Book Review: Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes

General audiences often marvel when they walk out of a movie that is stupid, boring, or in any way bad.  With all the resources, time, and talent at their disposal, how can a movie studio release a movie that not everyone in the studio loves?  How does this happen?  David Hughes, a journeyman screenwriter in his own right, sets out to answer the question, and after reading the stories of some of Hollywood’s greatest near-misses, you begin to understand why.

The fabric of a big budget film is softer than wet toilet paper, as the stories behind such films as The Hot Zone, Crusade, and Adam Rifkin’s Planet of the Apes reboot will show you.  Digging deep into the past, Hughes comes up with fascinating anecdotes and quotes from filmmakers and screenwriters on the litany of projects that have never come to light for one reason or another.  Often, as is the case with The Hot Zone, everything was in place, sets were being built, but a few crucial elements could not come together at the final moments, delaying the film, and eventually, getting it shut down.  However, the book also goes to show that nothing is ever permanent, especially in Hollywood, and with the success of Contagion, there’s still a viable market for films like it out there.

Some of the stories end in films we all know and love, like The Aviator, which had many similar projects competing against it, and would’ve languished even longer if Martin Scorsese hadn’t stepped in to the project.  Other stories focus on the arduous journey that Tomb Raider made to the screen, and how director Simon West managed to pretty much ruin everything good about it, single handed.  Hughes also tells the story of Lord of the Rings‘ long journey to the big screen, including a failed attempt by John Boorman to bring the series to life starring The Beatles.  Or why Darren Aronofsky‘s vision of Batman: Year One failed to materialize, eventually making way for Christopher Nolan to step in.  Or how there were quite a few different ideas on which direction to take what eventually became Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.

There are plenty of other projects most people haven’t heard of as well, such as the historical drama about the crusades that was set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, called Crusade, still said to be one of the better scripts ever written in Hollywood.  Or the tragic story of Neil Gaiman’s beloved graphic novel property Sandman being rewritten over a dozen times, only to get worse every time. The stories from people like Gaiman give the outsider a view into just how wrong things can go, and exactly how much power individual studio executives have in seeing a film into production, or into the bottom of a drawer somewhere.  The screenwriter for Sandman, William Farmer, is given the chance to defend his choices on the script, and the things in which he didn’t have a choice about.

Ultimately, the production of each film is subjective to the time in which it is made, who is involved, who owns the rights, the political climate, the financial climate, and often, the whims of the creative executives in charge.  A fantastic read for anyone interested in how movies are made, and a must read for anyone thinking about trying to make it in the weird world of Hollywood.  It’s a rare peek behind the executive curtain, and while many filmmakers will talk about the making of their film, and the path to the screen, it’s much more rare to hear their criticism of executives, and the studio system’s way of doing business.  It’s not always pretty, but it proves that each film that gets made (let alone theatrically released) is a self-contained miracle, whether it’s any good or not.

Once again, publisher Titan Books puts everything together in a slick, affordable package for the discerning film fan.  Keep in mind this is the 2011 revision of this book, it was originally published in 2003, but this new release includes recent updates on some of the films, including the story on the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes and their future plans for the series.  Also in print is the revised version of The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, which covers such unmade films as James Cameron’s Spider-Man and Alien 5, Tim Burton‘s Superman Lives, and Steven Speilberg‘s Night Skies.  Both are now available for order, if you’d like, you can order your copy of Tales From Development Hell on Amazon, it releases February 28th, 2012.


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