In my Endpaper column for the Spring issue of The Author, I explore how authors and publishing might be portrayed in film.
Not before time, frankly, Hollywood has discovered the glamour, drama and sheer box-office potential of the books industry. The great American editor Maxwell Perkins, who nurtured the careers of, among others, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and has down the years become the lonely patron saint of all that is good and decent in publishing, is to be the subject of a biopic called Genius. The legendary editor is to be played by Sean Penn.
It has taken too long for international film executives to recognise that the writing and publishing of books offers untold scope for some quite magical story-telling. Authors have occasionally been portrayed in films – curiously, it is assumed that writing for a living indicates an interesting emotional hinterland – but their characters have tended to conform to cliché: the blocked writer (Lost in Translation), the has-been (Wonder Boys), the hack (The Ghost), the dull bestseller (Misery), the psycho (The Shining).
Publishers have fared even worse, their only representative in filmed fiction being in the TV drama Bouquet of Barbed Wire in which Frank Findlay played the part of an editor who is an ageing perv – accurate as far as it goes, but limited.
What producers have now discovered is that the firms which for years have provided them with storylines are themselves pulsating with cinematic potential. Those editors who have been taken out to lunch by film scouts, could themselves, admittedly with a bit of dramatic license, be played by Helena Bonham Carter, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Mirren, perhaps even, at a stretch, Johnny Depp.
Normally slow to catch on to cultural trends, publishers, booksellers and authors have responded with enthusiasm to the idea that their lives, formerly seen to be slightly dull, may soon be appearing, suitably buffed up and glamorised, in multiplexes around the world.
Endpaper’s Hollywood correspondent has been tracking the progress of a number of book trade-related projects currently in development.
A Kindle of Loving. In the tradition of The Social Network, this account of a technological and cultural revolution promises to be a fast-moving account of publishing’s most exciting story. Tom Cruise is a to star as the chief executive of an unnamed internet retail company, a man who whose mission it is to end humanity’s dependence on the useless clutter of the past: books and shops.
True to his mantra “No screen, no future!”, he takes his idea to a large publishing company which at first resists the new idea. Gradually, though, the truth emerges: a world without books and shops will make their business a lot easier for everyone. Helen Mirren is to play the part of a dynamic publishing executive, while Simon Callow will be a backward-literary fogey, forever repeating, “Yes, but can you read these things in the bath?’
Glorious Basterds. This coming-of-age drama will star Nicole Kidman as the last copy-editor working in publishing. A junior employee in a heartless corporation, our kooky, bespectacled heroine works in a cupboard below some stairs, waging a hopeless one-woman campaign against bad spelling, dodgy grammar and inappropriate punctuation.
She is widely mocked by her colleagues until a best-selling author, played by Brad Pitt, stumbles into her cupboard believing it to be a lavatory. The couple fall instantly in love and together achieve a heart-warming victory: in the face of huge odds, his book is eventually published without a single typo.
Death in Frankfurt. This brooding art film, whose original working title was No Company for Old Men, is set at the Frankfurt Books Fair where an ageing publisher, Michael Douglas, is paying his last visit before retirement. Once famous as a literary lover, Douglas is now alone and fragile, yet not entirely aware of his own declining powers of seduction. In search of one last fling, he has come to the book fair where traditionally publishers have their annual sexual adventures.
He roams the aisles hungrily, but is humiliated by a succession of publicists, rights sellers and even – an unprecedented humiliation which pushes him over the edge - a book trade journalist. The film will end in a sleazy Bahnhofstrasse hotel where the editor has only a proof copy of a short story collection by Jeffrey Archer for company. Aware at last of the futility of his life as a publisher, he has a heart attack and dies.
What Women Publishers Want. In a startling comeback after his recent difficulties, Mel Gibson is to revive the character he created in What Women Want but, instead of being an advertising executive, he is now the editorial director of a medium-sized publisher. The chairman of the firm, played by Dustin Hoffman, tells him that the firm faces financial ruin unless he can prevent the female executives in the firm taking maternity leave one after the other. Gibson sets out to prevent them becoming pregnant. Billed as “a zany anti-sex comedy”, the film promises to address the difficulties of being a man in publishing and is a searing critique of the having-it-all culture. A favourable review has been promised by the Daily Mail.
I Love You, William Morris. This film offers a first starring role for the English celebrity Jordan. Her character, a model at the end of her career, has resolved to gain the credibility provided b y a ghost-written book. Unfortunately she is surrounded by creeps and users – a sleazy ghost-writer (Jimmy Carr), an over-sexed publisher (Rik Mayall) and a number of sneering critics and journalists (Stephen Fry, Stephen Griffiths and Judi Dench).
She turns for help to a literary agent (Simon Pegg) who suggests the unthinkable – that she should try to write the book herself. A hilarious cross between To Die For and Wall Street, the film follows the two innocents as they try to negotiate their way through the shark-pool of contemporary publishing. Not suitable for children.
Other Endpaper columns, revealing truths not often told about the writing life, can be found in the Writer’s Shed.