Coming soon: OED, the movie

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The Independent Online
IN the most incongruous of pairings, the wild and stylish French film director Luc Besson has bought the pounds 750,000 film rights to a book on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The director of films including Leon, about a plant-loving contract killer, and The Fifth Element, starring Hollywood hardman Bruce Willis, is set to bring the famous lexicographer Dr James Murray to a new audience.

Yet the real star of the curious literary tale which has caught Besson's attention will be Dr W C Minor, one of the dictionary's voluntary contributors who toiled over English lexicography from within Broadmoor - the institution which remains England's most secure asylum for the criminally insane.

The question likely to tax film fans will be casting: could Willis show a way with words for the new project? The subject matter would at the very least suggest a film in English, and not Besson's native French.

The book, called The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by the journalist Simon Winchester, is due for publication in June.

Winchester is not speaking in advance, but a spokeswoman for Viking, the publishers, said: "The Surgeon of Crowthorne is one of the great untold stories of English literature."

Winchester trawled archives in Britain and America to investigate the story of Dr Minor. The two men corresponded regularly for nearly 20 years, with Dr Murray knowing nothing of his helper's personal circumstances.

Only when Dr Murray eventually decided to visit his prolific volunteer in 1896 did he learn that Dr Minor was a millionaire American civil war surgeon who had been imprisoned in the Berkshire asylum as a lunatic for more than 20 years. In 1872, he had been found not guilty on the grounds of insanity of murdering a man in London.

Through Dr Minor's story, Winchester describes the 50-year project to compile the Oxford English Dictionary, which grew from an agreed 7,000 pages in 1879 to the 15,487 pages of the final publication.