As everyone knows, summertime is a time to sit back and unwind. Every July, vacationers and sun-worshipping weekenders escape the heat in air-conditioned movie theaters—and some of the biggest draws have been book adaptations.
In fact, the first summer blockbuster, as we know it today, was based on a beach read. On June 20, 1975, Universal Pictures released Jaws, an adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel. By mid-July, audiences were flocking to it, and it received a much wider release; it was such a huge success that it briefly went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until Star Wars). Although past hits like Gone With the Wind and The Godfather had proved that a bestseller could become a box-office bonanza, Jaws’ summertime success truly changed the game. Since then, several other successful book adaptations have taken advantage of that July magic. Here are a few recent highlights and why they worked:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2: Released July 15, 2011
The Harry Potter film franchise, based on J.K. Rowling’s YA saga—the world’s bestselling book series—spawned eight films from 2001 to 2011, and they were all smash hits; combined, they raked in $7.7 billion worldwide. But the biggest blockbuster was the last: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2, which holds the record for biggest July opening of all time, bringing in $169 million in its first three days of release. It went on to become the most successful book adaptation ever—which it remains if one ignores 2015’s Jurassic World, which is only based on Michael Crichton’s characters. It’s currently the 11th-highest-grossing movie in history, right behind Black Panther, with worldwide receipts of $1.34 billion.
What was the secret of its success? Well, being the last of the series surely helped—fans wanted to see their favorite characters onscreen for the last time. Its July release didn’t hurt, either; three of the five highest-grossing series entries, including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), came out in the summer, when younger viewers were on vacation. But perhaps the biggest factor was that it was the second of two parts—a box-office–doubling strategy that other book-adaptation franchises, including the Twilight and Hunger Games series, would copy with similar smashing success. It’s no coincidence that Harry Potter’s spell, “expecto patronum,” translates from the Latin as “I expect a patron.”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Released July 11, 2014
In 1963, French author Pierre Boulle was best known for his war novel, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which had been made into an Oscar-winning 1957 film. Then he published Planet of the Apes, which would be the basis for nine movies, a live-action TV show, and an animated series. As Kirkus’ Andrew Liptak pointed out in 2015, the first, hugely profitable 1968 film differed from the book significantly—namely, by setting the action on a future Earth instead of on an alien planet—and later adaptations kept its changes. After all, it was a winning formula, one that led 20th Century Fox to reboot the film series in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.The new trilogy tossed aside the source material entirely to tell an all-new tale of a war between genetically modified apes and humanity. Its second installment, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was its most successful by far, with one of the biggest July openings of all time and a worldwide gross of more than $710 million. (Its follow-up, 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, also released in July, brought in nearly half a billion dollars; Kirkus reviewed its tie-in graphic novel.)
As a book adaptation, Dawn is an interesting case. Did audiences flock to it because they were big fans of Boulle’s original work? Not likely. One suspects that most American audiences aren’t even aware that a Planet of the Apes novel exists—they know the 1968 film, with Charlton Heston raging at humanity in front of a destroyed Statue of Liberty (“You maniacs!”). They just wanted to see CGI apes and humans fight one another—and that’s exactly what they got. It’s a classic case of how an adaptation can displace its source in the popular imagination. Case in point: a 2014 comic-book miniseries, Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive, in which characters from the ’70s Planet of the Apes films team up with the crew of the USS Enterprise.
Jason Bourne: Released July 29, 2016
Robert Ludlum’s 1980 thriller, The Bourne Identity,introduced the world to amnesiac spy Jason Bourne; it was later adapted as a 2002 film starring Matt Damon. The movie was faithful to the basic premise of the novel, but it quickly went its own way, introducing new plot twists and characters that Ludlum never dreamed of. Its sequels went even further afield, and by the time the fifth and latest entry, 2016’s Jason Bourne,rolled around, the books had long been forgotten.
But, as with the Planet of the Apes films, few viewers cared. Sure, it’s possible that there are some hardcore Ludlumites out there boycotting the Bourne movies, but if so, their protests have gone unheeded—Jason Bourne, released in the heat of the 2016 summer, was the biggest film yet, with a $415 million worldwide take. Many of those ticket buyers have never read a page of Ludlum; they’re there for the film series’ blistering pace and top-notch fights, which put recent James Bond films to shame. The movie may play fast and loose with its source material, but the emphasis is on fast—just what blockbuster movie patrons are looking for.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: Released June 30, 2010
Stephenie Meyer’s YA vampire-romance books, which began with 2005’s Twilight, were a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 120 million copies worldwide. Many critics have characterized the series’ central relationship, between human Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen, as abusive, and others, including Stephen King, have taken issue with the quality of Meyer’s prose. However, the series did help the careers of talented Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who starred in the five movie adaptations. The most successful film, domestically, was the third: 2010’s The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which brought in more than $300 million stateside.
It was the only summer release in the series, which made it easier for its teen target audience to attend. But although worldwide grosses remained healthy for the next two films, U.S. totals dipped—perhaps because mid-decade Twilight-mania was finally waning. After all, by the late 2000s, many YA readers had moved on to Suzanne Collins’ less-problematic Hunger Games novels. Will there ever be a movie adaptation of Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined,Meyer’s bizarre, gender-swapped 2015 rewrite of Twilight? Probably not—though if Stewart and Pattinson switch roles, it could make for an intriguing summer fling.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.