$1.5 mil up front, $500K in bonuses

In the biggest book-to-film deal of the new year, Paramount Pictures late last week made a preemptive, $2 million purchase of the film rights to James Webb’s novel “The Emperor’s General” for producer Scott Rudin.

The deal adds another Webb project to the Rudin production parade: Rudin also is producing “Rules of Engagement,” a feature based on Webb’s original script, which is nearing a greenlight at Paramount, with William Friedkin directing. Tommy Lee Jones is in talks to play the lead role of a military lawyer in the court martial tale.

In “The Emperor’s General,” Webb returns to the battlefield in a story that has been described as a cross between “From Here to Eternity” and “Noble House.”

WWII drama

Narrated by a young member of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s diplomatic team in the South Pacific during the final days of World War II, the story revolves around the investigation of the devastation of Manila by fleeing Japanese troops, who left the city in ashes with 100,000 people killed.

The young diplomat is placed in the position of having to go against his mentor, MacArthur, to try and seek justice for a Japanese general who has been wrongly imprisoned for atrocities committed in Manila. Story also involves the diplomat’s romance with a Filipino woman.

Quick movement

“The Emperor’s General” hit the street last Wednesday, with a few New York book scouts and studio outposts getting the earliest peeks. As the “General” made its way west, and several studios mulled whether the 650-page manuscript might be too sprawling for features and might be better suited for a TV miniseries, the ever-aggressive Rudin struck quickly. He and Par took the book off the market, paying what sources said is $1.5 million upfront and another $500,000 in bonuses, which are all but guaranteed upon publication of the novel in spring 1999 by Broadway Books.

Broadway and its sister Bantam Books pacted for the hard/soft rights to the novel last year for north of $1 million. Gotham agent Nick Ellison brokered both the book and film deals for Webb.

Webb’s manager, Peter Donaldson, now is in talks with Par to have Webb adapt “The Emperor’s General” to film.

(Another Ellison client, Nelson DeMille, looks near to having his bestseller “The General’s Daughter” near a greenlight at Paramount as well, with John Travolta starring for director Simon West.)

Military background

Webb is no stranger to preemptive strikes either. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 with honors, and served as an officer in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross along with other medals.

After graduating from law school, Webb wrote the first of five novels, “Fields of Fire,” and he won an Emmy as an overseas correspondent covering the Marines in Beirut in 1983. At 41, he became one of the youngest secretaries of the Navy in history.

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