Blockbuster pix aren’t an exact science

Books about science are a tough sell in Hollywood, but naturalist Alan Tennant, who tracks the international flight path of the peregrine falcon, may have an ace in his pocket.

Earlier this month, Tennant shopped his new book, “Aloft,” around New York, using a slide show to pitch publishers his story of traveling across the mountains of Central America with a salty World War II pilot in an old Cesna equipped with high-tech listening devices. Knopf bought the book for close to $650,000.

One editor who saw the pitch called it highly cinematic, and that may not be a coincidence: Tennant used to teach film criticism at the U. of Texas, and he’s a friend of Terence Malick.

The elusive director is currently working on two projects at Intermedia, producing an adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” and developing another pic that’s under wraps.

But sources say Terrence Malick could eventually come on board to help steer “Aloft” to the screen.

As an adventurous buddy story about a naturalist and a pilot, “Aloft” has the stuff of a high-spirited Hollywood feature. But the book, which isn’t finished, also contains long passages detailing the biology of the birds.

That gives rise to a creative dilemma for development execs that’s similar to the dilemma faced by the producers of “A Beautiful Mind”: How do filmmakers develop accurate stories about science (or math) without cleaving the research from the biography? How does a film about scientist succeed as a narrative while doing justice to his or her long hours in the lab?

THESE WERE QUESTIONS AT THE HEART of an unusual panel which convened last week in Beverly Hills at the Museum of Television and Radio.

On the panel, organized by the Alfred P. Sloane foundation, were Dustin Hoffman, “Time Machine” helmer Simon Wells, “Contact” screenwriter James Hart, “Mind” author Sylvia Nasar, Nobel laureate David Baltimore and USC prof and neurobiologist Sarah Bottjer, among others.

The Sloane Foundation has invested in Hollywood by subsiding screenwriters who tackle themes of science and technology. The org offers film school scholarships, and is talking of similar joint ventures with the Hamptons Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Center.

Baltimore summed up the sentiments of scientists on the panel when he said the John Nash biopic “both excites and annoys me. I’d like to see movies where the process of science gets more realistic portrayal. Sylvia’s wonderful book was abstracted and radically reconstructed. The drama was created out of whole cloth.”

Asked to cite a movie about science she admired, Bottjer mentioned that Jonathan Weiner’s 1994 book, “The Beak of the Finch,” is the sort of dramatic science book that could be a highly compelling narrative film.

“Beak” is the story of two biologists who traveled to the Galapagos and discovered that the evolution of finches is lightning-quick process. The book won rave reviews and a Pulitzer, but, as Wells observed, “After you measure the first finch’s beak, it becomes rather repetitive.”

IN THE IMPERSONAL MERRY-GO-ROUND of big-money publishing, the migratory patterns of authors could give Galapagos finches and Peregrine falcons a run for their money.

“Cold Mountain” author Charles Frazier has hired a new agent, ICM’s Amanda Urban, to shop his new book around town. He’s parted ways with his former agent Leigh Feldman of Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman, and could leave the publisher, Grove Atlantic, that put him on the map.

The story for the book emerged from Frazier’s research for “Cold Mountain,” when he found mention of a 100 year-old man in an insane asylum speaking only in Cherokee. Born in 1805 in North Carolina, he was adopted by a Cherokee chief with prophetic visions, became a lawyer representing Cherokee interests in Washington, and led a Cherokee regiment of Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

ICM is shopping a page-long proposal for the book, an agenting method usually reserved for commercial giants like Tom Clancy (Putnam paid $45 million for Clancy’s next two books, though it knew little about them beyond the fact that one would be about Jack Ryan, and one would be about Jack the Ripper).

Frazier’s motives for shopping his book on the open market aren’t clear. The book was an indie publishing phenomenon, thanks to Grove’s painstaking grass-roots campaign. The success of “Cold Mountain” in turn helped Grove to survive as an indie house, leading the way for later bestsellers like “Black Hawk Down” and “Ship of Gold.”

If Grove ducks out of what’s sure to be a costly auction for Frazier’s next book, it may take consolation in the fact that it took Frazier years to complete “Cold Mountain,” so the publication date of his next novel could be a long ways off.

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