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Fighting Words

As these best-sellers show, bringing a novel to the screen is tough, and the plots seem to be thickening

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Poor Scott Smith. Two and a half years ago he was reveling in the success of his first novel, A Simple Plan, the compelling tale of two brothers who find 4 million bucks, conspire to keep it, and bring about their own demise. In its paperback release the book was heading up the best-seller list, and Mike Nichols reportedly had plunked down $250,000 for the movie rights with an additional $750,000 to come later from the studio. But as he celebrated his success, Smith had no idea that the very title of the novel would turn painfully ironic. Welcome to Hollywood, Scott, where budget disputes, casting drama, weather, and rewrites have waylaid several recent popular page-turners on their way from press to projector.

Besides A Simple Plan, which spent seven weeks on the paperback best-seller list, other novels awaiting their close-ups include Nicholas Evans‘ 1995 novel, The Horse Whisperer, and Caleb Carr‘s The Alienist (1994). All three demonstrate that when it comes to getting an author’s vision into a cineplex, there are no easy — or inexpensive — shortcuts.

Best-sellers have always seemed tailor-made for impatient studio executives — not least because they’re already written. Also, consider the built-in audiences that have turned adaptations from John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Terry McMillan into box office hits. Says A Simple Plan producer Scott Rudin, who also brought The Firm and The First Wives Club to the screen: ”A good book is a magnet for talent in a way that scripts are only at the very end of the development process. If you buy a distinguished piece of literary material, [filmmakers] will read it; they’ll take it seriously.”

Nor is it a bad deal for the authors; even novice novelists can receive six-figure options for their books. When Smith’s manuscript of A Simple Plan was optioned for development at Savoy, the author’s team rejoiced. For his agent, Gail Hochman, a movie deal meant additional interest from foreign publishers, as well as the prospect of going back to press for paperback tie-ins, something that can propel a book back onto or higher on the best-seller list. But with several projects on Nichols’ plate, including All the Pretty Horses (which is still in development hell, having been bounced from Columbia to United Artists), he handed the directorial reins to Ben Stiller, and A Simple Plan began to get more complicated.

Stiller and Smith spent nine months working on a new script, and ”I was really happy,” says Stiller. ”The problem was Savoy. I don’t think they had a good understanding of how to make films happen.” During preproduction, he and Savoy ran into disagreements over money — among them, how Savoy’s reported $4 million offer to Nicolas Cage would affect the film’s budget. Stiller walked off the project (and went on to direct The Cable Guy), and director John Dahl came and went. A year later, the financially beleaguered Savoy was sold to Barry Diller, who put A Simple Plan up for sale.