NEW YORK — Looking for material to follow “The Fifth Element,” director Luc Besson read only to the fifth page of Simon Winchester’s book “The Professor and the Madman” before agreeing to pony up $250,000 against a total that could exceed seven figures if the book becomes a bestseller and Winchester writes the script, sources said.

“The Professor and the Madman” takes place in the 1800s and is the true story of an unlikely friendship between an insane man named William Minor and Oxford English Dictionary founding editor James Murray. Minor, a Yale-educated surgeon in the Civil War, slowly went insane after being forced to disfigure a deserter during battle.

He committed what was the first gunfire murder in London, and was institutionalized for life. There, he devoured English literature and suggested reams of obscure words by mail to Murray, who included them in his prestigious dictionary, unaware the dictionary definition of his star wordsmith was paranoid schizophrenic. The editor eventually appealed directly to Winston Churchill to get Minor freed.

Although Besson’s Seaside Prods. has a first-look deal at Columbia, the director of “The Professional” bought “The Professor” with his discretionary fund in a deal made between his prexy, Aimee Peyronnet, and Sterling Lord Literistic’s Jody Hotchkiss and Peter Matson.

The book will be published in 1998 by HarperCollins.

Besson is repped by ICM’s Jeff Berg, Robert Newman and Nick Reed.

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