The adaptation of celebrated, prize-winning novels is fraught with peril, but Hollywood can’t resist them.
Miramax, MGM and Mirage are in pre-production on Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award-winner, “Cold Mountain”; and Paramount and producer Scott Rudin have just hired David Hare and Stephen Daldry to adapt and helm “The Corrections,” the 2001 NBA-winning novel by Jonathan Franzen.
But historically, kudos from the book world have often meant trouble at the box office.
“The Shipping News,” which won the Pulitzer and NBA in 1994, hasn’t caught fire; “Angela’s Ashes” (Pulitzer, 1997) and “All the Pretty Horses” (NBA, 1992) both flopped.
That puts them in the company of pics like “Snow Falling On Cedars” and “Wonder Boys” — unexpected bestsellers hailed in publishing circles as enduring literary classics that nevertheless failed to capture significant box office receipts.
Scores of other widely praised literary doorstops, like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Underworld,” “The Alienist,” “Infinite Jest” and “The Secret History,” have stalled in development.
In some cases, the involvement of major talent is often a drag on the development process, inflating the cost of the project, or tying it up for years in a thicket of scheduling conflicts.
With Steven Spielberg recently opting out as director of “Geisha,” the long-delayed project is finally gaining momentum. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman just won a Golden Globe for “A Beautiful Mind,” and Red Wagon Entertainment expects to attach a director in the next few weeks.
Also moving forward after several years is “The Secret History,” which is now a producing vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow.
And Hollywood talent isn’t immune to literary buzz in New York. Many of these books get pass coverage from development execs when they first hit Hollywood in the form of early manuscripts, and have already appeared between hardcovers by the time they’re optioned.
“People do get caught up in the heat of it,” agent Lynn Pleshette said. “People are always looking for a seal of approval.”
Pleshette, who brokered the book deals for “Shipping News,” “Cold Mountain” and “Geisha,” cautions, “it’s always tempting to make movies out of books that are beautifully written. The danger is literature has a voice that sometimes doesn’t translate to the screen. ‘Jaws’ wasn’t a great book, but it was a great movie.”
The producers behind the latest wave of literary blockbusters say it’s the story, not the voice that compells them.
Red Wagon partner Douglas Wick, who likens “Geisha” to “Gone With the Wind,” says “from the very beginning, we felt we were getting an unusually strong narrative — an epic love story, and a very powerful human drama.”
And Mirage partner Sydney Pollack is resolute in his conviction that “Cold Mountain” is destined for a long life onscreen.
“It’s a very cinematic book,” Pollack said. “It isn’t like trying to do Proust, or somebody where so much of the book is in the syntax of the literature, rather than in the events and movement of the plot.” “Cold Mountain,” he said is “a great love story. I think it’s a natural for the screen.”
There’s no question that the resounding bigscreen success of pics like “The English Patient” and “The Remains of the Day” — both bestsellers in print — still leads producers to swing for the fences with difficult books.
As Michelle Raimo, a veep of development and production at Miramax, puts it, “When a novel like that hits and works well, it’s pretty spectacular.”
PUBLISHING LAYOFFS AROUND TOWN continued unabated this week.
Henry Holt and Co. has reportedly just pinkslipped five employees, including managing editor Nancy Clemens.
But there have also been some notable hires.
Trident Media Group has hired Kimberly Whalen as rights director. She was formerly a rights director at the Jane Rotrosen Agency and at St. Martin’s Press.
Amy Scheibe, cut from Doubleday’s editorial ranks in a wave of Random House layoffs, has been named a senior editor at the Free Press.
And as part of a gradual transition of power at Farrar Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi has been named president, retaining his title of publisher, while the house’s venerable founder, Roger Straus is taking the title of company chair.