Steinbeck heirs piqued over ‘Pearl’ pic jam

IT TAKES A DEFT HAND to mold a dark, psychologically complex literary classic like John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” into a commercial picture without losing the integrity of the original book. And the Steinbeck estate is concerned that Alfredo Zacharias, director of such B movies as “Demonoid: Messenger of Death” and “The Bees” isn’t the man for the job.

Richard Harris, Lukas Haas and Tere Tarin are starring in the $8 million feature that Zacharias is now lensing south of the border. But Zacharias and his son, Alfredo Zacharias Jr., who’s producing the pic, have severed all contact with McIntosh & Otis, the lit agency for the estate, and refused to show them a copy of the shooting script. Zacharias’ original script, which the estate did review, took such liberties with the story that McIntosh & Otis prexy Gene Winick is considering a legal injunction to remove Steinbeck’s name and possibly the title from the pic.

Zacharias initially tried to spice up the novel — a moral fable about an impoverished pearl diver named Kino who discovers a giant pearl — by adding steamy sex and setting mountain lions and sharks after Kino. “That would be a desecration,” says Winick, and would violate a contractual clause stipulating that the producers “shall maintain the integrity and spirit of the content of the work.”

“This isn’t your average screenplay that’s thrown into the hopper,” says Winick. “This is a book that’s read in schools.”

Zacharias was unavailable for comment, but his lawyer Joseph Hart, of Weinstein & Hart, insists that the script is faithful to the book. There are no sharks, he says, and no sex. He doesn’t recall any mountain lions.

So why keep the estate in the dark?

“Our client doesn’t want to have someone looking over their shoulder,” says Hart. “The estate is not producing this.”

But if the estate takes legal action to block distribution of the film, and at this point they’re waiting to find out how the film turns out, it will prove just another wrinkle to a picture that’s been almost as unlucky as its penurious protagonist. Originally set up at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, the film has a troubled history. It went into turnaround in 1994, and in subsequent arbitration proceedings, Zacharias wrested control of the screenplay from Steinbeck’s son Thomas, who wrote an earlier draft and was attached to produce. The younger Steinbeck is reportedly still simmering over the ruling. “There’s no question Tom is mad,” says Winick. “But that’s not an issue for us.”

WITH 46 DAYS TO GO BEFORE “American Rhapsody” hits bookstores (but who’s counting?), the Joe Eszterhas watch is heating up. The erstwhile spec screenplay king’s sex-charged chronicle of Hollywood and Washington over the last four decades is already stirring up controversy overseas, where Eszterhas’ U.K. publisher, Fourth Estate, has dropped the book. “Too controversial,” says Knopf exec director of publicity Paul Bogaards, who notes that the Knopf legal read alone was 40 pages.

Talk magazine, which has bought first serial rights for its August issue, has moved forward its on-sale date from July 5 to June 28 solely to capitalize on the buzz behind the book.

At Book Expo America, held in Chicago June 2-4, Knopf will hand out brochures reproducing the book jacket and an excerpt from the author’s note (“I had a nerve-racking, maddening, revolting, hilarious, climactic time writing this…”), and touting its dramatis personae, among them Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Larry Flynt, Warren Beatty, David Geffen and Robert Evans. Though nonfiction, the book will have fictional elements, says Bogaards. And lest you worry that Eszterhas doesn’t intend to appeal to one’s basest of instincts, he adds, “There are parts of the book that are the literary equivalent of a Paul Verhoven close-up.”

FOR THE SECOND TIME IN THREE YEARS, St. Martin’s Press is attempting to establish an L.A. beachhead. In 1997, in an effort to lend its list a hip, young West Coast cachet, the house created Buzz Books, a joint venture with the now defunct L.A.-based magazine. That imprint didn’t outlive its namesake, which went under one year later. Undeterred, however, the house will launch L.A. Weekly Books in October. One of the inaugural titles is Diana McClellan’s “The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood.” The books will be supported by advertising in every alternative weekly in the L.A. Weekly family, including the Village Voice and the Minneapolis City Paper.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement may not have its own line of books, but in announcing its eight “Writers on the Verge” this week, it has created an early warning system for anyone tracking good books that might pass below the radar of most readers. Past winners include Nathan Englander, Colson Whitehead and Po Bronson. This year’s winners: Thomas Glave, author of “Whose Song? And Other Stories” (City Lights); Aleksander Hemon, author of “The Question of Bruno” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday); Steven Johnson, author of “Emergence” (Scribner); Edie Meidav, author of “The Far Field” (Houghton Mifflin); Rick Perlstein, author of “Before the Storm” (Farrar Straus & Giroux); Paisley Rekdal, author of “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” (Pantheon); Alice Sebold, author of “This Wide, Wide Heaven” (Little, Brown); and Akhil Sharma, author of “The Obedient Father” (Farrar Straus & Giroux).

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