It’s time for the tome

Studios return to literary sagas to bolster sagging film line-up

Patrick O’Brian first traveled to Hollywood in 1995 to meet Charlton Heston and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who hoped to turn his acclaimed series of books featuring Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey into a feature film.

Eight years later, “Master and Commander” will sail into multiplexes, with Russell Crowe playing Aubrey, and with a major Oscar push from Fox.

A happy ending for the books perhaps, but not for O’Brian, the noted historical novelist who died three years ago.

Aubrey’s long odyssey from the page to the screen is a cautionary tale for those in Hollywood developing blockbuster films from prestigious page-turners.

It’s no secret that serious books are getting short-shrift in Hollywood. Studios now marshal their biggest resources for adaptations of comic books, video games, old TV shows and kiddie franchises.

Plenty of literary adaptations get released each year from niche distribs and studio classics divisions. But it’s rare for a studio to put all its chips on a book — especially a book with a strong literary voice, depth of character and complex storyline.

There are a few exceptions.

Universal just rolled the dice on “Seabiscuit,” and appears to have rolled a winner.

Miramax will try its luck with “Cold Mountain” in December. Fall and winter will bring more literary adaptations, as those months usually do. Among them: “The House of Sand and Fog,” “The Human Stain,” “Timeline,” “Mystic River,” “The Lord of the Rings” — and “Cat in the Hat.”

However, “Seabiscuit,” “Master and Commander” and “Cold Mountain” are in a class by themselves. They’re not for kids. They’re serious, novelistic dramas, adapted from hefty, high-minded books that have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback.

These three films are a quiet counter-movement to the barrage of franchises and sequels unleashed by the studios in recent movies. A lot of film insiders believe this is a key moment for these types of books to re-establish themselves as Hollywood mainstays. Even execs at other studios are quietly rooting for these to succeed.

They’re a throwback to an era when high-toned literary sagas were a staple of the studio system — whether they were classics by the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, or new works of fiction like “Gone With the Wind,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

“Seabiscuit,” “Cold Mountain” and “Master and Commander” each cost as much to produce as some summer tentpoles. They were deemed risky enough that the studios shepherding them sought to spread the risk among financing partners. And their fate at the box office will have profound ramifications for the Hollywood book trade — and perhaps the culture at large.

“These kinds of movies are getting fewer and fewer, and harder and harder to set up,” book agent Geoffrey Sanford says.

Literary adaptations often involve Byzantine financing schemes.

“The baseline of Hollywood’s thinking is, ‘I have to conceive of this as a movie that will gross $100 million.’ It’s easier for them to make that leap of faith with a sequel or a comic book.”

After several big-ticket popcorn movies flamed out this summer, there’s new hope in Hollywood that the public has an appetite for more serious fare. “Seabiscuit,” now on track to gross north of $100 million domestically, appears to support that notion.

It was no sure thing that “Seabiscuit” would recoup its cost. Universal brought in financing partners DreamWorks and Spyglass, and it opened the film in a modest run, with fewer than 2,000 playdates in the teeth of a crowded July weekend.

“Seabiscuit” opened in fifth place, but it’s one of the few summer films with legs.

“It doesn’t have explosions, its superhero is a horse, it doesn’t digest down into a 15-second marketing spot,” says “Seabiscuit” writer-director Gary Ross. “That’s not an easy thing for a studio to bank on.”

“Master and Commander” and “Cold Mountain” will also require special handling, but the cost for Fox and Miramax, respectively, can’t be measured only in coin.

Fox Filmed Entertainment prexy Tom Rothman, who was president of Samuel Goldwyn Films in 1995, mounted a personal crusade to get the film made. Fox acquired the project in turnaround from Disney and worked for a year to wrangle Peter Weir into the director’s chair. It underwent several drafts and used the tank in Baja California that James Cameron created for “Titanic.”

The final negative cost of close to $100 million was considered risky enough that Fox opted to sell half the film to Miramax and Universal (which now each hold 25%).

Miramax, by contrast, is on the hook for the entire $80 million “Cold Mountain” negative cost, following MGM’s withdrawal from the project last winter.

Like “Master and Commander,” the Miramax film — about a Confederate soldier’s long journey home during the Civil War — has had an arduous journey to the screen.

It originated at United Artists under Lindsay Doran, who acquired Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel for $1.25 million in 1997. Project was for Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella’s Mirage Enterprises, and Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide Prods. In 1999, MGM and Miramax elected to make “Cold Mountain” part of their multi-pic co-financing pact.

Recently, “Cold Mountain” has become a flashpoint in financial negotiations between Miramax and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co. Disney demanded Miramax find a new co-financier.

But a Miramax source says, “The movie has turned out so well, there’s no real reason to take on a partner.”

There’s a loud chorus of authors, publishers, book agents and book-friendly producers who are pulling for these movies.

Studio slates are glutted with page-monsters in varying stages of development — “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Corrections,” “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” “Lindbergh,” “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” among them.

The longer these titles lay unproduced, the more likely it is that studios will run up huge expenses against them, creating still more reluctance to greenlight them. The box-office performance of “Seabiscuit,” “Mountain” and “Commander” could serve as a referendum on whether to proceed.

For publishers, such literary films represent a jolt to sales.

Ballantine has organized an immense “Seabiscuit” publishing program in conjunction with the film’s release. In the last few weeks, the company has shipped hundreds of thousands of copies of the book in three different editions, bringing the total number of “Seabiscuit” volumes sold north of 4 million, with more to come.

O’Brian’s U.S. publisher, W.W. Norton, has built a cottage industry for the author. The house publishes all 20 of his seafaring novels, as well as curios like “Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: The Definitive Food Reference” to his fiction.

For a midsize house like Norton, the success of the O’Brian franchise props up a broad, diversified publishing list, which includes a trade paperback line with short story collections, first novels and high-caliber nonfiction.

“The books that win the prizes are not necessarily the ones that pay the bills,” Norton editor-in-chief Starling Lawrence says.

Norton has sold 4 million books in the O’Brian franchise. “It’s possible the movie could, in the long run, double what we’ve sold to date,” Lawrence says.

When a serious movie like “Seabiscuit” clicks with an adult audience and becomes an enduring national phenomenon, it also helps reverse a troubling trend: the ephemeral success of hit books and movies.

The summer was cluttered with hit films that evaporated at the box office after opening weekend — a trend that’s spilled over into other areas of the culture.

Sales of the latest “Harry Potter” in the U.S. alone reached 5 million copies in its first 24 hours on sale. But the velocity of sales, like the blowout box office of a summer movie, diminished rapidly in subsequent weeks.

The “Seabiscuit” books, like the film’s box-office, have a longer shelf

Ballantine sales and marketing chief Anthony Ziccardi says book chains are preparing to give “Seabiscuit” prominent placement over the holiday season. Compare that to the novelization of “Spider-Man,” which blew off the shelves for three weeks, then vanished.

That’s a familiar sales pattern for studio distribution execs who’ve struggled this summer to keep their franchise titles in theaters from one weekend to the next.

And, if “Cold Mountain” and “Master and Commander” succeed, studios may be more cautious about relying on popcorn-pic sequels.

Fox production prexy Hutch Parker says “Master and Commander” was intended to be a franchise. “But our experience is not to count our chickens before they hatch. The summer argues effectively what can go wrong if sequels automatically pop into being, just because a film is successful.”

As “Seabiscuit” proudly rode into theaters in this its fifth weekend, Ross expressed a sentiment that is shared by many: “It’s way more satisfying for a filmmaker to have a big second weekend than a big first weekend.”