Hollywood's literary shelf comes to life -- ''On the Road'' and other classics will be made into movies

By Gilbert Cruz
Updated October 14, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Mee the latest boldfaced name in Hollywood: John Milton. His epic poem Paradise Lost, written in 1667, is on its way to the big screen after a team of producers announced Oct. 10 that they had bought the rights to a recent screenplay adaptation. Studios need literary giants more than ever these days, if only to fill their pipelines with prestige fare — three of the last four Best Picture Oscar winners were originally literary works.

But bookworms, take note: The journey from page to film can take almost as long as it took Milton to make it in Hollywood. ”The old studio moguls used to do a slew of [literary adaptations],” says veteran producer David Brown (Jaws), who has spent the past 20 years optioning and re-optioning the film rights to John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra. ”But there isn’t quite the appetite for the long period of adaptation anymore. It’s difficult to get the studios to concentrate on books unless they are phenomenal best-sellers.”

Here’s an update on a few classics in development since the last century:

ON THE ROAD

Think this is one of those books that should never be made into a movie? Francis Ford Coppola disagrees. Since Coppola purchased the rights to the lyrical, meandering novel in 1979, the project has gone through several directors — including Joel Schumacher — and screenwriters (such as Michael Herr and Russell Banks). Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) is now on deck, hoping to cast unknowns in the lead roles, a method that Coppola employed when filming his book-based The Outsiders. Just don’t expect a quick turnaround, says screenwriter José Rivera, who collaborated with Salles on Diaries and faces the difficulties inherent in trying to adapt Jack Kerouac’s impressionistic novel: ”So much of it is a language book. You can’t shoot that language, and it’s hard to find equivalent images.”

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

Look up development hell in the dictionary and there’s a picture of this book. Producer Scott Kramer (Full Frontal) shepherded the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for a quarter of a century. And yes, it’s set in New Orleans. At various points, John Belushi, Steven Soderbergh, Scott Rudin and Harold Ramis have been connected to the tragicomic tale of a 30-year-old overweight eccentric who still lives with his mother. Between 2002 and 2004, the project picked up director David Gordon Green, a Kramer-Soderbergh script, and star Will Ferrell. Nothing doing since then. ”It hasn’t gone to sleep, it’s just taken a nap,” says Green, an indie stalwart who has been frustrated by the sheer number of producers and moneymen involved. ”If it ever gets made, there’ll be a list of credits a mile long and you’ll never know who did what.” Ferrell’s reps say he is ”not technically attached” — though in Hollywood that means the door may still be open.

ATLAS SHRUGGED

Hey, gang. Who’s up for a movie exploring the objectivist philosophy of selfish capitalism? Producer Howard Baldwin (Ray), for one. Baldwin’s passion is such that he’s willing to bring the massive epic to either the big or the small screen. Cited in one 1991 readers’ survey as being the second most influential book ever after the Bible, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel is a massive undertaking. ”The difficulty is taking a 1,200-page book and cramming it into a 125-page script,” Baldwin says. ”So we’ve explored doing it either as a trilogy or even two movies…. We’re also looking really hard at doing it as a miniseries.”

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