Mystery Solved: Why Hollywood Is Obsessed with the Whodunit
You can’t stop watching. You have things to do, children to feed, even work you get paid for. But the screen…it’s holding you hostage. Why can’t you turn away? Why?
It’s a mystery.
No, really, it probably is. Nowadays, mystery books—including sister genres thriller and suspense—are being fervently snapped up by Hollywood and adapted for TV, film, and streaming, creating some of the buzziest and addictive viewing around.
That’s why you may have been obsessed with The Undoing on HBO, born from the bestselling You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, then jumped to HBO Max for The Flight Attendant, adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s book, before switching to Netflix to devour all five episodes of Lupin, based on the classic French stories by Maurice Leblanc, and then tuned into good ol’ ABC to catch the next episode of Big Sky, based on C.J. Box’s The Highway.
In some ways, the surge comes down to a simple need for content. The streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Hulu, Apple TV, HBO Max, Peacock—must be fed and their diet is content (also known as IP, for “intellectual property”). The more exclusive that content is, the better to keep us watching and staying there, whichever there is streaming it.
Book-to-screen adaptations offer some perks. For one, there’s a built-in fandom and awareness—a “you’ve read the book, now see the movie!” excitement. Consider, for instance, A.J. Finn’s mega bestselling The Woman in the Window, which is coming to Netflix in May.
“In a weird way, because they have a publishing deal, they’ve been vetted by someone or something,” says Josie Freedman, a media-rights literary agent for ICM Partners. “There is a publisher who has put a stamp on it saying, ‘This has some validity to it.’ I would say, also look at history—most of the movies that have won the Oscar are actually based on books. So there is a pattern and a history there of underlying material being translated to the screen.”
Books also typically offer a deeper, richer sense of the character’s world and journey. That’s helpful because streaming services and TV now have more flexibility in formats and runtimes; maybe it’s a limited series, or maybe the goal is a multiple-season series. In either case, a book gives a kind of blueprint on where to go next with the plot and how to grow the character.
Steven Spielberg may have been thinking about that when his production company recently decided to develop and produce a series based on Walter Mosley’s detective series featuring Easy Rawlins. There are 15 books and a collection of short stories worth of material to mine.
Perhaps Beth de Guzman, vice president of digital and paperback publishing at Grand Central Publishing, is always enthusiastic. But on the phone, talking about mystery adaptations, she sounds really jazzed. Her house published Korelitz and sister company Little, Brown publishes Michael Connelly’s hardcover books (Grand Central publishes him in paperback), including the famed detective series that led to Amazon’s first original drama, Bosch, now set to end after seven seasons. Meanwhile, Netflix has picked up another Connelly series based on his The Lincoln Lawyer books.
“To me, one of the things that makes mysteries, thrillers, suspense, especially psychological thrillers, perfect for movies and even more perfect for series and limited series, is that they rely on such a strong plot,” de Guzman says. “The backbone of those kinds of books is a strong plot. I mean, the whole point is, Who did it, Why did he do it? And how did that person do it? And that means you’ve got plot twists and turns in every chapter.”
That questioning, that work, Freedman says, makes us more than viewers. We become active participants, lured into investing deeply in the storytelling. “I feel mysteries, while we’re all at home in particular, give us something to do because we’re trying to solve something.”
Freedman says she loves twists and turns but especially strong characters and a unique perspective in her mysteries. She spends weekends reading and hoping to fall in love with a work. On the long list that have enraptured her, and she’s sold, are Finn’s Woman in the Window, Jack Carr’s thriller The Terminal List (optioned by Amazon), and The Maid by Nita Prose, a cozy murder-mystery sold to Universal Pictures. It won’t even debut as a book until January 2022.
Lisa Erbach Vance, of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, represents several authors in the mystery genre, including Harlan Coben, whose work The Stranger, became a limited series on Netflix, and Gregg Hurwitz. She says mysteries also offer an examination of the gray areas of life. “I love suspense that explores human nature because you have characters that sometimes do a bad thing for what they think is the right reason. Sometimes there’s moral and ethical ground to explore, especially the kind of every-person thriller where it’s an ordinary woman and ordinary man, someone with a family living in the suburbs, and something happens and they had to make a choice in the past, and now that choice is reverberating a decade later or something. And that forms the basis of what's going on, what happened. And ultimately, all is revealed.
“And we as readers or watchers are asked, What would we do if that was us? We are ordinary people, too, most of us, and what would we do? What kind of ethical or moral choices would we make in that case? And I think that provides an extra compelling challenge for the reader or the viewer.”
The result can be exciting or horrifying or both. Seeing that play out and be resolved is especially satisfying now, in this time when much feels, much is, uncertain, she says.
“I do think there is a comfort in the escapism of going into that show…it should offer you that gratification of a resolution. I think a lot of us have read books and seen shows where it’s really not very resolved and we go, ‘Uhh,’ ” she says, chuckling.
“Even if something is a little maybe morally ambiguous—nobody likes things wrapped up in a bow per se—but if it offers some resolution, that is gratifying. And I do think that it’s great to go into something knowing that you will get that at the end, and you’ll be surprised by what it is.”
Those complex notes are part of what draws Vance to a book. She wants to be engaged and she wants to be moved. As illustration, she points to Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, featuring former black ops assassin Evan Smoak, which has been bought by the company that produces CBS’s Magnum P.I. and S.W.A.T. to develop into a series.
“It's told with this deep sense of humanity,” she says. “And I love the juxtaposition of those things because on one hand, Orphan X knows all about the techie gadgetry, and he’s killing bad guys, and there’s that piece of what he does. But there’s also this fundamentally human story with Orphan X.”
That longing for depth in adapted mysteries resonates with those directly making the deals. “There has always been an appetite for thrillers and works of psychological suspense,” says Sylvie Rabineau, cohead of literary packaging at William Morris Endeavor. “The trend has been finding thrillers and psychological suspense that Trojan horse in deeper themes. It has to be riveting entertainment, but it should provoke you into thinking about issues of substance—for instance, exploring issues around social justice, race, class, gender, etc.”
Just take a look at a short list of recent and in-the-works productions. There’s The Dry by Jane Harper, about a federal agent who returns to his drought-stricken hometown and agrees to investigate a murder-suicide of a childhood friend; it’s now an acclaimed film in Australia, heading to the U.S. in May. Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, which tackles race, class, and parenthood and how close ties can be reshaped in crisis, was picked up by Netflix with plans for Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts to star. Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Crosby’s work about a family man who can’t stay on the right side of the law, is being made into a film with an assist from singer John Legend’s production company.
Addison Duffy, a media-rights agent at United Talent Agency, recently closed a deal for series development of Her Name Is Knight, a debut novel by Yasmin Angoe that revolves around a highly trained assassin for an international organization dedicated to the protection and advancement of the peoples and countries of Africa around the world. It publishes in October.
“I love how Angoe puts readers on the edge of their seats, weaving in a wholly international setting, and places a powerful woman at the center,” Duffy says.
She’s also at work on behalf of another debut, Zakiya Dalia Harris’s The Other Black Girl. That book, out in June, explores race and class in the workplace. “It was so unexpected,” Duffy says. “I read it in one night and emailed the publishing agent about it the second I put the manuscript down.”
As exciting as the book-to-screen adaptations are, the best part of the new interest may be that they don’t overshadow the original works. In fact, they often benefit them. Check the bestseller lists and notice how many of your binge-worthy favorites are in the mix.
“People are so savvy these days,” says de Guzman. “They know that you can only show so much on screen. There’s gotta be more in print, in the book. Or they go, ‘Ooh, I’ve seen it now and I know what happens. Let me read the book and let me compare.’ ”
In the end, she says, readers love the chance to dig into the creative process. And the allure of that is no mystery.
What are some of your favorite screen adaptations of mystery and thrillers? Let's talk in the comments!
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