Coming Not Very Soon

Jeffrey Cohen

When Lawrence Block sold the rights to his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels to Hollywood, do you think he expected the part to be played by… Whoopi Goldberg?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Whoopi Goldberg can be a terrific actress (watch The Color Purple sometime, and you’ll see what I mean), and I have no sexist predisposition toward keeping a character the same gender, if there’s something to be gained by changing said gender. But did you see Burglar? What were those people smoking?

The minute a writer finishes typing “THE END” at the bottom of a page, s/he starts thinking about who should play the featured character in the story when it (inevitably, in the author’s mind) becomes a movie. Sometimes, we think about it before writing the novel, to let you in on a trade secret. And that’s fine. People will often ask me who I think should play Aaron Tucker on TV or in the movies, and my standard answer is “oh, that is so far off in the distance. I don’t think about that.”

Yeah, right.

The fact is, the day I sold the first Aaron novel, the publisher himself asked me who I thought would be right for a film version of For Whom the Minivan Rolls. And the question did not catch me off-guard by any means; I’d given it plenty of thought already. Since enough people already thought I’d modeled the character after myself, I decided to suggest people who weren’t astonishingly handsome, just so I wouldn’t seem egotistical. Then I realized there are only four people in Hollywood who aren’t astonishingly handsome, and three of them are over 70, and probably wrong for the part. Debbie Reynolds, for example (and no disrespect: she was darned attractive in 1956). I don’t think she’d be good as Aaron.

It’s a game we all play. I have my preferences in the fantasy version of my movie. I won’t actually say who I’d prefer for Aaron, since I don’t want Tom Cruise to feel he’s out of the running (Tom, I lost your number–give us a call). Aaron is rather noticeably height-impaired, but I imagine that if they wanted to buy my book, I’d be tickled if we could get it going with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the lead.

That’s the point: we authors need to understand that our books are many things, but one of those is a property. If we choose to sell the rights to that property, we really can’t complain if someone makes changes to it of which we don’t approve. We opted to sell. We could have opted not to sell, and then they wouldn’t have been able to make the changes.

If you own a car, and you decide to sell it so you can buy a new car, you place an ad in the newspaper or on the Internet, and you find interested buyers. After negotiating, you come to an agreement with one, and that person gives you the amount of money (or chickens, or Oreo cookies, whatever) you have agreed is fair. You give him the car, or more specifically, the title to the car.

Suppose the next day that guy decides to take his new car and paint it orange. With pink polka dots. And chartreuse flames on the front fenders. And maybe rip out the Corinthian leather seats that you insisted on at the dealership and put in some with zebra upholstery. And then he takes out your state-of-the-art stereo system and replaces it with a radar detector and two tin cans with a string.

You could decry the bad (in your opinion) taste the new owner is exhibiting. You might feel betrayed, duped, appalled. Sure. But you can’t tell him what he can do because it’s his car now. You want to express an opinion? Go ahead. You want to tell your friends about the concrete-brained imbecile who bought your baby and turned it into a junkheap on purpose? Feel free.

But the bottom line is, it’s his car, and he can do what he wants with it.

The same principle, alas, pertains to those of us who are fortunate enough to attract some interest in our books from those who produce television, movies, radio and for all I know, educational filmstrips. We solicit (sometimes through our agents) their interest. We welcome their offers. And then, if we’re supremely lucky and especially persistent, we get some of their money in exchange for the right to produce entertainment based on our original ideas. And that’s where it ends.

If you cash the check, you have sold your right to the material. The purchaser, who now owns it, can do with it as s/he likes. If they want to take your 19th Century Anglican bishop and turn him into a talking llama, they can do it. You cashed the check.

The only way to have control over what happens to your story once it hits a screen of any size is to use your own money to produce the film, and then write the screenplay and direct it yourself. And even then, because filmmaking is a creative process, you will have to collaborate with actors, cinematographers, editors and a host of other technicians and creative artists who have more experience doing this than you do.

Deal with it.

I have not yet had one of my novels torn to shreds by Hollywood, but I’m certainly open to it. If the day comes that I am lucky and persistent, and someone from the land of disposable entertainment feels moved to hand me a chunk of cash in exchange for the right to completely obliterate what I slaved over and fretted about for months before handing it over to a publisher, I will weigh my options.

And then I’ll take the money. Believe it. I have two kids to put through college and I’m a freelance writer. How much do you think I have saved?

Once that check is cashed, I may become appalled at how my precious ideas are discarded, defaced and otherwise mashed into something I’d be ashamed to call my own. It’s possible. Maybe given the way things go, it’s probable. I hope I’m lucky enough to find out.

But you won’t hear me complaining publicly about it (maybe to friends and family, but not out in the world). Not once.

After all, I will have cashed the check.

2 thoughts on “Coming Not Very Soon

  1. Bill Cameron

    John Cusack for my main character, and either Dennis Farina or John C. Reilly for the one cop. Can’t make up my mind about the women characters, though I think Carla Gugino for the one lady cop would be pretty damn nice.

    At this point, thought, I’ll take the talking llama without a quibble if it means a check.

  2. Mark Terry

    For my upcoming novel The Devil’s Pitchfork I’d like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and rather than have Damon as the good guy, Derek Stillwater, I want him as the terrorist, and rather than Affleck as the terrorist, I want him as the good guy, although really, whatever works, you know?

    As for Aaron, I would think Paul Reiser might work. If not Reiser (can he open a film?), then, well, Jack Black. And although I really can’t stand Adam Sandler, and I’m not a big fan of Jim Carrey… hmmm, a comic actor… if only Michael J. Fox was still actively working. He’d be just about perfect.


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