[This week we’ll be looking at a few movies mentioned in Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes (Titan Books). The recently released book chronicles the arduous and at times absurd development process that films go through, often leading to that unfortunate limbo known as “development hell.” Look out for our spotlight on Tales from Development Hell tomorrow.]
One of the most celebrated comics series of all time is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s proven difficult to make into a film, however. (Given the fate of Hellblazer‘s John Constantine, maybe it’s for the best.) Gaiman’s likened the adaptation process to cutting up a baby and shoving it into a little box full of meat. One of the head butchers was producer Jon “Giant Spider in the Third Act” Peters.
Two early attempts Gaiman liked: one from Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (Aladdin), another from Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction) that tweaked the previous team’s screenplay. Elliott and Rossio’s script was deemed undeliverable, though Elliott suggests it was booted because they refused to incorporate Peters’s suggestion that Morpheus be captured by teenagers holding a séance at a slumber party. Avary was dumped when he suggested that the dream sequences in the film resemble Rosemary’s Baby and the work of Jan Svankmajer.
Perhaps the most well-known Sandman adaptation is the one from Jonah Hex-screenwriter William Farmer. Peters and the studio liked it, but the screenplay was savaged online. Tied to fears of the then-impending millennium and featuring major deviations from the story (Lucifer and The Corinthian are Morpheus’s brothers; Morpheus has a sister called Love instead of Death), perhaps the worst aspect of the unmade screenplay is the ending: it’s all just a dream.
In the Philadelphia City Paper, Gaiman described the Farmer’s screenplay as “nonsensical, poorly written trash,” and proclaimed it “easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” Farmer said that while he did mangle the source material, “I never really considered it ‘my script.’ It was a big monster written by committee.” David Hughes shares some thoughts after the cut.
The Sandman movie is in Development Hell and may it rot there forever.
— Neil Gaiman (quoted in Tales from Development Hell)
Sandman is built on such a big, rich, and complex world. How do you feel about the way movie studios usually handle these kinds of properties?
David Hughes: Well, I could go for a cheap shot here, but actually if you look at what I consider to be the turning point — Bryan Singer’s X-Men — it happened right at the turn of the millennium, and I think it was a key development in having studios listen to the people they had hired, rather than the din from the blogosphere (among whom I count myself). For most of the previous decade, studio executives and high-powered producers — especially anyone who had anything to do with Batman — had taken the power away from the creatives. It would take a new wave of superstar creatives — Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, etc., the Spielbergs and Lucases of the 21st century, if you will — to show the studios that trusting the creatives was a viable option.
So when X-Men kicked a thousand kinds of ass (commercially successful, critically acclaimed) and spawned not only a franchise but a multi-billion dollar cash cow for ALL the studios holding comic book properties, it opened the floodgates. I mean, for Christ’s sake, they gave Spider-Man to the Evil Dead guy! They bet the farm on The Frighteners guy! And so on.
I think, for the time being at least, the studios MOSTLY handle them just fine. After all, few of us suspected Superman Returns was going to be such a stink-bomb — Warner Bros trusted the X-Men guy with their no. 2 or no. 3 most precious franchise, and it was a total stillbirth. But so what? They picked themselves up, Smallville lasted 436 seasons, and now they’ve picked another virtual unknown (Henry Cavill) to don the cape again. Give me that over Nicolas Cage as Supes any day. Even with Tim Burton in charge.
Both Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary likened the problems of adaptation and development to putting a baby in peril. How do you view the act of film adaptation at its best and at its worst?
It depends on your point of view. As a screenwriter, I love the art of film adaptation — I’ve adapted a number of books into films and the process is always different, always thrilling, always frustrating. Obviously if I had created some great IP like The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Sandman, I’d be torn between a) wanting to see what it looked like on screen as a movie/mini-series etc., and b) not wanting to see my baby barbecued.
But the part of you that wants to see it tends to talk a lot louder than the part that doesn’t, so even Neil Gaiman says in the book he’d quite like to see it, as long as it was done with love. Who knows what that might look like? Maybe the guy who did Waltz with Bashir should take a shot at an animated version, close to the comic book. Or maybe it should go the Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter route, with a really huge adaptation that’s both faithful and smart, knowing when and where to prune.
There was word in 2010 that the CW was developing a Sandman TV show. Any idea if that’s going forward or has it joined its movie counterpart in development hell?
Well, I put the finishing touches to the book in December 2011, so I think you’ll find it’s as up to date as it can be — there are no further developments in that direction.
Previous tales from Hell:
Tomorrow: A trip through Development Hell…
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David Hughes is the author of Tales from Development Hell, The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made, The Complete Kubrick, and The Complete Lynch. He is also co-author of Farscape: The Illustrated Companion with Paul Simpson, and has written about film for The Guardian, Empire, GQ, and numerous publications.