Success of pics like 'Shutter Island' open window of opportunity

No one loves a good mystery more than mystery authors, but the suspense is killing some of them: When will Hollywood finally make a movie out of their books?

Directors like Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood love “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane. But crime novelists Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich, who sell millions more novels, languished in studio development hell for years.

Hollywood’s hunger for name brands could finally be giving these novelists their day onscreen.

Coben has two film adaptations in the works: Kathleen Kennedy is producing an American remake of “Tell No One,” a lovelorn thriller that Guillaume Canet turned into a hit in France a few years ago after Stateside attempts sputtered. And French producer-distrib Gaumont and American producer Nick Wechsler are collaborating on an English-language adaptation of “Long Lost,” Coben’s ninth tome featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar.

Katherine Heigl recently came onboard to play bounty hunter Stephanie Plum in the long-gestating adaptation of Evanovich’s “One for the Money,” fanning hopes it will get made by Lakeshore for Sony. And Angelina Jolie is keen to play medical examiner Kay Scarpetta in the Fox 2000 movie based on the literary franchise Cornwell launched two decades ago.

“Tell No One’s” success in France surely renewed interest in Coben’s work, but Hollywood has been slow to adapt many other bestsellers. More than ever, studios need recognizable names to float projects. So despite the challenges of adapting mystery novels, it’s hard to ignore the built-in recognition for these authors, who often produce a book a year or more.

There’s a lot of pressure when popular detectives like Stephanie Plum make the leap to screen. Bigscreen adaptations of novels by James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Sara Paretsky met with mixed results, despite each scribe’s devoted readership.

“If there’s a series of books that are so successful and beloved, expectations are very high,” says producer Mark Gordon, who took on the Scarpetta project after Sony’s option lapsed. “The bar’s even higher.”

Gordon, who had discussed an original TV project with Cornwell in the past, approached the writer about Scarpetta after learning from ICM that the option was available. Around the same time, ICM’s Ron Bernstein had approached Jolie’s manager, Geyer Kosinski, about the project.

To get around the fact that Scarpetta’s character is older than Jolie, the filmmakers decided to scrap the standard adaptation route and develop a movie showing Scarpetta’s origins as a medical examiner. “It’s the beginning of this character’s journey for the movies,” Gordon says. “It’s not based on any one particular book.”

Screenwriter Kerry Williamson is expected to deliver this take soon, according to the producer, who’s quick to point out that Cornwell has given her blessing to this approach, as has Jolie. The movie will be set in the present day.

A powerful lit agent suggests that the very qualities that help make these novels so popular may work against them in film adaptations. Relatable everyman or woman characters appeal to readers but may not be considered sexy or mysterious enough to carry a film. The modern day equivalents of Agatha Christie whodunits and Dashiell Hammett detective stories tend to appear on the smallscreen these days.

“The problem with hardcore mystery writers,” the agent says, “is their books tend to be a much smaller canvases and are much better suited for television. But then they’re competing against the ‘CSI’s, ‘Without a Trace’s — all the procedurals.”

Authors and their reps steer away from the mystery label for alternatives such as crime fiction, thriller or, in Evanovich’s case, “romance adventure.” Thrillers, after all, are considered to have international appeal.

Coben, known for his intricate plotting, says that his books are about much more than solving a mystery in the Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes tradition. He considers “Tell No One” a love story wrapped up in a thriller, which Gallic filmmaker Canet seemed to understand better than any of the Americans that had previously tried to develop it.

“Tell No One,” originally published in 2001, was first optioned by Michael Ovitz’s AMG. For a while, Mace Neufeld was producing it for Columbia, with Michael Apted intending to direct. When that fell through, Coben told Canet he’d give him a shot at developing it, provided he could match the American option money.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Coben says.

But he liked Canet’s ideas — and appreciation of the underlying love story of a grieving widower who never got over his wife’s mysterious death. “I think that’s why the movie worked,” Coben says.

Coben served as unofficial advisor to Canet on the movie, appearing in a bit part as a heavy. The pic earned $33 million at the global box office, eventually winning four Cesar awards and becoming the top 2006 foreign language pic in the U.S. And it built Coben’s Gaul readership significantly.

“I am the Jerry Lewis of crime fiction,” he jokes. “I’m huge in France.”

Now the tale, written from his home in New Jersey, is making a reverse migration through the studio system Stateside. “This whole thing has been a very strange hybrid,” says Coben, who has also penned some pilots that didn’t get picked up.

Evanovich never thought she’d have to wait this long to see “One for the Money” developed into a movie. She sold it to TriStar for $1 million in 1994, before it hit stores. Over the years, Jennifer Lopez and Reese Witherspoon have been bandied about as potential stars for the adaptation, which producer Wendy Finerman has been shepherding from the start.

“It seems like a no brainer — there have been all these shows about bounty hunters — but my poor little project just has never gotten off the ground,” Evanovich says. “I would like to see it happen very badly. In the beginning if it had been made, it would have really benefitted my sales. At this point, it would be the reverse. I have a readership of five to six million.”

As far as Evanovich is concerned, there’s no downside to a movie adaptation: “My feeling has always been, if the movie sucks, people are the going to say the book’s better, and if the movie’s good, more people are going to read the book.”

At first, Evanovich admits, she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t asked to write the adaptation. Now that she knows more about the development process she’s happy to have others undertake the screenwriting, which is far more collaborative than fiction writing. The project has already had more than seven writers take a pass at it.

Adapting “One for the Money” at this stage in the franchise has gotten trickier, she notes, due to the passage of time and evolution of the character. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It would have been better to come out in the beginning,” Evanovich says. “On the other hand, there’s a built-in audience.”

At this stage in the game, money’s no longer the big issue for these franchise novelists: Any film options that big mystery or thriller writers receive will like be smaller than the advances they earn for their books. But they still like to see the stories they created turne into films.

“It’s just cool,” Coben says. “I think most novelists want to have their books made into movies — but they want it done well.”

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