HBO slate makes history

The Write Stuff - Jonathan Bing

Tony Soprano, meet Sitting Bull.

HBO, long known for such topical fare as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” is turning back the pages of American history, developing a slate of projects set in the 19th century American West and the Civil War era.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown’s classic account of the decades-long eradication of Native Americans, leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee, is in development at the pay cabler as an original movie.

Producer Dick Wolf and former Universal TV topper Tom Thayer will exec produce “Wounded Knee” for HBO.

The cabler is also rumored to be in talks to option “Cloudsplitter,” the Russell Banks novel about militant abolitionist John Brown, who led the 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry that was a prologue to the Civil War. “Lumumba” director Raoul Peck is working with Banks and is expected to helm an original movie based on the book.

These pics join a raft of other HBO projects shining a light into corners of 19th century history that, for budgetary and political reasons, Hollywood has rarely explored.

Also in development is “The Bondswoman’s Narrative,” the story of a slave on a Southern plantation based on a recently discovered manuscript, penned under the name Hannah Crafts, believed to be the first novel by an African-American woman.

And “Iron Jawed Angels,” an HBO pic about suffragist Alice Paul, is set to begin production later this month, with a cast including Hilary Swank, Anjelica Huston and Patrick Dempsey.

SUCCESSFUL HBO HISTORICAL SERIES: like “Band of Brothers” and “From the Earth to the Moon” could serve as a template for the cabler’s slate of early America projects.

But these tales of native-American history, suffrage and slavery depart from most HBO historical fare in significant ways.

The formation of the republic after the Civil War is a story that film and TV producers have largely neglected.

That could be changing. Miramax and MGM are shooting Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” Frazier recently sold book and film rights to his as-yet-untitled second novel — the story of a 19th century frontier lawyer representing Cherokee interests in Washington — for a combined $11 million.

Each of HBO’s projects tackles thorny political issues involving social injustice, racial, class and gender strife, and the cabler may find it hard to smooth over the rough edges. These books are based on original documents and the voices of real historical characters.

“Wounded Knee” uses first-hand descriptions, tribal records and memoirs to recount the battles, broken treaties and setbacks that led to the decimation of the Dakota, Sioux, Cheyenne and other tribes. First issued in 1970, the Jody Hotchkiss and Sterling Lord-repped book was a publishing landmark, selling more than five million copies, but it’s never reached the screen.

“Cloudsplitter” also plugs important gaps in antebellum history. The novel, repped by Endeavor, recounts the violence that roiled the anti-slavery movement in the years before the Civil War, culminating on Brown’s guerilla attack on a federal arsenal in 1859.

Banks is the author of several books that have been developed as films, including “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Affliction.”

Peck’s latest film, “Profit and Nothing But! Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle,” was recently released by First Run/Icarus.

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