Books, Games, Film: Choose the Next Path for Storytelling

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The massive audiences and lucrative development of the streaming platforms can mean some tough choices for publishers trying to map out screen success.

Ironically for publishers, the video game at the center of the ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ interactive film is based on a book, but it’s a fictitious one. Image: Netflix/’Black Mirror’

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

The Race to the ‘Streamers’
As publishers in many parts of the world look for avenues in which their content can find more digital life—and profit—the international video streaming platforms clearly are gaining rapidly in importance.

The film tie-in cover from Penguin Random House / Anchor

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Penguin Random House/Anchor), of course, is a good example of the book-to-platform pathway, having been developed by Bruce Miller with Atwood into a 33-episode, three-season series that put a 1985 novel on the 21st-century map—with entirely new content developed in the latter part of the series to keep the cinematic edition going.

Much more recently, as Publishing Perspectives has reported, Josh Malerman’s 2014 book Bird Box, in its screen adaptation directed by Susanne Bier for Netflix and Universal Pictures, has become the streaming network’s biggest Netflix film release in terms of initial viewership. Nielsen counted 26 million viewers in the film’s first week in its coverage area, and Netflix reported an overall 45 million accounts watching it in the same week, worldwide, setting a record for the network.

The platform now is seen in 190 countries. It produces original content in many of them, which is why you’ll find so much dubbed and/or subtitled content appearing in your recommendations at times.

The folks at HarperCollins’ Ecco Books probably don’t mind seeing their four-year-old book bounce to No. 1 in the January 20 Apple iBooks bestseller list and register as No. 2 in the week of January 6 for Most Read Fiction on the Amazon Charts. It stands at No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list in combined ebooks and print fiction, in the January 20 ranking and at No. 7 on the USA Today fiction chart.

And while there’s clearly a fast-rising interest in working with these content-hungry video streaming platforms, all that streams may not be gold.

Netflix released a big question mark just a week after Bird Box took flight as a hit when it released Bandersnatch, an interactive, spin-off episode of the Black Mirror series in which viewers can choose what happens next

Not this book: the bandersnatch is a fictional creature in Lewis Carroll’s 1872 ‘Through the Looking Glass’

Bandersnatch was hardly the first effort in interactive television entertainment, but some in publishing were watching closely on its December 28 release, because the premise of its appeal—or “gimmick” if you’re among the non-fans—was its basis in the old concept of gamebooks.

With early examples going all the way back to the 1930s, the basic gamebook lives in print and uses numbered paragraphs or pages to let you Choose Your Own Adventure, as Bantam Books’ 1980s and 1990s series was called. (Chooseco bought the trademark after Bantam allowed it to lapse.) Gamebooks generally utilize branching and/or role-playing to create plot options.

Digitally rendered screen iterations of the concept, of course, can generate a cooler, less engaged model, in which a viewer plays no role in a story but simply makes choices when prompted, as to one option or another in the progress of the story.

This is the case in Bandersnatch, which in David Slade and Charlie Brooker’s production puts forward a story of a programmer in 1984 who feels that he’s being made to make choices not his own. In at least one major branch of the story, it is the Netflix platform itself that appears to take on the role of a controlling entity “from the early 21st century,” the better to mess with the kid’s head. (The kid is played by Fionn Whitehead with what must have been a lot of patience required for the shoot.)

And what may have publishers watching this experiment on edge is the sheer breadth of response. The multiplicity of reactions has been almost as boggling as the often illogical-looking viewer choices in the show, and it’s hard to find reactions that aren’t all for it or all against it.

Press Reactions: Game On? or Gimmick?

Fionn Whitehead looking for the next choice in ‘Bandersnatch.’ Image: Netflix/’Black Mirror’

As James Gill writes this week at Radio Times, after such a siege of polarizing reactions, “Netflix has a choice to make. Should the streaming service continue to experiment with the choose your own adventure format?” And should publishers also explore this interactive format?

Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast worked hard to get onto the fence, writing that the show is “a major accomplishment in storytelling” but also “one of Black Mirror’s lamest outings yet.” And where his appraisal might chill some bookish types who have hoped they might choose the make-more-shows-like-this option from books is in his observation, “It turns out that when television starts to become a video game, the integrity of the story is muddied by the thrill of choice and control.”

Indeed, evoking the youth appeal of the original gamebooks, Fallon writes, “The ‘that thing you liked as a kid, but for adults’ genre of entertainment tends to fall victim to its own gimmick, and that’s certainly the case here, too.”

Of course, as in many discussions around such experimentation, it’s hard to keep the conversation focused on the formula, the format, the introduction of the new stop-and-start, choose-this, choose-that way of watching (which, in itself, some viewers have found annoying, too much work).

“It turns out that when television starts to become a video game, the integrity of the story is muddied by the thrill of choice and control.”Kevin Fallon, 'The Daily Beast'

Many say they didn’t like the story, that the characters aren’t engaging, and so on—all of which is perfectly legitimate criticism, but ironically may not be germane to the considerations a publisher brings to the table. A publisher, after all, would start, surely, with the belief that she or he had a good story, rich characterizations, engaging issues and developments.

The question, then, for the publishing house would be can this type of choose-your-own-viewing-experience be deployed to get the content in front of all those international eyeballs that a streaming platform offers. Or is the presumably safer option of looking for traditional film and/or television development the better course?

As one of our most seasoned observers, Janko Roettgers writes at Variety, “Bandersnatch comes with five possible endings. Viewers who choose the quickest path, and decide against any do-overs, can make it through the film in around 40 minutes. The average viewing time is around 90 minutes. Altogether, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story. However, this also includes relatively simple iterations that don’t necessarily alter the story itself.”

Roettgers gets at several of the big challenges of the program that are important to understand in order to appreciate its sheer technical achievements. For example, at one point, the team’s story outline simply crashed because Netflix’s branch manager tool had been overloaded. Pre-caching is used for two paths, and the filmmakers realized they had to keep the choices coming, he writes, or viewers would misplace their remote controls and not be ready for the next option.

But if, as the Black Mirror team members have said in interviews, the intent is to “advance storytelling”—and in other words, put aside the technical issues for a moment—a publisher is left with a very tricky choice. Do you pick up the phone and start talking up that backlist title you think could be a perfect candidate for development of this kind? Or dash back to something more traditional?

A graphic novel edition of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is scheduled to release in March

Publishers are watching a lot of the big hits of the streaming world come into being without a book behind them. Amazon Studios’ award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one, with a third season in play. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, its 1950s aura might give you the sense of this being a show based on a book by someone whose name  you’ll remember as soon as you hear it. And that’s a dilemma for publishing houses: with so much content in production now, producers may be inclined to skip the search for a book and reach for something they can develop from scratch directly for the “streamers,” as the big platforms are called.

What happens in the nether-reaches of big-streaming success? A graphic novel treatment of The Handmaid’s Tale is coming out from Penguin Random House/Nan Talese on March 26, with Renee Nault illustrating.

Is there really that much urgency to look for streaming development for books? Probably. As Paul Bond wrote Thursday (January 10) at The Hollywood Reporter, specialists are saying that “the era of bundled streamers is near as households tire of paying an average $107 a month for cable…

“And by the end of 2019,” he writes, “audience demand for Netflix original programming will overtake that of its licensed titles, a December 13 report from Parrot Analytics and S&P Global Market Intelligence found.”

So it is that with a property still to find its way into the thicket of streaming screen development, the potential directions a publisher might go seem to be multiplying, quickly, and with a lot of good and bad choices to sort out. Just like in a gamebook.

More from Publishing Perspectives on books and film 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.