Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Matt Bird Reviews Books!

So, I'd like to introduce you all to Matt Bird, a screenwriter and book lover who will be occasionally contributing to the site. I've toyed with the idea of creating a Sunday "Book Review" segment for awhile and while Matt's schedule won't permit him to commit a review every Sunday, he will pop in from time to time, and give us advance word on some newer properties, or chime in on an un-optioned property that's just dying to be made into a movie. If the segment works out, I may bring in another reviewer or two to fill in the gaps, so the Sunday review can be a weekly thing. But for Matt's introductory post, he's going to be filling you in on six books you should be adding to your Ipad book queue. Enjoy and don't forget to say hi to Matt.

Hello Scriptshadow readers: You don’t know about me, less you have read a blog called Cockeyed Caravan, but that ain’t no matter. I’m a big Scriptshadow fan and a working screenwriter. When Carson ran pieces by Roger and Michael, recommending books that they’d like to see turned into movies, I knew I'd found my calling, and got in touch with him right away. Carson asked if I could focus more on books that are upcoming and not yet sold. I thought that was great idea, so here goes--

My wife reviews books for a bunch of places, including her blog on School Library Journal, so I had plenty of youth-oriented Advanced Reader Copies at hand. I decided to start off spotlighting some Young Adult books that might have cross-over potential for those elusive four-quadrant movies. You’ve seen how the “Twilight” movies have intensified Hollywood’s youth obsession… well, imagine how much bigger that youth-quake has been on publishing side, where the books are an even bigger phenomenon. As a result, there are a lot of talented writers sticking a toe into this material. The hottest properties sell the movie rights long in advance, but a lot of good stuff has slipped through that net and is now approaching publication without a sale. According to IMDB Pro, there are no movies in development based on these promising properties:

The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford, comes out next month. In his piece, Roger recommended a recent alternate history adult novel with an almost identical name. This one is The Boneshaker. (The author blogs about her panic when she found out about her doppelganger here). That book used the term to describe a drill, but the term was originally a nickname for early bicycles, and that’s what it means here.

Natalie is a 13-year old girl in 1913 Arcane, Missouri whose father tinkers with bicycles and automatons, but nothing as intricate as the terrifiying perpetual motion machines built by Dr. Limberleg, who has brought his sinister medicine show to the edge of town. Limberleg is accompanied by four inhuman assistants who each specialize in a different nostrum: nightmarish versions of phrenology, animal magnetism, hyrdrotherapy, and amber therapy that show off the author’s flair for creepy visuals. Con-men used the phrase “burn the town” back then, but Dr. Limberleg means it in more ways than one. What he doesn’t suspect, however, that he’s stepped into the middle of a battle that has already been brewing in Arcane for years, between Satan himself and a Robert-Johnson-esque guitar player.

I picked this one because it reminded me of some other properties that have attracted attention: Like Scorsese’s next big adaptation, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, it includes some steampunk elements introduced into a real-world setting. Like “Holes”, one of the most successful adaptations of a kids book in the last ten years, it ties together many American myths into one neat little package, using real-life tragedies to spice up the mythology and add weight to the story (such as the “jake leg” scandal)

In fiction, steampunk has been an idea that has proven very popular with authors (if only somewhat popular with readers) but it’s barely crossed over into film. I think that that’s because most steampunk books (like the other Boneshaker) have been alternate histories, and movie audiences just don’t have the time or the patience to figure those out (see also: the Golden Compass movie) Give material like to this to a director like Guillermo Del Toro and I think the visual appeal of clockwork creatures and steam-powered junk science could finally make for a great movie.

Fat Vampire by Adam Rex comes out in July. Rex is a very funny writer and this book is one of many hoping to be recognized as “the anti-Twilight”. It’s got a neat central metaphor: Doug was a fat 16-year-old loser when he was bitten, and now he realizes that he’s never going to lose any more weight or become any cooler—a nice reversal of the usual “strong and beautiful forever” conception of teen vampires.

Rex’s great talent is for hilarious dialogue and fully-rounded characters (no pun intended) We cut back and forth between the worlds of Doug, his dry-witted Indian exchange student crush Sejal, and the reality TV host of “Vampire Hunters”, who is on the hunt for his first real vampire (Everyone they’ve caught on the show so far has turned to be merely non-superhuman Eurotrash). Doug, inspired by a viewing a “Lost Boys” type teen-movie, thinks that he can cure himself by killing the head vampire, a dubious quest that brings together all the players for the final confrontation. Unfortunately, the metaphor doesn’t pay off as well as it could in the end, but a good screenwriter could use this material to craft a more linear and cinematic narrative than the book provides.

By far the best book I found was actually a British book that came out over a year ago, but it’s remained merely a cult hit so far, so it still fits the “new and undiscovered” category. The sequel is about to be published here and I suspect that it’ll give this series the break it needs. The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd is a far more realistic version of “The Day After Tomorrow” crossed with “Scott Pilgrim”. It follows a snarky16-year old trying to launch her punk band as she suffers through London’s first year of carbon rationing, brought on by the increasingly extreme weather that is destroying many cities. This has a very cinematic escalating structure and a real epic scope, nicely telescoped in this one girl’s dawning awareness of the problem. It all culminates in a harrowing flood that snaps all the elements together, including a surprisingly effective low-key romance.

I hear that the sequel, “The Carbon Diaries 2017”, which I want to get my hands on, will show the punk band getting more revolutionary, putting them in opposition to the reactionary anti-rationing forces that are turning to violence across the country. Any producer who feared that Laura was too much of an observer of the problem in the first book could synthesize the two and get enough active-protagonist material for a thrilling movie.

I think the main thing holding back the first book from crossing over so far is how British it is. For one thing, it’s about a 16-year old going through her first year of college, which just seem totally wrong to Americans. Would a movie need to be Americanized to give it a broader audience? I don’t see why not, but the trend now is definitely towards super-faithful adaptations, and I think it could work in the original setting too, though you’d probably want a smaller budget, just to be safe. This could work as a smaller film, too, because it’s a disaster story driven more by strong characters than spectacle.

Don’t you want to see Carey Mulligan in punk get-up, smashing the windows of high-polluting cars? I know I do.

So that’s the state of upcoming teen books. Of course any production company that chases after hot ARCs quickly learns that it’s a tough way to make money—the most cinematic books have the most bidders, and many producers who pre-buy a book based on hype find themselves stuck with a dud after it comes out and fizzles. It always surprises me that prodcos don’t spend more time tracking down forgotten literary properties. As Roger and Michael did before me, I’ll spotlight a few of my favorites. Of course, as you can probably guess, I’ve been unable to interest my own managers in adaptations of these books, but I still think that they’d make great movies:

Michael covered “High Rise”, but here’s the J. G. Ballard book that I’ve always thought would make for a great cheap indie thriller: Concrete Island. It’s such a beautifully simple premise and a great metaphor for modern malaise: “Robinson Crusoe on a traffic island.” It’s that simple.

Robert Maitland is an asshole architect is driving back and forth between his mistress and his wife, both of whom have gotten used to his absences, when his car flips over a highway divider, stranding him on a large traffic island in the middle of a massive suburban highway interchange. He thinks that he’ll get up the steep embankments surrounding the several-acre ditch easily, but he’s injured and nobody zipping along the highway can see him down there. Days pass and each plan for getting out fizzles. Then, just like his literary predecessor, he finds another set of footprints. Eventually, Maitland comes to see that the highway makers bulldozed over an older neighborhood and the basements of various businesses are still there under the surface. He identifies his own his own nightmare-version of “Friday”, a brain-damaged homeless man, but he also finds a young woman living there who doesn’t want anyone to ever leave the “island”.

Obviously, the first half would be plagued by the same problem that any survival-drama has: the lack of anyone to talk to. This would probably have to be solved through narration, but there are other solutions too, such as the personified volleyball in “Cast Away”. Or you could just compress that half of the novel and get to the interpersonal conflict sooner. The movie needs to get made simply because it’s the ultimate high-concept: everyone who hears the one-line pitch gets an instant smile from picturing this situation and the metaphor it implies. Someone can take that seed and grow a great movie out of it.

“Concrete Island” shouldn’t cost that much to option, but you can get off even cheaper if you can find something in the public domain that’s ready for adaptation. Of course, since it takes almost a hundred years these days for copyright to expire, those savings usually disappear because properties that old demand super-expensive 19th-century-set adaptations, right? Well don’t tell Spielberg, who made some nice money on “War of the Worlds”. So what else could get the same treatment?

I’ve always been shocked that they’ve never made a movie of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”. It’s over a hundred years old, but its premise could not be more edgy: in a terrified city rocked by anarchist bombings, a young cop is assigned by his secretive boss to infiltrate a terrorist cell, whose members are named after the seven days of the week. He follows a nightmarish path into the catacombs of the city to find the leaders. He eventually becomes the new Thursday, but as he confronts his fellow terrorist one by one, he finds that each one is also an undercover cop, or at least thinks they are.

The book’s resolution is probably too surreal for an updated movie adaptation, but, just as they’ve done with all those Phillip K. Dick adaptations, a screenwriter could convert this concept into a more traditional, but still head-trippy thriller— something like “The Adjustment Bureau”.

Another upcoming adaptation that has passed through Scorsese’s hands is “High and Low”, which has the cachet of being based on Kurosawa film, but guess what? Kurasawa’s film was based on an American crime paperback that nobody over here had spotted the value of. This still goes on, with the French selling “Tell No One” back to us after we couldn’t get the movie made ourselves. The novel that “High and Low” was based on was “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain, one of 56 books he produced about the detectives of the 87thprecinct, a series that only recently ended with McBain’s death in 2005. Instead of watching different A-list directors fight over who gets to direct the remake of the one art film that was already made from this material, why not pick one of the other lean, mean novels in this series and find the value in it, just like Kurasawa did?

In the final ten years of the series, McBain introduced a new detective that quickly became a fan favorite: Fat Ollie Weeks was a crude racist slob who drove the more conscientious detectives crazy simply by being too good to fire. In two of the best books from this period, “Money, Money, Money” and “Fat Ollie’s Book”, McBain started the painfully awkward process of turning Ollie into a better person. After uncovering a CIA front-company run amok in the first book, Ollie decides to fictionalize that story into his own debut crime novel, in which he’s replaced himself with a sexy-young female supercop. After his terrible manuscript is stolen from his car, Ollie realizes that the only way he can get it back is to find the criminals who are now trying to recreate the impossible crimes he’s described. Meanwhile, he’s shocked to find himself falling in love with a young Latina street cop who sees past his surface vulgarity. McBain is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time great dialogue-writers. With the introduction of Fat Ollie, he was able to invest his neat little police procedural plots with a bigger emotion payoff.

These books could become two movies or one. The best American adaptation of an 87thPrecinct book was the good-but-not-great Burt Reynolds movies “Fuzz”. That movie made the smart move of drawing on multiple books in the series. After all, if Orson Welles could pull together all of Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes into one movie for “Chimes at Midnight”, there’s no reason that a few novels couldn’t be stitched together to make the ultimate Fat Ollie movie.