Spidey pals pluck ‘Petal’

Dunst to bloom in pic as Ziskin produces

Columbia Pictures has bought screen rights to the Michele Faber bestselling novel “The Crimson Petal and the White,” and will develop it as a vehicle for Kirsten Dunst to play a 19th-century prostitute who becomes intertwined with a powerful London family.

Laura Ziskin, who teamed with Dunst on “Spider-Man” and the upcoming sequel, is aboard to produce the film. Studio paid six figures against seven figures.

“This is a 19th-century tale told with a 21st-century perspective built around this amazing hooker character,” said Ziskin, who exec produced perhaps the most successful hooker tale in “Pretty Woman.” “This girl is self-educated and smarter than all the men around her, and becomes the mistress of a member of a prominent and wealthy family, who hasn’t been working to his potential until she comes into the picture. It is Dickensian in scope; there is romance, sex and suspense, and unexpected consequences for all involved.”

The package of book, star and producer was put together quickly by WMA’s Hollywood and London offices. The latter represented the U.K. publisher Canongate, whose Jamie Byng controlled the movie rights to the book, same as he did in the Revolution Studios sale of the Ross Leckie novel “Hannibal,” now being developed for Vin Diesel to play the Carthaginian general. The book was just published by Harcourt in the U.S., has drawn critical raves and achieved bestseller status.

While studios and producers began angling for the material, WMA got interest from Dunst, who was eager to reteam with the Col-based Ziskin. The deal was put together quickly at Columbia by production prexy Peter Schlessel, and exec Matt Tolmach will shepherd the project. Ziskin said that a screenwriter will be hired quickly, and that filmmakers are already knocking.

The author is Holland-born and lives in Scotland. Though he has written other books like “Under the Skin” — which is being developed as a directing vehicle for “Sexy Beast” helmer Jonathan Glazer — he has been writing “The Crimson Petal and the White” for 20 years, starting it while a college student. Ziskin said its nearly 900 pages were meticulously researched and perfectly capture period high society, without the stuffiness or trappings of a costume drama.

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