Quite a few professors have confided to me that they dream of seeing one of their books adapted for the screen, its cover emblazoned, “Now a Major Motion Picture.” Many academics, in fact, have supplied material for TV and film, from Simon Schama and Natalie Zemon Davis to Margaret Rosenthal and Benjamin Carter Hett. Two colleagues in my home department at the University of California, Los Angeles—the novelists Mona Simpson and Justin Torres—have seen their books turned into films.
But if you want to see your work on the screen, be careful what you wish for, and you may not want to hold your breath. From my first research trip to Normandy in 2001 until last year’s release of a film based on my book The Last Duel, two whole decades went by. And then the movie—an A-list, big-budget, superbly acted, beautifully produced Hollywood epic directed by Ridley Scott—tanked at the box office and did not get a single Academy Award nomination.
Once you sign your work over to a production company, a great many things lie beyond your control. No matter how thorough your research, how careful your writing, how successful your book with readers or even how much consulting you do for the filmmakers, Hollywood is a wheel of fortune where nothing is predictable or predestined.
A Long Spoon
Tales of dashed hopes, empty promises and stolen ideas abound in Hollywood. A producer once told me, as if remunerating authors were a mere courtesy, “Your book is about history, which is in the public domain. Anyone can turn this story into a movie.” A medieval proverb says, “He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.” When you sup with Hollywood, your agent is your long spoon.
Almost 30 years ago, when I first stumbled over the extraordinary true story of the 1386 trial by combat fought by Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris over the alleged rape of Jean’s wife, Marguerite, I was instantly fascinated—by the story’s raw emotional power and spectacular visual appeal, by Marguerite’s courage in risking all, and by the ferocity of the two former comrades turned mortal enemies.
Researching the famous legal case, I discovered that a wealth of primary sources had survived, plus centuries of commentary and debate. Yet no one had ever published a full-length account of the affair. If I wanted a book about the 1386 duel, I would have to write it myself. My obsession with the story had begun.
A decade later, after my book was published, and while I was still blithely ignorant of the long odds in Hollywood, I also thought it would make a great movie. An interview with Jonathan Lethem, whose novel Motherless Brooklyn took 20 years to come to the screen, estimates that only “1 percent of books are optioned for film or television, and only 1 percent of those titles ever make it to production. Plus, the whole process takes forever.”
In my own case, forever turned out to be three separate options over a span of 15 years. A book by anyone, anywhere, can attract film or TV interest, with the right material, the right timing and some very good luck. You don’t have to live near Hollywood. But it certainly helps to have a savvy literary agent who knows the way into the fortress of commercial publishing and also which producers or talent agents to pitch—as well as how to guard against piracy and theft.
Trial and Error
Before attempting a crossover book, I had written two books for university presses, but I knew nothing about commercial publishing. So I studied the big trade houses in New York. I read Publishers Weekly for news of the latest deals. I combed the acknowledgments pages in books like mine for the names of agents and editors. I sent pitch letters to literary agencies, most of which went unanswered. It was trial and error—mostly error.
In 2001, a literary agency in Los Angeles finally agreed to represent my work in progress to publishers and film producers. But a few months later, the company reorganized and my agent left, forcing me to start over in my quest for representation.
Around this time, I spent part of a cold and rainy March in Normandy with my wife, Peg. Staying at a rustic gîte with a wood-burning hearth, we searched the regional archives for historical documents and drove around to towns and castles that figured in the story. We also talked with a local historian, Jack Maneuvrier, and other Normans about the 1386 duel, which to this day is remembered there like an old family tragedy involving noble names that still emblazon modern maps.
The following year, after more rejections, a first-rate New York agency took on the project. Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, at Writers’ Representatives, really got my book, and in one giddy week they sold it at auction to an imprint of Random House. Crucially, they also retained the film rights for me (typical with trade books). A truly fine editor, Charlie Conrad, began helping me knock the manuscript into shape. It takes a whole team—agents, editors, designers, publicists and often one’s spouse or partner, as well—to turn a dream and an obsession into the reality of a finished book.
For the next two years, I worked like a demon to make my deadline while teaching full-time, plus summers, and serving on committees as well as in a time-consuming faculty-in-residence program. Peg picked up the slack on the home front and supplied crucial editorial advice on my drafts. One July, we squeezed in a month in Paris, before my summer teaching started, so I could finish off the archival research begun in Normandy two years earlier and meet my deadline. By the time I turned in my manuscript, I was utterly exhausted.
Shortly before the on-sale date in September 2004, the publisher inexplicably delayed my book by a month. As a result, it debuted during the final weeks of the contentious 2004 presidential election, a complete dead zone for French history, a niche market even at the best of times. It got only one major review, pitched to the editor by Peg. The hardcover sold poorly, and it was remaindered; eventually the imprint was folded into another and my editor left. The Last Duel was an orphan.
Fortunately, the U.K. edition had been prominently reviewed and became a BBC Radio book of the week, superbly read by the actor Robert Glenister. I was invited to participate in a one-hour TV documentary narrated by the late, great Helen McCrory of subsequent Peaky Blinders fame. After that, the U.S. publisher gave the book a second chance, in paperback, although again with precious little publicity.
Hopeful in Hollywood
In 2006, less than a year after the paperback came out, and thanks to the diligent efforts of my agents to get the book into the hands of film producers, The Last Duel was optioned by Paramount Pictures. When Martin Scorsese was attached, the news splashed onto the front page of Variety under the headline “Marty Takes on the French.” Clearly, that was a major coup, and in a burst of premature excitement, Peg and I sent press clippings to family and friends—a mistake.
Later I recalled a telling remark by Kevin Misher, the producer who optioned the book after we had talked for a couple of hours over dinner about its screen potential: “You have managed to transfer your obsession with this story to us.” As an author, you’re understandably obsessed with your own book. You have to be. For it to get picked up, others must become obsessed as well. But for it to become an actual movie, well …
Paramount hired a talented screenwriter, Doug Jung (Confidence, Big Love). He and I had several sit-down meetings and exchanged numerous emails. He also shared a series of drafts with me, asking for my notes. I really enjoyed working with him. Over time, the script evolved into a dramatic, exciting version of the story that captured its bizarre medieval rituals as well as its more universal themes. I was sure my book was on its way to the big screen.
I didn’t even worry when a writers’ strike allowed the studio to delay an option payment for several months until the strike ended. (Hollywood, a law unto itself, can actually make time stop.) I remained hopeful. But anyone in Hollywood who’s hopeful, a wit once said, is seriously deluded. Paste that up beside another famous Hollywood quote from the screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”
In 2013, after five renewals, the option was suddenly dropped. No explanation. Just some rumors that Paramount had decided to clear its slate. Word had it that Scorsese was eager to make Silence, a project that reportedly amounted to a near obsession with him. Although very disappointed, I could hardly blame him. I, too, was well acquainted with obsession.
Saved by the BBC
About a year and a half later, in 2014, I got an email out of the blue from Erwin Stoff, a producer on The Matrix, Austin Powers and Unbroken. He said he had seen the BBC documentary, that it had intrigued him and that he had shared the TV program and the book with a prominent film director. Were the rights available? Could we meet?
A few days later, with my agents’ blessing, I joined Erwin for lunch at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Francis Lawrence, director of the Hunger Games franchise, was with him. At a secluded outdoor table, we talked animatedly for nearly two hours. As the lunch ended, Erwin said, “I’ll call your agent and make an offer.”
Lynn Chu, my agent, fought a long judicial duel with the studio’s lawyers, resulting in a new option deal. Another talented screenwriter, Shaun Grant (The Snowtown Murders, Deadline Gallipoli), was hired. We had a sit-down meeting early on, and from time to time Shaun emailed questions to me. Shaun’s writing process was different from Doug’s, and I never saw the script. Four years went by, with several option renewals but nothing realized on the screen. I was learning about how fortune’s wheel went round and round and up and down in Hollywood.
Third Time’s the Charm
Peg, a librarian and a keen reader, had also become obsessed with the story early on. I’m forever grateful for her constant support, her research savvy and her sharp editorial insights. She helped shape my book for a popular readership. I’m also indebted to an anonymous librarian who had an unsung role in bringing my book to the big screen.
“Your option is up again, and Matt Damon wants it,” wrote my agent Lynn one morning in January 2019. Sitting at a coffeeshop near UCLA, I read her brief message several times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.
Pearl Street Films, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s company, had contacted Lynn. They were working with Scott Free Productions and 20th Century Fox, soon to be acquired by Disney. If Scott Free was involved, I hoped it meant that Ridley Scott might direct. His first feature film The Duellists (1977) had been about a lifelong trial by combat between two Napoleonic officers. Was the renowned director now circling back? After years of waiting, my head spun with the possibilities.
I later learned that Drew Vinton, a producer at Pearl Street, had found my book on a display table at his local library, read it in practically one sitting and pitched it as a possible project to Matt Damon.
This glimpse behind the scenes, highlighting the importance of luck, timing and the help of key people, was my biggest takeaway, and it’s what I’d stress to other authors, especially academic ones, who long to see their work in lights. “This oughta be a movie,” people often say about a book. Sure, but until the right person reads it, and has the right connections, and the time is just right … If a librarian had not placed my book on that table, or if someone else had checked it out before Drew found it, who knows?
In an upcoming essay, I’ll describe how my once-remaindered book finally made it to the big screen and other lessons I learned along the way.