Teuton author follows ‘Potter’ path to films

Magical bestsellers “The Thief Lord” and “Inkheart” have established German author Cornelia Funke as the Teutonic answer to J.K. Rowling.

With translated versions of both books flying off the shelves in America and Britain, several Hollywood players are circling the movie rights in the hope that Funke can also emulate Rowling’s cinematic success.

The comparison is inevitable, given that Funke’s English publisher, Barry Cunningham of the Chickenhouse imprint, is the man who plucked “Harry Potter” out of the slush pile when he worked at Bloomsbury.

Indeed, “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman is neck and neck with “Lord of the Rings” exec Mark Ordesky at New Line in the pursuit of “Inkheart,” a trilogy whose first installment was published in the U.S. last month.

Meanwhile, “Little Vampire” producer Richard Claus is already developing “The Thief Lord” to direct himself next year. Warner is taking some, possibly all international rights, and New Line is considering domestic. Claus and Warner have also optioned Funke’s “Dragonslayer” series, yet to be published in English.

All this is a dream come true for the 45-year-old Funke. Aside from having written over 40 books for German children of all ages, she’s a movie buff with thousands of videos and DVDs crammed into her Hamburg cellar.

She has a healthy contempt for Teutonic cinema (“I am not a fan of the German way of acting,” she says), but never felt that the Hollywood alternative was within her reach. Last year’s U.S. publication of “The Thief Lord” changed all that. After it shifted half a million copies, Funke found herself on the receiving end of a typically head-spinning Hollywood courtship.

For “The Thief Lord,” a thriller with added magic about a gang of parentless children in crumbling Venice, she took an early decision to go with Claus, a German based in Amsterdam, because she felt the story’s style, scale and setting were more appropriate for a European treatment. The movie is budgeted at around $10 million, and Funke herself wrote the first draft.

With “Inkheart,” about a girl and her father with the power to bring characters alive by reading aloud from books, she recognizes that its $50 million-plus budget requires studio coin. But that makes her nervous.

“I get more and more the feeling that I should be very careful of the Hollywood influence,” she says. “Some people have given casting ideas that are just ridiculous. I don’t want to make ‘Inkheart’ with Jim Carrey or with Tom Hanks or with Brad Pitt. And I know that as soon as I’ve sold the rights, they won’t listen to me as much as they do today.”

Casting is her obsession. When she creates her novels, she visualizes her characters as particular actors. The father in “Inkheart” was always Brendan Fraser in her head. The sinister Dustfinger was, more hazily, somewhere between Viggo Mortensen and Daniel Day-Lewis.

“‘Inkheart’ is about a passion for books and words, but also about some things that are older than words,” she says. “The Europeans get that, the Americans mostly don’t.”

Ordesky and Heyman seem to have established themselves as her favored alternatives, but there are still other contenders, include Par-based producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Deborah Forte, who runs the movie arm of Chickenhouse’s U.S. partner Scholastic. Funke also talks of hiring the scriptwriter herself, and acting as co-producer.

“Mark Ordesky calls me Cornelia Flakey,” she laughs. “I sometimes think I have made a decision, and sometimes I am very far away. My L.A. lawyer Craig Emmanuel wants me to have a bidding war, but I want everyone to understand it’s not about money. As ‘Inkheart’ will be a trilogy, it’s a very difficult and dangerous thing to sell at the moment. Even J.K. Rowling sometimes thinks she should have sold her books later.

“But I will decide soon,” she promises. “I won’t be Cornelia Flakey much longer.”

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