Arts: The book and the box office

A film of a novel can make its author rich, but it's a tortuous business - especially for good ones.

Has any reference work ever rendered the sublime so mundane as the unwitting flair of Halliwell's Film Guide? "A Russian family's adventures at the time of the Napoleonic invasion." "Twenty- four hours in Dublin with a young poet and a Jewish newspaper man." "A young man grows up with the determination to be a writer.'' No prizes for guessing War and Peace and Ulysses, but if you didn't spot the last as John Irving's The World According to Garp then you can justifiably ask how the hell it differed from the several thousand other novels with the same plot.

Soon there will be a new resume in Halliwell's: "Wall Street whizz-kid imaginatively murders strangers - or does he?" Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho finally goes into production in Toronto and New York this March, after a gestation as convoluted as the book's original publication. Initially it was mooted as a low- budget, arthouse production, to be directed by Mary I Shot Andy Warhol Harron, but soon Leonardo DiCaprio and then Oliver Stone were connected with the project.

The process has been fraught. The budget reportedly shot up to $40m on Leo's alleged involvement; Harron, after two years' work, risked losing her place in the chair; and, of course, Lion's Gate gained publicity disproportionate with what will now be an "R" rated $15m project, well below the Hollywood norm.

In fact, it seems like the only loser might be Ellis himself. With the originating author's fee frequently tied to a percentage of the overall budget, when Leo walked, so did around half-a-million bucks, assuming Ellis was on a standard writer's deal.

Still, at least someone is actually filming American Psycho. Baltimore's King of Kitsch, John Waters, spent years pursuing John Kennedy Toole's much-loved A Confederacy of Dunces. Chat-show host Johnny Carson at one point owned the rights, but they currently rest in the hands of a mysterious Texan, who is apparently reluctant to relinquish them. The late Johns, Belushi and Candy, were seriously considered for the title role. More recently, John Goodman refused to have anything to do with it, presumably fearing for his life. With Stephen Fry currently suggested, who can blame him?

Similar ownership wrangles bedevil attempts to film Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, soon exhibiting in an Irish courtroom. Of his other works, only Complicity is certain to reach the screen. His science fiction epic, Consider Phlebas, which he concluded by killing off the leading characters to spare himself the chore of penning endless sequels, is eminently commercial and he's gone on record as being willing to change the ending, so fond is he of some of the set pieces within.

One down though (equal with Martin Amis, although money has finally been found to produce Money), and ahead of the world's most, er, famous author, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, and Charlton Heston's favourite, Patrick O'Brian.

You can bet that all their works have been optioned. With the majority of authors so ill-rewarded, even the mere carrot of an option, commonly no more than a few thousand pounds, cannot be refused. The real money comes if, and it's a huge if, the film actually gets made. The major American players can easily afford to hold rights for years, though as one author's agent complained, they find it harder to follow up their supposed interest by entering a bookshop, preferring to scrounge copies.

Here, where finance is generally harder to come by, potential investors are reassured by the solid evidence presented by a novel. Producer David Nicholas Wilkinson happily admits to massaging the facts to convince backers of an unlikely adaptation of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse: "I told them every library has X copies, each taken out 20 times a year, and made up a figure for a potential audience." He got his money.

He also makes the point that "really good novels don't generally make really good films", and it's true that plenty of forgotten books inspired classics. Peter George's Red Alert became Dr Strangelove; The Hoods by David Aaronson (who, he?) inspired Leone's epic Once Upon A Time In America; and the original novels behind Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate and Vertigo are now hardly remembered. Two of Martin Scorsese's best films are taken from unlikely sources. Jake LaMotta's autobiography, Raging Bull, could have comfortably borne the title American Psycho, and if anything the movie is a bowdlerisation, while Nick Pileggi's Wiseguys can be read in less time than it takes to watch its adaptation, GoodFellas.

Reducing a novel to a 100-page shooting script is a difficult task few authors have succeeded at. Arguably, only Graham Greene, a former film critic, and the erratic Terry Southern ever managed it comfortably. Of present day screenwriters, unusually, the Coen Brothers seem to actually read books. Both Fargo and The Big Lebowski feel adapted from never written novels, while Barton Fink expressly confronted the contradiction between the writer working alone and the collaborative process of film-making.

Publishing and cinema have one thing in common though - the idiotic "high concept" one-line pitch. One of the joys of the Internet is a site called "screenspec.com", where hopefuls put up their titles and synopses on the off-chance that a bored producer, or more likely, a junior gofer, will be browsing. I won't spoil your pleasure, but: "Bright Eyes (SF/Thriller): `A family vacation turns into a family disaster when teenagers find an egg in a cave that hatches into a killer,'" is one of the more coherent efforts. No wonder people play safe with book rights.

Yet puzzles remain. Where is the film of Donna Tartt's The Secret History? Or that other perennial student favourite, Patrick Suskind's Perfume? Why won't anyone attempt Carl Hiaasen's excellent satirical thrillers? Is it because Demi Moore was out-acted by a woman bearing comedy breasts and the monicker "Pandora Peaks" in the awful Striptease? Whither the brilliant Joe Lansdale - brutal, witty crime yarns with the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard? Come to think of it, where's Leonard's superb Freaky Deaky? Stephen Dobyns' Church of Dead Girls? And how about Alan Furst's currently un-optioned set of noir spy-novels? Intelligent, cultured - ideal for Liam Neeson to get back into a trenchcoat.

Louis De Bernieres recently said he won't sell the rights to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, fearing that any actor would disappoint his readership. True, if us Brits make it we'll probably get Colin Firth done up swarthy, but while the American film industry continues to pump out films like Dean Quixote, starring a youth who once played "fighting boy" in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it's sad that he doesn't need the money.

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