A few years ago, Matt Kahn decided to read and blog about every novel that had reached number one on the Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list for a century, from 1913 to 2014. It took him two years, and I followed, fascinated by which blockbusters had been very much of their time and which ones had endured.
One thing I started noticing about endurance: it was partly a function of quality—some poorly-written books have deservedly fallen completely off the radar of today’s readers—but quality alone could not save a book (and lack of quality alone could not sink it). Largely, the books we remember for more than a generation are those that were made into movies.
I tested this idea with many other books, including classics, and found that while it’s not an absolute rule (The Catcher in the Rye springs instantly to mind as a notable exception), it holds up pretty well. I noticed that while The Hunger Games made a big splash in YA publishing, I didn’t see it in the hands of people on my commuter train until the movie came out. Likewise with Twilight and Harry Potter. Kahn notes that John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars came out in 2012, but didn’t top the annual bestseller list until 2014, the year the movie appeared. I would wager that far more people have seen movies like The Godfather, Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Wizard of Oz than have read the books they were based on.
Media are changing quickly, and I don’t know how long movies will continue to play this role in popular culture. Game of Thrones has received its screen synergy from a TV series rather than a movie, but that may be nothing new ... so did The Paper Chase back in the 1970s. (Though it was a movie, too.) Marie Kondo is reaching a whole new audience on Netflix. In October 2015, Publishers Weekly reported that three books by authors they called “YouTube dynamos” were in the top 20 on their overall bestseller list. Will YouTube fame make success more lasting ... is it the authors or the stories we remember longer? I’m sure someone must have made their own book into a YouTube movie or series by now. It remains to be seen whether the internet will ultimately enlarge or fragment audiences.
To me, there’s something special about the story within the covers of a book, the story that unfolds in our minds as we read (or listen to) text. But I’m aware that when stories cross into other media, they grow longer legs. When I was little, I hated most movies based on books, resenting every little change the translation to screen had brought. Nowadays I appreciate almost anything that extends a story’s lifespan.