Pen and pictures no. 2 – The most popular authors

I’ve started up this new series on literary authors and their engagement with motion pictures of the silent era, but which authors were the most popular subjects for adaptation? It’s a difficult subject to research, because of the variable quality of the reference sources to hand. One could go to the IMDB, but it still misses out so much, and there would be no easy way that I know of to isolate all literary source credits and then match these to silent films.

A better route I’ve found is to use Denis Gifford’s Books and Plays in Films 1896-1915. This is a typically thorough and rigorous reference work from the late Mr Gifford. His filmography is arranged by original author, and then gives release date, title, title of original work if different, production company and length. Its measure is films that were released globally, so it omits titles that were probably only shown in Russia or China (to name two obvious gaps), but in most respects it is as near a definitive source as you are going to find. He stops at 1915 just before the age of the feature film, but also to demonstrate the astonishingly varied literary adaptations of the first twenty years of cinema. It is apart from anything else, an excellent guide to popular taste and the cultural ambitions of the early cinema business.

So, who comes out on top out of the 861 authors he lists? No, it’s no who you think it is – he comes second – and no it’s not the other guy – he comes fourth. Below I’ve listed every author who has ten or more film adaptations to his or her name 1896-1915, with the number given in brackets after their name), and an intriguing list it is too:

  • James Curwood (81) [sturdy tales of the Canadian north]
  • William Shakespeare (75)
  • George Ade (70) [American humourist best known for his 'fables in slang']
  • Charles Dickens (60)
  • Alexandre Dumas père (28) [Three Musketeers etc]
  • Victor Hugo (28)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (27)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle (26)
  • Frederick Burr Opper (26) [creator of Happy Hooligan cartoon strip]
  • Henry Longfellow (24) [Hiawatha etc]
  • Sir Walter Scott (23)
  • Dion Boucicault (22) [Irish playwright]
  • Richard Harding Davis (22) [journalist and novelist]
  • Washington Irving (22) [Rip van Winkle etc]
  • Edward Bulwer-Lytton (21) [Victorian novelist, The Last Days of Pompeii etc]
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (19) [Faust, mostly]
  • Bret Harte (19) [tales of the pioneer life in California e.g. The Luck of Roaring Camp]
  • O. Henry (19) [American short story writer]
  • Charles Perrault (19) [Cinderella, mostly]
  • Cyrus Townsend Brady (18) [journalist and adventure writer]
  • Bud Fisher (18) [creator of Mutt and Jeff]
  • Robert Louis Stevenson (17)
  • Victorien Sardou (16) [La Tosca, etc]
  • George R. Sims (16) [English journalist and writer of sentimental verse]
  • Honoré de Balzac (15)
  • Jack London (15)
  • Roy Norton (15) [writer of Westerns]
  • James Oppenheim (15) [American poet]
  • Frederic Kummer (14) [American novelist and short story writer]
  • Richard Outcault (14) [creator of Buster Brown]
  • Rex Beach (13) [tales of the Klondike]
  • Edgar Allan Poe (13)
  • Charles Reade (13) [Victorian novelist, The Cloister and the Hearth etc]
  • Hal Reid (13) [playwright, father of Wallace Reid]
  • David Belasco (12) [playwright and theatrical impresario]
  • Count Leo Tolstoy (12)
  • George Randolph Chester (11) [short story writer, Get-Rich-Quick-Wallingford etc]
  • Clyde Fitch (11) [American playwright]
  • George Bronson Howard (11) [playwright]
  • ‘Hal Meredith’ (Harold Blyth) (11) [creator of Sexton Blake]
  • Georges Ohnet (11) [French novelist]
  • Mary Imlay Taylor (11) [American novelist]
  • Robert Browning (10)
  • ‘Nick Carter’ (John Russell Coryell) (10) [detective stories]
  • Wilkie Collins (10) [Victorian novelist]
  • Rudolph Dirks (10) [creator of the Katzenjammer Kids]
  • George Du Maurier (10) [Trilby, mostly]
  • Prosper Merimée (10) [Carmen]
  • Sir Gilbert Parker (10) [Canadian novelist and British MP]
  • Arthur Shirley (10) [English actor and playwright]
  • Booth Tarkington (10) [American novelist]
  • Louis Vance (10) [American novelist]
  • Giuseppe Verdi (10)

Quite a few names there that are new to me. An interestingly high number of poets (when was the last time a popular film of today was adapted from the work of a contemporary poet?). Some names like Mark Twain, Frank L. Baum and Oscar Wilde just missed the cut. And only one woman author is listed. Anyway, fascinating stuff, and I’ll do some more analyis of this sort of data later. Which was the most popular single work 1896-1915, for instance? You’ll have to wait and see.

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