Books at Berlinale 2019: New and Bestselling Books Pitched to Producers

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

At this year’s Books at Berlinale event, filmmakers were introduced to a dozen publishers’ titles curated for potential screen development.

Syrian author Ahmad Joudeh speaks with 2019 Books at Berlinale host Syd Atlas about his book, ‘Dance or Die.’ Image: Holger Heimann

By Holger Heimann

Pitching Literature to Filmmakers
The 14th edition of the Books at Berlinale film rights event, which takes place during the Berlin International Film Festival, was one with a new record and many interesting books being pitched by agents and publishers to film producers looking to develop new properties.

This year, the main Berlinale festival included a screening of Out Stealing Horsesdirected by Hans Petter Moland and adapted from the novel by Per Petterson (Forlaget Oktober, 2003). The Norwegian author watched the film and is reported to have said that he hadn’t read his novel for a long time and so the story was more distant to him than expected.

Books at Berlinale can give a book its chance to be developed for film. Set again this year at Berlin’s state parliament building, the Abgeordnetenhaus, the program has been organized annually since 2006 by the Berlinale administration in association with the Frankfurter Buchmesse.

As Publishing Perspectives has reported, organizers say that this year more than 160 submissions were made from more than 30 countries, a record level of interest, and with the dozen works selected for the program coming from Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, the Republic of Korea, Syria, and Turkey.

Titles being presented included both recent releases and proven bestsellers:

  • Dance or Die (Ahmad Joudeh, Syria), DeA Planeta Libri, Italy
  •  Love in Case of Emergency / Die Liebe im Ernstfall (Daniela Krien, Germany) Diogenes Verlag, Switzerland
  •  Salt on our Skin (Benoîte Groult), Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, France
  •  The Invisible Girl (Blue Jeans), Editorial Planeta, Spain
  •  The Wannsee Murder / Die Tote im Wannsee (Lutz Wilhelm Kellerhoff), Elisabeth Ruge Agentur, Germany
  •  The Girl with the Leica (Helena Janeczek, Germany) Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, Italy
  •  The Guest (Nermin Yıldırım), Kalem Agency, Turkey
  •  Keep Saying Their Names (Simon Stranger), Oslo Literary Agency
  •  Play Dead (A.F. Th. van der Heijden), Singel Uitgeverijen, Netherlands
  •  The Good Son (You-jeong Jeong, Republic of Korea), The Artists Partnership, UK
  •  Rightful Blood (Francesca Melandri), the Italian Literary Agency
  •  Great, and You? / Super, und dir? (Kathrin Weßling), Ullstein Buchverlage, Germany
Award-Winning Texts, Potential Film Options

Annette Orre of Oslo Literary Agency is interviewed by Syd Atlas about Simon Stranger’s ‘Keep Saying Their Names’ at the 2019 Books at Berlinale event. Image: Holder Heimann

Salt on our Skin by France’s Benoîte Groult was an interesting case, having sold more than 1 million copies in Germany. The book is an erotic feminist work already adapted for a 1992 film directed by Andrew Birken called Desire.

With its rights now available again, its selection for Books at Berlinale meant—as moderator Syd Atlas asked—why should a new adaptation be necessary.

More than 160 submissions were made from more than 30 countries, a record level of interest.

The answer from Heidi Warneke—who represented the book’s publisher, Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle—was that the Birkin adaptation of 27 years ago was “quite a male take on the story.

“Instead of that,” she said, “a female take could be interesting and extremely modern.”

Quite a number of the selected titles are prize-winners, a case in point being Keep Saying Their Names, Simon Stranger’s 2018 novel presented by Oslo Literary Agency. With its story about an infamous torturer, the book won last year’s Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize.

Another award-winner on the list this week was the 2017 Rightful Blood  (Italian Literary Agency, 2017) by writer Francesca Melandri, presented by the Italian Literary Agency. The book won the Premio Sila ’49 prize and was called by Der Spiegel “the international novel of the year.”

In her role as the event’s host, Syd Atlas’ task was  to find out more detailed clues as to how each story’s plot and structure might work on screen during 10-minute pitches with her representatives—some agents, some publishers—of the 12 titles chosen to be put forward.

“Why do we need a film about that?” was the question she asked most frequently.

Frequently, the follow-up question was, “Is it better as a film or a TV series?”

True Tales in Search of Film Treatments

One of the main factors influencing the answer sometimes had to do with which books are based on true stories.

For instance The Girl with the Leica (La Ragazza con la Leica, Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol) by Helena Janeczek tells the story of Gerda Taro, a brilliant but little-known photojournalist. She was in love with the war photographer Robert Capa, but she was killed at age 26 during the Spanish Civil War. With its story set in France, Spain, Hungary, and Poland, Atlas pointed out that an international co-production could be in the offing for this one.

One of the most touching moments was the presentation of the Syrian novel Dance or Die, (DeA Planeta Libri, 2018) the true story of Ahmad Joudeh, who stood up against war and fundamentalists by relying on his greatest passion: dance. For years he practiced alone and in secret.

“In Islamic culture, classical dance is regarded as a female activity, not suitable at all for man”, said Annachiara Tassan, a representative of the Italian publisher DeA Planeta Libri. “There’s no Arabic word for male dancers.”

The dancer-author himself turned out to be in the Books at Berlinale audience. Asked how he managed to held on to his dreams despite the war in Syria and threats from extremists, he said, “I wanted to exist as a dancer not as a refugee.”

Producers followed the final presentation by meeting with the day’s content representatives to discuss their potential interest in film rights.

While Norway, the upcoming Guest of Honor at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16-20) invited the film and book attendees to enjoy coffee and sweets, German literary agent Elisabeth Ruge—who had presented a crime story from Berlin—said that the event has long been a reliable place for valuable networking between the publishing and filmmaking communities.

And maybe a future winner at the film festival will have started is journey this week at Books at Berlinale.

A red carpet leads up the stairs of the Abgeordnetenhaus at Books at Berlinale. Image: Holger Heimann

Porter Anderson contributed to this report. More from Publishing Perspectives on Books at Berlinale is here, and on books to film is here.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.