming, for Bird Box, Roma, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As Travis Clark reports at Business Insider, “It was a rare move for Netflix, as the company’s original-film strategy is usually ‘day and date,’ meaning the movies become available to stream on the same day they are released to theaters.”

The HarperCollins UK film tie-in edition

But beyond questions of “NP syndrome,” at The Wrap. Yolanda Machado is getting close to something Malerman’s agent Nelson has always told us drew her to the book. She normally represents nothing classified as “horror,” but in this book, she has said, she was captured by the family element–and perhaps with Bullock’s character as a reluctant mother.

“For generations,” writes Machado, “the picture of motherhood has been that of a woman who connects with her child immediately, who is openly loving and soft. Motherhood today is not as simple. There are real dangers that our children face daily, simply by walking outside. There’s no new handbook to teach us how to prep our kids in case their school is taken over by a shooter, nor is there a guide on how to lead our children when we ourselves are uncertain of what the future holds.”

And for those willing to let their fears be ruffled by Bird Box, Machado may be getting at why Bier’s film evocation can be so unsettling. If the piece could have been released without “post-apocalyptic” labels, if it could be discussed without people referring to “creatures”–who are terrors of each victim’s own making–and if it could float free of the market’s commercial need to pigeonhole every title, its essay on individual fear might not be dismissed so blithely.

Every time Bier’s ground cover of leaves starts rising into the air, danger is turning the gravity of mass anxiety on its head. Bird Box is a study in the true scare about secrets: it’s what others don’t know that threatens us.

A HarperCollins US paperback cover

And Victoria Sanusi at iNews is writing that King’s social media clout has found support, hashtags including #BirdBox and #BirdBoxNetflix trending at times as Twitter and Instagram users have fun with memes such as “stay in the boat” and “through the forest.”

At the time of the book’s release in 2014, much of the discussion around it had less to do with dystopian tropes and more to do with Malerman’s writing, its near-literary eloquence. Supporters of the book argued that it didn’t fit the “horror” categories of general fiction but that it lay in richer contexts of writerly accomplishment. This was not, it should be noted, something always welcomed by Malerman. He likes horror and likes himself in horror.

He’s carefully made his place outside the general community of authors, as well. He’s too busy to be a joiner.

For an article on the release of the book in 2014, Malerman told this reporter, “I wrote the rough draft for Bird Box in 26 days. It was a magnificent example of experimental horror. There were no chapter breaks, no quotations, no indentations, all present tense, italicized. You didn’t even know who was talking. It was like a solid brick of a manuscript. I loved it. It was like a singular nightmare.”

And now, there’s one thing on which surely anyone can agree about Malerman: he must be a Hollywood producer’s dream author.

From left, ‘Bird Box’ book author Josh Malerman, Sandra Bullock, director Susanne Bier, and Trevante Rhodes. Image: Kristin Nelson

‘A Riveting Pitch’

“Basically, I had no say,” Malerman says, but he’s adamant that (a) he loves the film (and Nelson says she does, too) and (b) he’s completely comfortable with Heisserer’s screenplay and Bier’s interpretation, filmed in Los Angeles and on California’s Smith River. The final scene is shot at Scripps College in Claremont.

Josh Malerman

“Look,” he tells Publishing Perspectives and any of his book’s fans who will listen to him, “if I had directed the movie, starred in the movie, and written the screenplay, it still wouldn’t be the book.”

He tells a funny story on himself about being asked by producers early on, “How would you film this story?”

“I gave a 15-minute monologue,” Malrerman says, “about how I’d have at least half the movie in complete darkness. And at the end of what I thought was a riveting pitch, they asked, ‘So you’re saying we show nothing at all?'”

That was the last time his guidance was requested.

But “While I had no say,” he says, when he and singer-songwriter fiancée Alison Laaka were flown to the Bird Box set for a visit, “I was totally welcome. The set, the actors, the crew were all super-warm and efficient. Just doing their jobs. The assistant director said, ‘Alright, we’re about to start shooting,’ and Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson just walked over and did their thing.

“A director dictates the mood on a set. Susanne Bier is an efficient, warm, intelligent person. It was wonderful.”

Later,  he says, Bier would seek him out at the first premiere, in Los Angeles, to ask, “What did you think?”

“And I could legitimately tell her that I love it,” he says, a high point for him in which the director genuinely wanted to know the author’s impression.

But even after seeing those histrionics-free shoots on the set, Malerman concedes that he asked for a private screening at Netflix’s offices before the premieres–just in case the film had gone another way.

“I’d prepared myself,” he says, “to be conflicted. I understand how wonderful it is” to have the film made, “and if it’s true to the book, that’s gravy. But I was too nervous to see it for the first time at a premiere with Sandra Bullock sitting two seats from me.

“The second time is when I actually watched the movie and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is really good.’ Sandra Bullock is really, really good in it. The kids are great [Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards]. And as I’d said before, I’d only seen this in my mind as a black-and-white movie, an elongated Twilight Zone.

“But I’ve learned that as long as the core ideas of a book are intact, I’m open to a gazillion changes” when it goes to film. And while we can’t tell you which scene in the film he’s talking about without creating a spoiler, he confides admiringly, “That’s one scare that I really wish I had in the book.”

As some in the books industry know, Malerman is not only a meticulous writer but also a prolific one. There are 22 more manuscripts. He and his manager, Ryan Lewis–who was an executive producer on this one–have, he says, at least two more options in place and are hopeful for a third now under consideration.

One is for Malerman’s second book, A House at the Bottom of a Lake (This Is Horror, 2016).

HarperCollins Ecco has also published his 2017 Black Mad Wheel.

And Penguin Random House’s Del Rey releases his new Inspection–surely a logical get for a studio–on April 23, after the paperback of Del Rey’s Unbury Carol by Malerman comes out February 5.

And for now, Malerman is still buzzing from his green room experiences with the cast of Bird Box at the two coast’s premieres.

“It was electrifying, “he says, “being backstage with all these big personalities and waiting for our names to be called” for their appearances onstage. “The ushers kept having to tell us to be quiet–we were making too much noise with jokes, like the Marx Brothers.”

Not a bad way to debut in Hollywood with your debut novel. Malerman, living the author’s dream, is adamantly grateful.

“I think the way Susanne [Bier] put it when she was talking about the cast,” he says, “is the best description: this has been like working with a ‘creative bomb’ of talent.”

And just for the record, Malerman has a theory of why he finds it so easy to release a book to a good film studio without the attachments many authors suffer: he’s the front man and songwriter for a band formed in 2000 and based in Michigan. It’s called, with some sort of poetic justice, The High Strung.

“And for almost 20 years,” Josh Malerman says, “I’ve been writing songs for the band and handing them over and saying, ‘Just do whatever you want with this.'”

More from Publishing Perspectives on films and the books industry is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.