Literary Purgatory

Literary Purgatory: It’s a long and treacherous journey from best-seller to multiplex, and it’s not without casualties.

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: Franzen’s tale of aging Midwestern parents and their bohemian and often troubled children won the 2001 National Book Award.

WHAT HAPPENED? Producer Scott Rudin snapped up the film rights in 2001 and hired director Stephen Daldry and playwright David Hare, who together had successfully adapted The Hours. But Daldry was too busy, and it was announced in 2005 that director Robert Zemeckis would be taking over, though he too has been preoccupied.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Maybe, but not anytime soon. Daldry and Hare have shifted focus to another adaptation, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. Zemeckis has appeared more interested of late in making high-tech, motion-capture extravaganzas such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. He has plans to follow up Beowulf with a new take on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, voiced by Jim Carrey.

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: If anyone can turn a squabbling family into high art, it’s Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding).

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: A cult classic since its 1989 publication, this is a surreal tale of a couple who cast their traveling circus with their own freak children.

WHAT HAPPENED? Warner Bros. owns the film rights, and Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton have long been rumored to be involved. Now the Matrix-creating Wachowski siblings are producing, but they are currently focused on Speed Racer, due out in May.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Unlikely. Sometimes a project can be loved to death in Hollywood. With Burton, Depp and the Wachowskis in the mix, Warner Bros. isn’t likely to hand it off to another filmmaker, such as Terry Gilliam, who’s expressed interest in the story, for fear of offending those big names.

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) would have a field day with the visual effects needed to showcase the flipper-limbed Arturo and Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia.

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: Centered on the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the book was published posthumously in 1980, 11 years after the author’s suicide. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

WHAT HAPPENED? Dunces has become a poster child for the difficult-to-adapt book. Before it was published, Scott Kramer, then a junior executive at 20th Century Fox, optioned the book, and there have been countless attempts to bring it to screen, including two by director Harold Ramis. Steven Soderbergh wrote a screenplay with Kramer, but the effort was derailed by a lawsuit with Paramount, which had bought the rights for $1 million. In 2001 Miramax paid $1.5 million for the rights, and for a while the movie seemed close to production, with indie auteur David Gordon Green directing the Soderbergh-Kramer script, and Will Ferrell as Reilly. But Miramax pulled the funding, and the project returned to Paramount.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Kramer, who’s been working on Dunces for nearly 30 years, isn’t optimistic. “The project is parked at Paramount without any plans for production,” he says.

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: Jason Reitman, just 30, was in preschool when Dunces was first published. But he’s delivered two smartly observed comedies in the last two years—Juno and Thank You for Smoking—both driven by strong character performances.

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: Two Jewish cousins in New York City—one who has recently fled Nazi Europe—invent a comic-book character called the Escapist. Published in 2000, the book won Chabon a Pulitzer Prize.

WHAT HAPPENED? Scott Rudin, who also produced Chabon’s Wonder Boys, paid more than $1 million for the author’s one-and-a-half-page idea before there was even a novel. Chabon wrote the screenplay himself, and at times it seemed close to production—at one point it was rumored that Stephen Daldry would direct Tobey Maguire (who also starred in Wonder Boys) and Natalie Portman. But the project has been dormant for more than a year.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Quite possibly. Daldry is said to still want to direct, though he can’t start until he’s finished with The Reader and his traveling stage-musical version of Billy Elliot. And Chabon has a good track record: In addition to Wonder Boys, a movie of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, shot by director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) and starring Sienna Miller and Peter Sarsgaard, premiered recently at Sundance.

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: Bryan Singer got his big break with the intricately plotted and character-driven The Usual Suspects before making comic-book movies like X-Men and Superman Returns; here he could combine both his passions.

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: Published in 1992, Tartt’s debut novel, which is set on a Vermont college campus where a group of Classics seminar students kill one of their classmates, became a runaway best-seller.

WHAT HAPPENED? Director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice) optioned the book before it was published, enlisting literary couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. Through the years, other writers took a crack at the adaptation, and in 2001 Gwyneth Paltrow signed on to produce, with her brother Jake set to direct. But the literary rights have since reverted back to Tartt.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Highly unlikely. Tartt didn’t shop the rights to her second book, 2002’s The Little Friend, and seems to be less than eager to restart efforts to bring The Secret History to film. A spokesman says, “For the time being, she’s not interested in having a movie made based on [her first book].”

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: Ang Lee showed a knack for capturing the tendencies and neuroses of upper-class New Englanders in The Ice Storm, which, like his Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, was a literary adaptation. Plus, with a studio chief—Focus Features’ James Schamus—as his primary screenwriting partner, he has an advantage when it comes to cutting through red tape.

Photo: Robert Mitra

THE BOOK: Eggers was propelled to literary stardom in 2000 with the publication of his memoir about raising his little brother after the death of his parents when he was barely out of his teens.

WHAT HAPPENED? New Line paid a staggering $2 million to option the book shortly after it was published, but the path from tome to screen seemed problematic from the beginning. Initially, there was a dispute between Eggers and his then agent, who sued him, claiming Eggers hadn’t paid the commission on the deal. Later, Nick Hornby and D.V. DeVincentis started work on a screenplay, but it never went into production, and New Line eventually gave up on the project. It languished for years before the rights reverted back to Eggers.

WILL WE EVER SEE THIS MOVIE? Probably not. When it comes to Hollywood, Eggers’s main interest in recent years has been his collaboration with Spike Jonze on adapting the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, which is scheduled to be released this October after its own extended development period.

POTENTIAL SAVIOR: Marc Forster has become the director to call when studios have challenging projects: He directed last year’s The Kite Runner (based on the best-selling novel), and next he’ll breathe new life into the James Bond franchise, directing the second installment to star Daniel Craig.