Hollywood feeding frenzy hits the book world

Writing up the numbers: British storytellers take their cut as film-makers bid millions for a good plot
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The final chapter has not even been written, the debts are mounting, previous rejection letters are in the bin - then comes the call from Hollywood. An anointed band of British writers are living happily ever after in a wave of record- breaking deals to buy the rights of their books for film.

This month, John Grisham, the American king of the courtroom drama, is expected to sell his latest novel, The Runaway Jury, to Hollywood for an unprecedented $8m as part of the most lucrative writing career in Hollywood history. But the Brits are hot on his trail with a pile of blockbuster thrillers and romances.

As part of his own bid to become a top player in the film world, Mick Jagger, with a Hollywood studio, has bought the rights to Enigma, the wartime spy novel by Robert Harris. Harris is one of the band of top British writers dubbed "storytellers", of works which blur the traditional literary and commercial divide.

Jagger paid pounds 400,000 with Paramount for Enigma, which tells the story of the Bletchley wartime intelligence team that cracked Nazi codes. Such was the fervour surrounding film rights for the book, which will be adapted by Tom Stoppard, that Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant also put in a bid for their own film company.

But even with this handsome sum, Harris is only on the first rung a golden ladder of record-breaking deals. Hollywood's Daily Variety said of Grisham's asking price: "An $8m pay-day would raise eyebrows, but no studio has yet regretted cutting John Grisham a big cheque."

The first British novelist to break into the multi-million club was Nicholas Evans with the Horse Whisperer, the story of a family whose daughter is horribly injured in a riding accident. He sold the novel for more than pounds 2m, when it was half finished, in a frenzied bidding process led by Robert Redford, who will play the lead.

Caradoc King, Evans's agent, described the hysteria last year: "Once we'd had that first offer of a million we had Spielberg's office ringing. By Tuesday we were receiving numerous calls from Hollywood producers, but we wanted an outright sell. Anyone who offered $3m could speak to Nick Evans."

The deal put Evans, a formerly debt-ridden freelance film producer from Stockwell in south London, on a footing with the biggest players, including Michael Crichton who received only half Evans's advance for Jurassic Park, and Grisham, who broke records when he received pounds 2.3m for The Chamber.

For the studios, Evans' novel had the winning smack of The Bridges of Madison County, a romance written by Robert James Waller, an economics professor, which sold 10 million copies and was adapted for the screen starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

The courting of the "storytellers" is in stark contrast to the traditional image of writers in Hollywood, where until recently even the most revered novelists were paid relatively modestly. When Graham Greene wrote The Third Man, he was paid pounds 9,000, a generous figure for the time.

The process is not always smooth according to the writer Anna Pasternak, who sold her account of the affair between Princess Diana and Major James Hewitt to an American network for a substantial sum. Pasternak said: "You start reading the script and you realise they're not making a film of your book. In the end ... you take the money and run."

The record-breaking deals involved must help to encourage stoicism. Among the "storytellers" who have been wooed by Hollywood is Philip Kerr, from Wimbledon, south-west London, who was paid $1m for Gridiron, the story of a building that takes revenge on its occupants. Earlier this year he was given a reputed pounds 1m advance by Tom Cruise for a 10-page summary of his next book.

Kerr thought of the plot for the idea, entitled A Five-year Plan, on a flight to Edinburgh last summer. After signing the deal he said: "I went home and wrote the outline the following weekend. Now I've just got to start writing the book."