From book to film — it’s an author’s dream. But more great pieces end up in purgatory than they ever do on celluloid. It’s common forÂ a popular book, scriptÂ or story idea to be scooped up by Hollywood bloodhounds, only to languish in development, suffer repeated rewrites and pass through multiple hands before being indefinitely shelved.
After seeing the film Jacob’s Ladder way back when, I discovered it had almost suffered a similar fate. Bruce Joel Rubin began writing Jacob’s Ladder in the fall of 1980 and finished a year later. His script bounced around Hollywood from one director to another. In 1984, it was listed in American Film as one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Eventually, when Lindsay Doran became a vice president at Paramount Pictures, the studio purchased it and, nearly a decade after the script’s completion, the film was made.
This idea that there are oodles of great unproduced screenplays floating aroundÂ Hollywood — so many thatÂ they’d even attempt to rate the ten best — is fascinating. How manyÂ inspirational, dramatic, even important stories are collecting dust on some shelf, waiting for the planets to align? Or an A-list director toÂ take interest.
The L.A. Times, in a new weekly feature entitled Scriptland, reports on one such script. The article was entitled The Big Name Gets Distracted.
J. Michael Straczynski’s “Changeling” is one of those blessed and doomed screenplays that periodically floats around Hollywood: a truly gripping read that actors and directors respond to with passion but that nonetheless has a hard time getting made. For a screenwriter, this can be an excruciating reality that only gets more painful when an A-list director is among those flirting with it.
So it has gone with Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), who has long been interested in making “Changeling” but who recently committed to direct the feature version of Peter Morgan’s political play “Frost/Nixon”…Â
At one point Howard was smitten enough with “Changeling” to meet with Straczynski, a longtime TV writer (“Babylon 5,” “Murder, She Wrote”) eager to have his first produced feature. Says Straczynski: “There are all kinds of circumstances that can affect whether or not something goes forwardâ€¦.”
“Changeling” is set in 1928 Los Angeles andÂ based onÂ the real-life account of a single mother whose 9-year-old son disappears. When the boy turns up four months later, she becomes convinced that the police have returned the wrong child, despite the persuasion ofÂ everyone around her.
No doubt, having Ron Howard interested in your project is a good sign. But as Straczynski notes, “There are all kinds of circumstances that can affect whether or not something goes forwardâ€¦” Â
In the case of “Changeling,” the biggest “circumstance” appears to be — you guessed it — mulah.
…the narrative is built around a lead character who slowly, intensely teeters toward a form of madness. It’s the kind of rare, weighty female role that has attracted Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and likely every other A-list actress in Hollywood. But “Changeling” is not exactly “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”; it’s a brooding downer, in the mold of Howard’s “The Missing,” which made only $27 million in theaters.
(Straczynski’s probably not the only one disappointed. After watching Howard go off and make three quarters of a billion dollars with Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s mega-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” Universal Pictures, to whom Howard owes his next film, had been hoping to steer the director toward similarly commercial fare.)
Ahh, the dreaded “commercial fare.” Why produceÂ “a brooding downer” when you can, fairly easily, “go off and make three quarters of a billion dollars” on something less risky. So what more commercial projectÂ has Universal “steered” Howard toward? How about “Angels & Demons,” Dan Brown’s precursor to “The Da Vinci Code,” which will, once again, beÂ adapted by Goldsman. The book brings a built-in fan base and is, almost guaranteed, to give Universal what they want.
Alas, is there any wayÂ for an author to avoid consigning their piece to purgatory? Good writing is no guarantee. There’s plenty of well-written books and scripts that will make the “Ten Best Unpublished” list. Perhaps the surestÂ means to publication/production heaven is to avoid writing “brooding downers” and proceed straight to the “commercial fare.” For some artists, however, that concession is pure hell.