TOP 10: TALES FROM DEVELOPMENTAL HELL Author David Hughes Names The Greatest Movies Never Made
Published: March 13, 2012 - 2:37pm
David Hughes, longtime Empire contributor and author of the critically acclaimed new book Tales from Development Hell, highlights 10 planned Hollywood productions which didn’t quite go to plan.
10. The Lord of the Rings starring… The Beatles!?
It’s true: before Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation – even before Ralph Bakshi’s Rotoscoped animation – J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was considered as a post-Yellow Submarine feature for the One Group to Rule Them All. “We talked about it for a while,” says Paul McCartney, “but then I started to smell a bit of a carve-up, because, immediately, John wanted the lead.” Although John Boorman attempted to get a version off the ground in the early 1970s, adaptation proved virtually impossible. “We used to get the giggles about some of the issues,” the Deliverance director recalls. “There was one I remember clearly when Gandalf is vanquished. The text is, ‘He fell beyond time and memory’, and we puzzled about how you put that on film.”
9. William Hurt stars in David Cronenberg’s Total Recall
Director David Cronenberg envisaged a very different adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s tricksy tale “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” than the version ultimately made with Arnie and Sharon Stone. “I wanted to cast William Hurt,” says The Fly director, “and the difference between him and Arnie probably tells you everything! Obviously it would have been sci-fi and you would have gone to Mars, but it would have been more like Spider, an examination of memory.” Cronenberg spent a year writing a dozen drafts, none of which producers Ronald D. Shusett. “He said, ‘You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version,’ like I had done something terrible,” Cronenberg recalls. “I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And he said, ‘No, no, we want Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.’”
8. Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone
Shortly after a New Yorker article by journalist Richard Preston, recounting a near-outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in America, Fox optioned the story, attracting such A-listers as Robert Redford, Jodie Foster and director Ridley Scott. “We had Redford, Ridley Scott and a script in progress,” says Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It), one of several screenwriters hired to turn Preston’s article into a film. “That’s a lot to have. But instead of making it better, that just made everyone push to do a Hollywood number instead of an intelligent, thoughtful and honest film.” Ultimately, Warner Bros decided to pursue their own version, appropriating the Preston story but fictionalizing it just enough to avoid lawsuits. The resulting film, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak was a star-studded hit, leaving Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone in the dead zone.
7. Smoke and Mirrors
Janet and Scott Batchler’s ‘spec’ script, the subject of one of the fiercest bidding wars in Hollywood history, tells the true-life story of a trip to Algeria which Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic, made to French-occupied Algeria in the 19th century in order to expose an Arabian magician as a charlatan. Sean Connery was attached to play the magician for director John McTiernan (Die Hard), but rewrite after rewrite failed to produce a draft that everybody liked. In the late ‘90s, Joel Douglas reignited the project as a possible vehicle for his brother Michael and sister-in-law Catherine Zeta Jones – but when the events of 9/11 made it difficult to shoot anything in the Middle East, the film magically disappeared.
6. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Crusades
Before Gladiator revived the historical epic, paving the way for everything from Troy to King Arthur and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Paul Verhoeven and his Total Recall star Arnold Schwarzenegger manfully struggled to get a bloodthirsty saga of their own off the ground. Set in the 11th century, Crusade was the story of a thief, Hagen (Arnie in Conan mode), who escapes punishment by faking a miracle (branding himself with a giant cross), and becomes a holy warrior during the First Crusade, ultimately siding with Muslims when he realizes the Crusaders are raping, pillaging and massacring their way around the Middle East in the name of God. Before Verhoeven and Arnie could raise the money to finance the epic script by Walon ‘The Wild Bunch’ Green, the events of 9/11 made it logistically risky and politically unwise.
5. Darren Aronofsky’s Batman
Before Christopher Nolan was given the gig of rebooting Batman, almost every hot director in Hollywood was asked what they would do with the franchise. “I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as The Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City,” says Darren Aronofsky, who was approached in 1999, after the success of his first film. Ultimately, however, Aronofsky wrote an adaptation of Frank Miller’s ground-breaking Batman origin story Year One – a gritty, R-rated, ‘70s-style ‘take’ on the material. “It was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman, with Commissioner Gordon as a kind of Serpico, and Batman as Travis Bickle.” The biggest loss to Batman lore? Aronofsky’s Batmobile – a souped-up Lincoln Continental with a school bus engine and BOSS tyres.
4. Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness
Rhode Island horror writer H.P.Lovecraft – he of the pseudopods, Elder Gods, nameless horrors, and dodgy fish-people – has had a bumpy ride at the movies, mostly thanks to schlocky efforts like Re-Animator, From Beyond and Necronomicon. After aeons of waiting, audiences got a glimpse of what a CG-rendered Lovecraftian horror might look like in the CG age thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy. “There is a dark place where evil slumbers and waits to return,” del Toro explains. “That is basically the premise of the entire Lovecraft mythos – that there are entities out there that want to return and repossess earth.” Alas, Universal put del Toro’s $150 million, R-rated adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness on ice last year over budgetary concerns, despite a willing star (Tom Cruise) and superstar producer (James Cameron). The Curse of Cthulhu?
3. James Cameron’s Bright Angel Falling
If you spot a massive planetary body on a collision course with Earth, you can blub like a little girl like Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia, you can kick some asteroid ass like Bruce Willis in Armageddon – or, if you’re the UCLA students at the centre of this script by James Cameron and 2010: Odyssey Two writer-director Peter Hyams, you can break out an old thesis paper and come up with a theory to avert catastrophe: plant bombs on the hurtling asteroid’s surface! Incredibly, Bright Angel Falling was written contemporaneous to Deep Impact and Armageddon, both of which replicate the best bits of the Cameron-Hyams script, but make them worse. Saddest scene: a stiff-upper-lipped ‘King Charles’ leading a service at Westminster Abbey as the British Isles prepares to sink below an epic tidal wave caused by a falling meteor. Luckily, America is saved. Phew!
2. Oliver Stone’s Planet of the Apes
Before Tim Burton’s awful “re-imagining” and the more successful reboot last year, Fox considered a number of ways to revive its second most successful sci-fi franchise. One of them was the Wall Street director’s Return of the Apes, which opens in the present day with a plague which causes all children to be born dead, signaling the end of the human race within a generation (this was before Children of Men, remember). A geneticist discovers the reason – a genetic time bomb embedded in human DNA – and travels back in time to find Paleolithic humans locked in a battle for the future of Earth with highly-evolved apes. Stone ultimately ceded the director’s chair first to Philip Noyce, and then to Christopher Columbus, and for a while it seemed possible that James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger would team up for a new version with Stan Winston’s apes. None of them evolved very far.
1. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman
Hungry for any “dark” and “gritty” comic book property after the unprecedented success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Warner Bros (which owns DC Comics) soon came knocking on Neil Gaiman’s door, despite the fact that his superb comic book The Sandman’s sole resemblance to Batman was (a) his story was told in consecutive panels, and (b) his hair looked a bit like Tim Burton’s. Despite Gaiman’s assertion that trying to make a Sandman movie would be “like taking a baby and cutting off both of its arms and one of its legs and nose and trying to cram it in this little box, and filling the rest of the box up with meat,” Hollywood insisted. “These are not people who particularly care about Sandman,” he added. “They want it to be the new Batman and Robin, which is a little like deciding you want to make David Copperfield the new Batman and Robin.” Ultimately, Gaiman got the rights back. ‘I think they figured I wasn’t a team player and didn’t ‘get’ that whole Sandman thing.” Sandman remains in ‘development hell’. “And may it rot there forever,” says Gaiman.
David Hughes has written about film for numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, Empire, GQ, SFX, Fangoria and Cinefantastique. He is the author of Virgin's The Complete Kubrick and The Complete Lynch, and wrote Titan Books' acclaimed The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. For more information on the titles listed above and to find out which other big projects never made it past their development stages pick up Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?, available now from Titan Books.