From novel to Netflix: Annie Barrows and Vikram Chandra talk about their books going from story to screen at UC Berkeley’s Luncheon in the Library

From left, Vikram Chandra, Annie Barrows, and David Duer appear at the Luncheon in the Library.
From left, authors Vikram Chandra and Annie Barrows talk about the their books, and the screen adaptations that sprang from them, with David Duer, the Library’s former director of development. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

On paper and on the screen, they couldn’t be more different.

One is a novel about love — for people and for stories — set against the backdrop of a Nazi-occupied island in the English Channel after World War II. The other, a sprawling, decade-spanning tale of crime and corruption in Mumbai.

But at this year’s Luncheon in the Library, authors Annie Barrows ’84 and Vikram Chandra united onstage for a genre-crossing conversation about their books, their craft, and what it was like to see their respective novels leap from page to screen. Chandra is the author of 2006’s Sacred Games, and Barrows co-wrote, with her late aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, 2008’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Before Netflix’s Sacred Games and Guernsey were ushered into existence, there was the question of logistics: How could anyone possibly transform the works into stories for the screen?

“I couldn’t understand how they could make a 900-page book into a series,” said Chandra, who teaches creative writing at Berkeley, during a discussion in Doe Library led by David Duer, the Library’s former director of development.

Guests eat lunch in the North Reading Room on Jan. 19.
Guests eat lunch in Doe Library’s North Reading Room on Jan. 19.

“When they optioned the book, I thought it was some sort of joke,” Barrows said. “I didn’t think it would turn into a movie.”

But against the odds that all but ensure a book-to-screen adaptation will ultimately be shelved, each project came to fruition, hitting Netflix in the summer. (The full first season of Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original Indian series, was released in July, and the film version of Guernsey came to the streaming service in August.)

As with any adaptation, the stories were tweaked, massaged, and prodded before coming alive on the screen.

Adapting a novel “requires radical measures,” Chandra said. Among the changes in making Sacred Games a series, for example, was pushing one of the parallel narratives from the early 2000s to the present day and axing some of the quieter scenes.

“In the first 200 pages of the book, my cop spends much of the time thinking,” Chandra said. “On (the Netflix show), you can’t do that.”

Despite the changes, seeing their imaginations come to life was thrilling — and something that few people ever witness.

Barrows recalled a visit to the set: “I walked in there, and there was this house,” she said. “There were pots and pans that had become actual pots and pans. There’s somebody who’s trying to realize something that I had imagined. …

“I had this enormous sense of: ‘I made this.’”

Luncheon guests meet author Annie Barrows
Luncheon guests Judy Bloom, center, and Paula Goren meet author Annie Barrows, right.

During the talk, the authors also pulled back the curtain on their writing — and reading — habits. Barrows starts writing in the morning and typically stops at 4:30 p.m. Chandra gives himself a word count: 400 per day. And both are fast readers, but Chandra likes e-readers, and Barrows prefers physical volumes.

As the discussion winded down, audience members peppered Barrows and Chandra with some questions of their own, including one on their thoughts on Bandersnatch-style interactive fiction. (“I want the writer to take me to a place I would never think of,” Barrows responded, saying she prefers to leave storyline decisions to the author.)

Then came the million-dollar question: How do Barrows and Chandra elevate words on a page to stories that are truly transcendent?

“You’re working on a micro level,” Chandra explained. “I’m worried about my next sentence not being boring. I think a lot of that depth comes unconsciously.”

“I think if I was aiming at it, I would miss it,” Barrows said.

Among the 230 people who came to the luncheon was attorney Gina Marek, who was with her mother, Angi Merlone, and the smallest member of the luncheon’s audience: her new baby, donning a tiny unicorn hat, horn and all.

“I thought it was great,” Marek said of the talk. (“I didn’t know she wrote Ivy + Bean, too,” she said, adding that her 7- and 9-year-old daughters were fans of Barrow’s children’s series.)

“I’ve never heard authors talk about how their writing becomes a movie or a series,” said Taylor Follett, literatures and digital humanities student assistant at the Library and an undergraduate at Cal, who also was in attendance. “I thought it was really, really cool.”

Plus, she said, “I love that it was in the Library.”

The Luncheon in the Library is a private, invite-only event honoring Library supporters. Past speakers include Chancellor Carol Christ; lecturer, historian, and journalist Adam Hochschild; and dancer, singer, and actress Rita Moreno.