Adapting literature for Nollywood

US publisher Random House has announced the creation of Random House Television, a new division that will develop scripted programs based on its books for television. The publisher has already been working for several years to create movie adaptations of its books.

This got me thinking: why haven’t more publishers – especially in Africa - entered into the film game? Film adaptations of books can be massive boosts to the sales of the books – just look at what happened to the sales of series like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nigeria, in particular, is in a unique position to benefit from greater partnerships between publishers and filmmakers.

Nigerians often bemoan the country’s poor reading culture and many have blamed the massive popularity of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, as a prime reason for this. However, Nollywood should not be considered an obstacle, rather African publishers should look to it as an opportunity.

If more African books were adapted into Nollywood films, it would benefit both the filmmakers and the publishers. It would inject fresh and original storylines and characters into the industry while boosting sales of books on the continent.

This idea is not new. In the 1970s Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was adapted into a seminal television series by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and more recently, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine was adapted into a Nollywood movie. And Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is currently being adapted into a movie directed by author Biyi Bamidele.

However, there are obstacles. Veteran filmmaker Eddie Ugbomah explains that books often need to be very popular already before they inspire adaptation into commercial movies. Other uniquely Nigerian stumbling blocks include the fact that most filmmakers “don’t read” and so aren’t inspired to turn to literature for their ideas. There is also the murky issue of copyrights in Nigeria. As Ugbomah points out:

...who pays royalty for movies here in Nigeria? All the television stations play Nigerian films from morning to night and if you tell them they say when they bought it from the producer there was nothing about paying royalty to the actors, scriptwriters and so on.

However, I am positive about the potential for successful Nollywood adaptations of African books. Nollywood is the third-largest film industry in the world (after Hollywood in the US and Bollywood in India) and it's growing. The potential for revenue for both filmmakers and publishers is enormous and when it comes to opportunities for making money in any industry it’s really a matter of time.


  • I think a lot more goes into adapting a book than just saying Nollywood should step up, or get into this game. There are the rights issues like who gets what and how much. The book or the story would also need to be marketable. I’m certain writers would like to sells the rights to their work for a good amount after several years of hard work of researching and putting together a quality work. It wouldn’t make much sense if I paid, say for instance, $100,000 for the rights and then spend $20,000 to $30,000 or maybe even $50,000 producing the film. What kind of global attention will the film get? Or better yet, what kind of attention does the book have? Things Fall Apart and a few other are an exception. Will the producers be able to stay true to the book without compromising the production value? All these and many more questions need to answered. The production value of a film is a key ingredient to it’s success and I think majority of Nollywood films suffer from this. Most, if not all of the financing of a film is recouped during the theater viewing of the film. Another thing the Nigerian Film Industry is not big on just yet. Nollywood films go straight to DVDs and that takes a considerable amount of time to regain money spent on the project. With the advent of the internet and online file sharing and downloading movies in minutes, before long, movies to DVD will be obsolete. Hollywood studios are desperately seeking ways to increase sales when the movie leaves the theaters because DVD sales are dropping.

    My point here is that the adaptation of books goes beyond the simple act of choosing a great book from our childhood days and bringing it to screen. Hollywood adapts books based on the sales or whether or not it’s a bestseller, or the name of the author in some instances. Yes The Lord of Rings Trilogy, Harry Porter, The Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were books that had tremendous Success. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first made into a movie in Europe in 2009 and was later remade by Hollywood in 2011, which is another thing Hollywood is known for, but that’s a different topic.

    As Much as I would love to watch our great and inspiring stories come to screen, big or small, some serious work would have to be done. As a filmmaker, I’m working on a project I plan to make in Nigeria, but I’m faced with the challenges of how to properly market my film to get an international audience other than the straight to DVD and Youtube views Nollywood films get.

    My solution to this… first and foremost, train our actors properly. Believe it or not, though there are some well trained actors in Nollywood, acting is not just standing in front of the camera and acting silly or screaming. Secondly, find or create stories that are worth telling to the world and not just Nigerians or our neighboring countries. And thirdly, find an investor that believes in what we as artists are doing to and with our culture. We have too much talent to do cheesy work.

    It won’t be easy and the road is not short, but it’s possible. I could even produce and direct the film or two, or several. Like my man Emil said, “Are you listening, Nollywood?” lol.

    Posted by Toks Opaleye on July 27, 2012
  • @Emil, I would love to see any of Cyprian Ekwensi’s works on screen. Hey, let us know if Nollywood comes knocking.

    @Toks, I think you have an excellent point about production value. It is really the number one issue facing the industry today. However, I’m seeing more Nollywood movies being produced with international casts and better production behind them – and in Abuja half the movie screens in local theaters are dedicated to Nollywood movies. There is a growing distinction in the industry between high-value movies shown in theaters and lower-value films that go straight to DVD.

    Plus, we do have bestsellers here that would be perfect for adaptation already – not just the African Writers Series books. If we’re looking for better stories, they are already being written.

    As for finding the most effective marketing strategies and battling piracy to get more money back to the content creators, that’s a problem all over the world. But it’s not a question of if these issues will be resolved, only when. And I know that people like you will be part of the solution.

    Posted by chinelo on July 30, 2012
  • While being a champion of education (reading in particular) I’ve always been a “visual learner.” I confess, the best time I had learning anything came from watching after-school shows like Sesame Street or the masterpiece theater editions of Oliver Twist, Silas, the Prince and the Pauper, etc. I don’t really remember reading much in school, especially the literary classics we were all indoctrinated on (Nigerian and foreign… I even remember watching the Things Fall Apart series when I was a kid).

    However, now more than ever, these literary classics need to be experienced in some form, and what better way to bring it to the masses than through 21st century media outlets like film, television, and the web? Now the challenge is adapting these literary works of art for the screen without loosing much of initial story just to make it more “cinematic.”

    If given the chance, I’d like to see something like Cyprian Ekwensi’s AN AFRICAN NIGHTS ENTERTAINMENT adapted for the screen or as a mini-series. Hey, I could even write the screenplay! Are you listening Nollywood?

    Posted by Emil B. Garuba on July 26, 2012

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