In the arts all big money corrupts, and excessively big amounts of it corrupt excessively. It is for this reason that I believe that the words “serious” and “movie” should never be seen together. (I will accept that it is possible to make a shoe-string budget film that could be serious and great. It’s just not possible for us members of the public to see it.)
To make a movie to be shown in the world’s cinemas is a hugely expensive undertaking. It requires lots and lots of behind the scenes technical workers as well as high-priced on-screen talent, buzzing around to locations, buying costumes, props and so on and so on. Film making is a business and companies indulge in it in order to make money. Money is to be made by attracting a mass audience. Mass audiences are to be attracted by mass entertainment. Thus film makers will tend to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator: sentimentality is good, melodrama is good, sensationalism and special effects are good. A serious story seriously told is bad. Books when they are unlucky enough to be adapted as movies are gutted; all the boring talk and thought are removed and incident is moved to the forefront. This makes perfect sense: the potential audience for a faithful adaptation of Ulysses would be tiny. Movies are good at what they are good at: mass entertainment. For me just about the only category of film which can both succeed and maintain integrity is comedy — some might say the more puerile the humor the better I’ll like it. Other possibly acceptable genres would be adventure movies, thrillers, horror movies, musicals. But a serious movie by a Hollywood studio should be avoided like the plague: they are either exploiting the misfortune of some individual or group, or sentimentalizing human tragedies, or both.
The same rule applies in book publishing. Of course mistakes happen, and maybe you can come up with a counter example, but I would claim that any book which receives a large advance cannot be a “good” book. An entertaining read perhaps, but certainly not a serious discussion of any meaningful content. The likelihood of such a book being read 100 years from now is infinitesimal*. If you worked as an editor and paid a million dollar advance to James Joyce, you’d need to go and jump out of the window when the manuscript for Ulysses was delivered. It’s big, it’s serious, it’s hard going: its sell-in, even with the world’s top sales force behind it, would be in the low thousands. You’d lose your job and never get another one in trade publishing. Of course over the next 100 years a great book would almost certainly earn out the advance, but businesses can’t wait around 75 years for huge advances to be worked off. Thus any book in the bestseller lists which is not designedly trivial will be there almost by accident — of course over the years lots of accidents have happened.
My point is that if you want to make money, go Hollywood and do what you have to do. If you want to make art, stay in your own backyard. If you earn anything from your art, be happy. If you earn a lot then you are one of the extremely few blessed with unbelievable luck.
* I do have to admit that Romola, for which George Eliot received $85,000 as an advance in 1861, is still being read more than 100 years later. I would suggest that while it’s not a bad book, it’s not a very good one. But it’s one of those exceptions proving the rule: George Smith pulled the equivalent of paying a $1,000,000 advance for Ulysses.