Monday, June 20, 2011

Books we should be watching!

Weirdly, I had movie people looking at Masks before I had book people looking at Masks. Because I was writing it as my thesis in an interdisciplinary master’s program, I spent a lot of classes hanging around with screenwriters, playwrights, poets, and the like, and because the program was well-connected to the highly regarded USC film school, we’d get a bunch of Hollywood types trooping through as guest speakers in our classes. One professor insisted that every student pitch his or her project to every guest speaker she had, even if it was a poet pitching to an editor who specialized in memoirs. And so it came about that I had my first conversation with a Hollywood development executive.

I had already figured out that I personally was not Hollywood material. I didn’t have the looks to compete in a field that still judges women heavily by their headshots, and a sleep disorder combined with an allergy to coffee meant that I could not compete with the other interns in the mailroom who pulled twenty-hour shifts in order to get out of the mailroom. Even if I’d really wanted to be a screenwriter, it just wasn’t in the cards. But I gamely pitched my little superhero story to the development guy, and ended up by saying, “Look, I have no interest in being a professional screenwriter. Basically, I’d want to partner with a pro, work together on a few drafts so I can legitimately tell the fans that they’ll like the script, and then go away and not bother you until the premiere. Except for maybe visiting the set once and taking pictures like a tourist. Do you do deals like that?”

Without blinking, the guy replied, “I fantasize about doing deals like that. What did you say your book was about again?”

Now, in light of the number of books out there whose authors would probably want no more involvement than that (if even that much), it surprises me that an industry that adapts huge numbers of books every year isn’t even looking at some very good prospects. A few examples, in no particular order, until I think of more …

1. Farmer Giles of Ham.  To begin with, this story is by J.R.R. Tolkien, so you’ve got a massive drooling fanbase built in. You don’t even need Peter Jackson-level budgets for this one—it’s a tidy little novella that would work well as a low-budget production. The tale is about a gruff farmer who finds a giant trampling his fields one night and shoots him with a blunderbuss. The giant isn’t really hurt, but he goes away and the farmer becomes a local hero. The farmer likes this very much … until an ancient, cunning and deliciously wicked dragon comes to town, and everyone expects the local hero and his blunderbuss to take care of the problem. Add in a magic sword that won’t stay in the sheath, a hilariously cowardly dog, some foppish knights, and a greedy king, and you’ve got the makings of a great animated feature. My personal wishlist includes Sean Bean as Giles, Stephen Fry as the voice of the dragon, and Hugh Laurie as the voice of the dog, but I’m flexible. As far as I know, no one’s even pursued an option on Farmer Giles of Ham.

2. The Crispin Guest mysteries. This is a personal favorite. I’m a great fan of the lovely Jeri Westerson’s vivid “medieval noir” mysteries about a disgraced former knight who atones for his past misdeeds by solving crimes in the shadowy streets of fourteenth-century London, usually with at least one holy relic per novel crossing his path in an interesting way. Cross Brother Cadfael with Philip Marlowe and you might have a little of Crispin … if either one of those men quoted Aristotle and was trying to teach a twelve-year-old street urchin how to act like a gentleman. Seriously—why has no one tried to option this as a movie or TV miniseries? I happen to know Westerson would be amenable …

3. The Blackcollar. This has to be one of the best concepts ever for an all-star action movie. Based loosely on the Japanese legend (itself loosely rooted in history) of the 47 ronin, Timothy Zahn’s 1983 debut novel was about a group of commando super-soldiers who fought in a war to save humanity from an alien invasion … and lost. Now, after thirty years of living in deep cover as embittered veterans, a group of surviving commandos—“blackcollars”—gets an opportunity to strike back against their alien conquerors. The real show here is the game of chess between the brilliant strategist Damon Lathe, leader of the blackcollars, and a local human security official named Galway who’s just as brilliant but determined to stop the blackcollars so the aliens don’t nuke his planet in order to kill a few malcontents. Now imagine someone doing this as a sci-fi action movie … using the action stars of yore (since all the blackcollars are at least fifty, most are in their sixties, and a few are over seventy). Am I the only one who’d like to see Clint Eastwood as Lathe? Perhaps I am, because Zahn recently went back to round off his two-book adventure into a trilogy, and the structure screams Hollywood option, but there’s nary a peep.

4. He That Hath Wings. Now that CGI is really cooking, someone has to do this. A 1938 short story by Edmond Hamilton (one of the pioneers of Golden Age science fiction), “He That Hath Wings” is about just what it sounds like … a boy with wings. The product of a freak accident during his mother’s pregnancy that killed his father, the boy is raised in isolation after his mother dies and is as much at home in the sky as any human being could be on land. When he finally ventures out into the wider world, he falls in love with a human girl and has his wings amputated so he can fit in with her normal family. Then one day his wings start to grow back … and he has to choose between the ordinary life he thought he always wanted and the sky that beckons him once again. I won’t spoil the magnificent ending for you, but I urge any screenwriter with a hankering for fantasy to seek out this oft-reprinted and never-adapted gem.

5. The Compleat Werewolf. This one was practically written as a movie. A hilarious novella by the Golden Age great Anthony Boucher, The Compleat Werewolf is about a professor of German who discovers that he can transform into a wolf by saying a magic word—but that in order to transform back he has to say the word “absarka,” which he cannot pronounce when he has a wolf’s vocal equipment. (The ways he finds to get other people to say the improbable word are … memorable.) Hilarity ensues involving commie spies, a sultry starlet, and a professor of ancient languages who dabbles in the fake occult. The novella happens to be structured exactly like a textbook screenplay (I’ve used it as a teaching example), so I’m astonished that no one’s tried adapting it before now. Aren’t werewolves supposed to be the Next Big Thing? Come on, Hollywood!

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