Hollywood hits the books in search of Oscar -- Already in the works are big-screen adaptations of ''Running With Scissors,'' ''Memoirs of a Geisha,'' and more

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated December 04, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Master and Commander: Stepehn Vaughan

Forget, for a minute, ”Master and Commander,” ”The Return of the King,” and ”Cold Mountain.” Bully for Sean Penn if he takes home Best Actor for ”Mystic River” in 2004, and for J.R.R. Tolkien if he finally wins Best Picture bragging rights from the great beyond, but we’re already restless — so let’s look ahead to the next batch of high-quality movies adapted from high-quality books.

It’s Julianne Moore for Best Actress in 2006, baby! It could happen — we checked into it. She’s signed to star in Running With Scissors, an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ rollicking 2002 memoir about his crazy upbringing and his even crazier mom. ”When I got the book, I thought, My God, there’s not been a better part written since Scarlett O’Hara,” says ”Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy, who’s writing and directing for a hoped-for 2005 release. Adds Burroughs: ”[Murphy] read me the beginning of the actual screenplay and I was blown away by it…. You can just see Julianne Moore reading those lines and then trotting up to the stage to get her Oscar.”

When she does — okay, IF she does — she’ll be trailing a long line of winners who have an author to thank in their acceptance speeches. It’s a list that will surely grow after this year, when a multitude of other Oscar hopefuls — ”Big Fish,” ”Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and ”House of Sand and Fog” — are emerging in films adapted from novels.

Why the glut? In an increasingly dumbed-down movie marketplace, filming a well-known book is the easiest way to make a complex film, says ”The Quiet American” director Phillip Noyce, who plans to start shooting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral in the spring. ”Financiers are increasingly reluctant to proceed with complex screenplays, and the fact that a complex story is based on a literary classic or a popular novel gives them more confidence,” he says. ”Many of these adaptations would never have been greenlit if they were original screenplays.”

As for other upcoming big-ticket movie versions, let’s begin with the ones we’ve been waiting for forever. After Steven Spielberg flirted with directing it a couple of years ago, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha finally got a new start last month, with ”Chicago” director Rob Marshall at the helm. And after 23 years of guiding his epically troubled project through various circles of development hell, producer Scott Kramer says A Confederacy of Dunces — John Kennedy Toole’s adored 1980 adventures of a portly hot dog vendor who’ll be played by Will Ferrell — finally has a start date and could be in theaters as early as next Christmas. ”I’ve envisioned it so many different ways, as you can imagine — at one point it was John Belushi,” says Kramer, who wrote the script with Steven Soderbergh. ”But Will is amazing, and we’re thrilled about ‘Elf.”’

Indie director David Gordon Green (”All the Real Girls”) is helming ”Confederacy”; bigger names are working on more recent books. M. Night Shyamalan — currently in the Pennsylvania woods shooting ”The Village” — will next turn to Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning tall tale about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat. ”8 Mile”’s Curtis Hanson plans to revive Victorian London for The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber’s 2002 breakout novel about a feisty prostitute (Kirsten Dunst is attached); screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (”The Human Stain” and the upcoming adaptation of Roth’s The Dying Animal) says he hopes to give Hanson a finished script by the end of the year. And Ron Howard — along with fellow ”A Beautiful Mind” Oscar winners, producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — is tackling The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s smash thriller about an art-history Indiana Jones. ”At first I was very hesitant to sell the rights, because this is a character that I will be writing about for years to come,” Brown says. ”But this level of talent just can’t be denied.”

Other novelists are adapting their own books. Michael Cunningham, author of ”The Hours,” is mulling over more movie projects after a pleasant experience adapting A Home at the End of the World, his 1998 family drama, into a 2004 Colin Farrell film, now in postproduction. ”Colin is fantastic — wait till you see him,” Cunningham says. ”It is, as far as I know, Colin’s first chance in the movies to play a complicated character full of ambivalence and ambiguity.” (Incidentally, the screenwriter of ”The Hours,” playwright David Hare, is plugging away at the script for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.) And while it may have taken 10 drafts, Michael Chabon’s own script for his Pulitzer-winning comic-book epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay finally got the okay from ”Hours” producer Scott Rudin last summer; ”Hours” director Stephen Daldry is attached to direct. ”It’s just hard to do,” Chabon says. ”You’ve got this thing that’s at least presumably what it’s supposed to be as a novel. And then to say, ‘I know, let’s take it and make it into a movie.’ It’s kind of a crazy thing to do with stuff.” Make it worth his while, Hollywood: Michael Chabon for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2006!

A Home at the End of the World

  • Movie
  • R
  • 95 minutes
  • Michael Mayer