By David Canfield
June 24, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Peter Konerko

Reza Aslan’s next book feels unfortunately timely. The author (Zealot; God: A Human Story) will tell the story of Howard Conklin Baskerville, the only American citizen ever to have died fighting for democracy in Iran, in Baskerville, publisher W.W. Norton & Company announced Monday. And EW has exclusively learned that a film adaptation is on the way, too.

Born in Nebraska and educated at Princeton by professors including Woodrow Wilson, Howard Baskerville traveled to Iran in 1907 as a Presbyterian missionary. He preached the Gospel and taught English, History, and Geometry at American Memorial School in Tabriz, but he ended up fighting alongside his students in a revolution against the Shah, ultimately giving his life in Iran’s battle for freedom.

“[Baskerville] becomes a kind of martyr for the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran,” Aslan teases of the book to EW. “There’s 100,000 people at his funeral in Tabriz. His marble sarcophagus is still in Tabriz; in fact there’s a golden bust of him at the Tabriz Parliament House. And, in many ways, the sort of international outrage at his death allows the revolutionaries to break the siege march on Tehran, and remove the Shah from his throne, rewrite the Constitution, recreate the parliament.” Aslan adds Baskerville’s story is mostly unknown stateside: “He’s a man who is obviously very well-known in Iran. He’s sometimes referred to, kind of glibly, as Iran’s Lafayette. But Americans just don’t know anything about this kid at all.”

EW has learned that Baskerville has been optioned by Lionsgate, with Aslan (also known for his commentary TV work) set to adapt the book into a screenplay himself; they’d previously teamed on a movie based on Zealot, which Aslan co-wrote with James Schamus (Indignation), and which is being produced by David Heyman. (Per Aslan, the film’s team is in the process of securing a director.)

“This argument about what it means to be American, what it means to be Christian — I think the model that Baskerville [gave] us more than 100 years ago is as relevant today as it’s ever been,” Aslan says. “And here we are, in the midst of an escalating conflict between Iran and the United States. As an Iranian American, I know, better than most, how devastating such a conflict could be — how much Iran and America have in common with each other. To see that from the perspective of this young American Christian, who was seen as a hero in Iran, once again, I think gives us a different perspective on this long and complicated relationship between these two countries, and maybe even an alternative model for a future relationship, one based not on violence and conflict and angry rhetoric, but on sort of a mutual understanding of each other’s humanity.”

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