Kwapis, writers turn self-help book into film

An increasing number of unlikely “literary” forms are making their way onto development slates and spawning films.

From the doctoral thesis (“Mean Girls”) to the agribusiness expose (“Fast Food Nation”), helmers, scribes and studios are thinking way outside the box when it comes to finding adaptable material.

The weekend’s bow “He’s Just Not That Into You” proved that even self-help books aren’t off limits.

Penned by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, the book with the catchy title became a publishing phenomenon, selling 2 million copies since its publication in 2004. Despite its success, the book seemed ill suited for bigscreen treatment. There were no characters, no setting, no dramatic arc — just a catchy title and lots of common sense relationship advice. Still, the film’s producers, New Line and Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films, decided to take a chance.

“It seems like a strange thing to adapt,” says director Ken Kwapis, who admits he didn’t read the book until after he began working on the project. “A lot of people wondered if the final material would feel trivial.”

But Kwapis, who prides himself on specializing in such character-driven fare as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and NBC’s “The Office,” credits screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein with inventing nine compelling, believable lead characters. Thus, Kwapis found himself in the enviable position of directing an intimate relationship film — a dying breed in the world of studio films — with an extremely marketable hook.

“The hardest thing to get a major studio to finance these days is the character-driven film,” he says. “That’s why it helps to have a high concept like ‘He’s Just Not That Into You.’ But ultimately with this film, the characters do not serve the concept. It’s actually the concept that serves the characters.”

What Kwapis hopes is that audiences will leave the theater aware that a theme has been explored. Similarly, a number of high-profile directors and producers are attaching themselves to unconventional material, presumably in an effort to build a story around a high concept. Among the projects in development are:

  • Steven Spielberg is attached to direct “Interstellar,” which is based on Caltech physicist Kip Thorne’s scientific papers on gravity fields. Lynda Obst is producing the project, which is set up at Paramount Pictures.

  • Hilary Swank acquired the international bestseller “French Women Don’t Get Fat” as a starring vehicle. Written by Veuve Clicquot executive Mireille Guiliano, the nonfiction lifestyle book offers observations on how French women manage to stay slim despite such daily indulgences as wine and pastries. Though the book provides no plot or protagonist, scribe Heather Hach is penning “a stylish and sophisticated romantic comedy about a ‘girl-next-door’… who learns some tough life lessons which help her become the woman she’s always wanted to be,” according to the pitch.

  • Leonardo DiCaprio and Universal Pictures are developing an adaptation of Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction tome “Blink.” U plunked down $1 million for the book rights and $2 million for Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay fee although the book has no traditional narrative. Instead, Gladwell offers vignettes from a disparate group of people about the power of making snap decisions.

The trend isn’t entirely new: Warner Bros. made the 1964 film “Sex and the Single Girl,” with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis, which was based on the Helen Gurley Brown book. A decade later, Woody Allen made the 1972 “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.” Both films essentially used the title as a jumping off point.

Hollywood’s thirst for odd material — just last week came the news that Universal will bring the game Candyland to the screen — also means fewer films are being made from entirely original ideas. In the past decade, only three Oscar best pic winners were based on original screenplays: “Crash,” “Gladiator” and “American Beauty.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to attracting top talent, characters trump concept most of the time.

“When these nine stars signed on to ‘He’s Just Not That Into You,’ it was because the screenplay’s characters spoke to them,” says Kwapis of the film’s A-list cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Connelly and Barrymore. “It wasn’t because they thought, ‘Hey, this is a cool idea.'”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more