Mitchell Zuckoff’s WWII survival epic “Lost in Shangri-La" is headed to the big screen.
Already a best-selling author and award-winning investigative journalist, Zuckoff will branch out into screenwriting for the adaptation of his nonfiction book, teaming with his agent and writing partner Richard Abate to translate the saga of US military personnel stranded in the South Pacific after a deadly 1945 plane crash.
3000 Pictures, a division of Sony fronted by literary-minded hitmaker Elizabeth Gabler (“Life of Pi,” “Hidden Figures”), is partnering on the project with Zuckoff and Abate, who’ll also produce.
“I’m over the moon,” said Zuckoff, a former Globe Spotlight reporter and now the Sumner M. Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies at Boston University. “This is everything I’d hoped for. ... It’s a special book to me, a special story, first finding it and being able to tell it as a book, then just always believing it should have this second life on screen."
Zuckoff’s book was first published in 2011, but the author spent the next eight years fending off those interested in adapting it. “I kept it close,” he said. “We entertained a lot of offers but never went with anyone.”
At the center of “Lost in Shangri-La” is Corporal Margaret Hastings, of the Women’s Army Corps, whose courage and tenacity proved critical as she and two other crash survivors braved the dense jungles of New Guinea. The trio encountered local tribespeople in a hidden valley, forging an unexpected friendship with them as they awaited rescue. It’s a complex story of forgotten heroes, female pioneers, and cross-cultural exchange that Zuckoff hesitated to hand over to filmmakers, partly out of fear the tribespeople might be mischaracterized — as they were in press reports at the time.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to retain control," said Zuckoff, who met with New Guinea natives while writing his book. “They told me the story of these three survivors who fell into their world. They trusted me with their version of events. It would be such a violation to treat them any other way.”
Zuckoff could afford to be selective. Since “Lost in Shangri-La” became a bestseller, he’s written other books and seen one, “13 Hours: The Inside Story of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” turned into a feature film. Michael Bay (“Pearl Harbor”) directed, from a script by local author-turned-screenwriter Chuck Hogan (“The Town”).
But when Zuckoff learned former Fox 2000 head Gabler was working with his publisher, HarperCollins, to turn its bestsellers into Sony features, he began to reconsider a “Lost in Shangri-La” movie. Gabler has a reputation for crafting smart films that can win awards and turn a profit. Besides "Pi” and “Hidden Figures,” she oversaw “The Devil Wears Prada” and "The Hate U Give,” which were also adapted from bestsellers.
“Elizabeth Gabler understands how to make great movies at this scale, of this type,” said Zuckoff. Working with Abate, he sent out a pitch and, just last month, met with Gabler and her team in Los Angeles. A little over a week later, ink hit paper.
“It was incredibly fast,” Zuckoff said. “They were already really familiar with the story. We gave a half-hour presentation about how we saw our take on making it a movie, and they bought it in the room.”
The news that 3000 Pictures was game to let Zuckoff and Abate tackle the script only sweetened the deal.
"Lost in Shangri-La” will be Zuckoff’s first screenplay. “I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit to a certain amount of trepidation,” he said. “It’s a different form, though something that I’ve watched and studied.”
Zuckoff worked with Hogan as “13 Hours” was adapted for the screen. And earlier this year, he sat in a writers’ room across from Oscar-winning scribe Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) as his book “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11” was developed into a limited series for ABC. It is set to debut on ABC in 2021, timed to the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
The common thread in Zuckoff’s books, which he’ll bring to his “Lost in Shangri-La” script, is a focus on individuals who, pitted against nearly insurmountable odds, rise to the challenge.
“People are pushed beyond a limit, and that’s when the hero in them emerges,” he said. “They don’t go looking for it; they’re thrown into a circumstance, and they have to find out what they’re really made of.”