Book Review: Tales From Development Hell…

“Trying to make a movie in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” – Douglas Adams

We’ve all heard the rumors before; whether it was the incredulous reaction many of us had to the notion of Nicolas Cage portraying, ‘The Man of Steel’ in Tim Burton’s (ill-fated) Superman Lives or the anticipation of finally seeing Neil Gaiman’s immensely popular comic book series, The Sandman adapted to the silver screen…only to have nothing materialize and simply disappear into the annals of Hollywood history.

In this newly expanded edition, author David Hughes just might agree with the assertion that perhaps Dante should have revised his Divine Comedy to include a 10th Level: Development Hell

“The Script Is Perfect. Who Can We Get to Rewrite It?”

In Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?, Hughes recounts the arduous and oft-frustrating movie development process, in which many promising-sounding projects and scripts either never see the light of day or endure years of endless rewrites and a revolving door of actors/actresses, producers, writers and directors – all of whom become continuously attached/detached from a project over time – but not before attempting to place their individual (and usually self-serving) stamp on the project…which, in turn, begins the rewrite process all over again…rinse & repeat.

Hughes did his research and the result is a concise, entertaining and interesting glimpse into how the sausages are made in Hollywood. Each “chapter” is a self-contained anecdote | case study relating to either a project that eventually got made – albeit sometimes over a decade after the original script was submitted – to projects that languished in Development Hell for years and were eventually scraped…but not before numerous rewrites and (in many cases) millions of dollars were invested, and subsequently lost.

As quoted in the book, Producer Jane Hamsher describes development as:

  • “The writer turns in a script. The producers and studio executives read it, give the writer their ‘development’ notes, and he goes back and rewrites as best he can, trying to make everyone happy. If it comes back and it’s great, the studio and producers will try and attach a director and stars (if they haven’t already) and hopefully the picture will get made.”

However, as Hughes points out, this is rarely the case.

Instead, what occurs is a process in which – to justify their huge salaries and obtaining a credit on the film – everyone who touches the script wants to put their stamp on it, which usually entails additional rewrites…often times straying dramatically from the original source material. Let’s see if I can give a more truncated version:

Writer submits script –> Producers read & provide notes –> Script is rewritten, incorporating the changes –> Director is hired –> Director has own ideas –> Director brings on new writers –> Script is rewritten –> Producers or studio head adds notes –> Script is rewritten –> No one is happy –> Director quits –> New Director is hired –> New notes –> New writers –> New Script –> Actors are hired –> Actors want script changed to suit them or give them the best lines –> Script rewritten –> No one is happy –> New writers –> Actor quits –> New actor hired –> New notes –> New script –> Etc –> Etc –> Etc.

The Greatest Movies Never Made?

Despite tremendously popular source material, Lara Croft almost never made it to the big screen

Although the book details many well known films that were eventually produced, there are also just as many that went unproduced.

I think it was apropos for the author to use a ‘?‘ at the end of the book’s sub-title, as it illustrates that there is absolutely no way of knowing whether or not the best version of the script is what finally made it onto the screen and/or whether a better film could have been shot, had the project not toiled in Development Hell for so long and with so many changes.

Some examples of projects / films detailed in the book:

  • How Smoke & Mirrors became the hottest script in town…only to magically disappear
  • The long road to re-imagining The Planet of the Apes
  • The development of the 4th and final Indiana Jones movie
  • How Batman Begins almost never made it back to Gotham
  • How making the leap from video games to the big screen was a challenge for Tomb Raider
  • How Neil Gaiman’s wildly popular graphic novels turned to quicksand during development (see what I did there…sand…The Sandman? Hello? *cricket*)
  • The not-so-“preeeeecious” development path to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings

I mention the “?” at the end of the subtitle, as I doubt that there are many people reading this that believe Tomb Raider ever had a chance of being considered one of the ‘greatest movies ever made’, regardless of how good the script was. However, I believe that what Hughes is saying is that we may never know how good it (and the other movies chronicled) could have been, had it not been locked in Development Hell and with so many changes to appease the arbitrary whims (or potential box office profit or budgetary concerns) of the studio, director(s), writer(s), actor(s) egos and producers.

Throughout the book, Hughes ultimately asks the reader to repeatedly pose the question, “what if?”…

Clooney feared he destroyed the Caped Crusader franchise with 1997's 'Batman & Robin.' The failure of which caused an entirely new re-imagining of Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego leading up to 'Batman Begins'

To Hell And Back…

Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? is an often-times interesting and insightful read, although at times it does suffer from almost too much irrelevant / uninteresting detail (admittedly something I am also guilty of).

This is not necessarily a criticism to be levied at the author, per se, but rather at the reality of there simply being “too many cooks in the kitchen” as it pertains to the convoluted nature of Development Hell. For example, as I was reading about a film, so many names would be attributed to quotes (with only brief exposition), that I found myself – on more than one occasion – thinking, “Who the hell was that again? The 6th writer? The 3rd Director? The 2nd Producer to be associated with the project?”

Hughes did an otherwise outstanding job of conveying the frustrating and laborious nature of being trapped in Development Hell.

Additionally, I found the treasure trove of insider tidbits to be extremely interesting and entertaining…especially since I consider myself to be a huge film buff. For instance, reading about Batman (a personal fav) and how George Clooney feared that he might have killed the once-popular franchise with his campy portrayal of The Caped Crusader in 1997’s widely-panned Batman & Robin – truth be known, a road that the franchise had been going down before Clooney donned the cowl – and then reading about the effort to resurrect “The Dark Knight.”

This included a Darren Aronofsky script based upon Frank Miller’s popular graphic novel, Batman: Year One, and through to speculation that everyone from Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Keanu “I Am – Whoa! – Batman” Reeves, Ben Afflect, Bill Murray (?!), Colin Farrell and Christian Bale could possibly be the next Bruce Wayne (despite the fact that Clooney was contracted to play Batman in two movies). Hell, even Val Kilmer reportedly wanted another shot at it! Let’s all just take a moment to be grateful that didn’t happen…but I digress.

Indeed, other “fly on the wall” insights and speculation included:

  • Actresses who could play Lara Croft: Elizabeth Hurley, Diane Lane, Sandra Bullock, Denise Richards, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez, Famke Janssen and even Anna Nicole Smith (yikes!)
  • The long and arduous road to making the 4th Indiana Jones film, which seemed less about “Development Hell” and more about scheduling hell = trying to coordinate the availability of Ford, Lucas and Spielberg, and getting them to occupy the same space at the same time…likely creating a Black Hole in the process
  • The fact that Minority Report almost became a sequel to Total Recall
  • And how a monkey banging away on a keyboard probably could have written better treatments than some of the early attempts to bring back, “The Planet of the Apes.”

All of this made for a very compelling read, especially for anyone interested in the process of movie-making and everything it entails…for better or for rewrite.

By:

Tales From Development Hell was written by David Hughes (pictured) and published by Titan Books.

Check out past Book Reviews.

Note to Publishers & Authors: If you are interested in having a book reviewed, please contact me. I will only review books in which the subject matter personally interests me. I will also make all reasonable effort to post an honest review prior to the scheduled release date, therefore (when sending an advanced copy) please allot enough time for this prior to publication. Should I enjoy the book, I will also honor requests to interview the author on the podcast. Thank you!

Bipedal. Podcaster. Blogger. Geek. Browncoat. I Occasionally Pee Sitting Down. Dana is the host and owner of Stimulated Boredom.
  • Great review! Hadn’t heard of this book before. It’s interest (and in some ways comforting) to see that the creative process can be rife with hurdles even at that level. Looking forward to reading this.