Amazon's Ten Percent: The art of adaptation

Amazon's Ten Percent: The art of adaptation

By Simon Shaps,
Monday, 9th May 2022
Ten Percent (credit: Amazon Prime Video)
Ten Percent (credit: Amazon Prime Video)
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As Amazon Prime’s Ten Percent debuts, Simon Shaps offers some home truths to those seeking to remake a hit show for another market.

In the world of book-to-screen adaptation, where I now ply my trade, I have developed an allergic reaction to producers who tell an author, hand on heart, with pained expression, that the drama series they make will “honour” their book, whether novel or non-fiction.  

If “honouring” is at the expense of making a hit series, very few authors I know would trade the chance of ­popular success on screen for a faithful rendition of their immortal prose. It is no accident that the Emmy-nominated HBO series The Undoing – to take just one example – junked a good deal of the original book on which it was based, invented entirely new storylines after the opening episode and dispensed with the original title, You Should Have Known.  

As Susanne Bier, the director of the The Undoing, argued at the time, “The best you can do with a good book, if you want to dramatise it on screen, is to do something else with it.” In the hands of Bier and writer/creator David E Kelley the “something else” was open-heart surgery on the original novel.  

That is often what it takes to transfer material from one medium to another. It is how the great Andrew Davies boiled down War and Peace to six ­episodes, or reimagined Bleak House, all 800 or so pages of it, as half-hour episodes for a television audience brought up on the soaps.  

In the globalised world of contemporary television, this argument is even stronger when a scripted series is remade in another language. Especially if the show has already made the leap from its original domestic broadcaster – France two in the case of Dix Pour Cent/Call My Agent! – to Netflix, or another multi-market streamer. In this unintentionally hilarious situation, the new UK-based adaptation, Ten Percent, ends up in direct competition with itself – with the original series on which it is based. This could be a storyline for series two of Ten Percent if it makes it that far.  

The Undoing (credit: Sky)

Because viewers no longer balk at the idea of watching a subtitled drama, foreign-language television is no longer synonymous with “art house”, minority viewing: it is now part of the mainstream for TV audiences.  

I am afraid to say that, 10 minutes into Amazon Prime’s Ten Percent, you are simply overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu, as they might say in Dix Pour Cent. So you really didn’t catch France’s Call My Agent!? Not a single episode?  

What were you watching? What non-TV richness did your life contain to fill those endless days and nights of lockdown? Hands up for a Zoom pub quiz anyone? Perhaps you finally started that much postponed novel? (I can give you the names of some other agencies to send that one to.)  

Once lockdown came to an end, how did it feel to be the only one in your circle of friends and colleagues not raving about that wicked French comedy (no, not Emily in Paris), with all that lying and cheating, and all-round bullshitting, and those brave French actors who were seemingly only too happy to send themselves up, ­Juliette Binoche included?  

If that is you, and you are indeed the only person alive who didn’t see the French original, by all means watch Jack Davenport and Lydia Leonard as the Mathias and Andréa knockoffs. It is terrifically entertaining… er, just like the original version. It has even enticed an A-list cast to play themselves, Binoche­style: Helena Bonham Carter, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, David Harewood, Dominic West. As for the regulars, so good is the lookalike casting and wardrobe that, for a moment, you actually believe that Camille Cottin has turned up to reprise the role of Andréa in the Amazon series. But no, it’s just that Leonard, fine actor though she is, is her doppelgänger; thin as a rake, dressed in black, with Cottin’s same unmistakable aquiline features.  

None of this is to say that “format” sales in scripted are a dead duck. Quite the opposite. One of the ­triumphs of the golden age of the streamers is that we can watch terrific drama from France, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Croatia, Italy, ­Turkey, Belgium, Sweden and many other countries, where, previously, we had just BBC Four to bring us The Killing and Borgen. But when those shows are adapted and translated for another platform or market, there is far greater pressure to reinvent them for a different culture.  

This is what has happened over the years with the great UK to US transfers, as Till Death Do Us Part turned into All in the Family and The Office starring Ricky Gervais became The Office starring Steve Carell. That was certainly the process the makers of the Israeli series Prisoners of War went through to create the international juggernaut Homeland.  

Of course, there are good reasons why adaptation – whether of books or pre-existing television series – is in fashion. Fear of failure is such a significant part of commissioners’ make-up that someone else’s material, together with a package of on-screen and off-screen talent, provides reassurance; how much easier that is than buying a completely original idea.  

The producers of another hit French series, The Bureau, as well of the Israeli series Fauda are, it seems, intent on following in the wake of Ten Percent with English-language adaptations. The experience of remaking Call My Agent! should prove a cautionary tale.  

There is a hint of what Ten Percent might have been and that is in those brief moments when the voice of writer John Morton breaks through and we hear again the rhythms and savage comedy of his hit series WIA and Twenty Twelve. Both series arose out of acute observation of worlds and characters close to home: the world of BBC apparatchiks and the rickety organisation bringing the Olympics to London. Neither was a homage to someone else’s creation.  

One final quibble. Ten per cent may well be the going rate for agents on the continent, but it most definitely won’t cut the mustard here in the UK. Otherwise, what was Brexit all about?  

Here, self-respecting agents expect 15%, which, admittedly, is less catchy as a title for a series. That is certainly the commission we charge at the agency for which I work. For that, you can expect the unalloyed truth in all circumstances. And none of us use mopeds. Ever. After all, multiple Soho Houses are just a short walk away.  

Talking of Soho, we expect to receive a facility fee for the lingering shots of what looks like the narrow alley just off Wardour Street where we are based, which features prominently in the opening sequence of the first episode. For that, 10% will be just fine.  

Simon Shaps is a former director of ­tele­vision at ITV and now consults for the literary agency Georgina Capel Associates.  

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