For inspiration, writers turn to Hollywood
The hardcover comes first. Then the movie. Then the paperback emblazoned with the words “Now a major motion picture!” Everyone knows that. But the usual order is being upended this week, as not one, but two of Boston’s best-selling writers — Dennis Lehane and Ben Mezrich — are publishing novels that were inspired by Hollywood, not the other way around.
“It couldn’t be more reversed,” said Lehane.
It is unclear whether the Boston-based movies-to-books progression is the start of a trend or just a geographic and literary quirk, but a Publishers Weekly executive says that Hollywood’s influence on the once-rarified world of publishing makes sense, given the film industry’s power.
“The whole notion of writers isolating themselves is old hat,” said Louisa Ermelino, a Publishers Weekly vice president and reviews director. “We’re in an age of marketing, and I’m not being critical of it. Twenty-five years ago I would have thought pfffff [about Hollywood], but I don’t feel that way anymore.”
“It’s funny,” she added, “if you think back, all the big writers” — like F. Scott Fitzgerald — “were brought out to Hollywood in the ’30s. Maybe we’re doing a full circle.”
In perhaps another sign that the world may start to spin backward — that movie posters may one day proclaim “Now a Nonfiction Narrative!” — a Hollywood producer and director not only thought of the idea for Mezrich’s new book, “Seven Wonders,” a thriller linking the ancient and modern wonders of the world, but he is copublishing it. And he tosses around the word “synergy” when talking about literature.
“My company just bought the rights to [the Pulitzer Prize-winning] ‘The Goldfinch,’ ” Brett Ratner said from Berlin, where he is promoting “Hercules.” “There is a lot of synergy between great books and movies.”
“Does that mean I’m going to pitch [Goldfinch author] Donna Tartt an idea and she’ll write it?” he asked. “No, but at least we have the relationship.”
As Lehane fans know, he is a books-to-movies machine. “Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone,” and “Shutter Island” all have been made blockbusters.
But with “The Drop” — “a love story wrapped in a crime story wrapped in a journey of faith” set on the streets of “Mystic River” — things were different. The novel came after the screenplay.
“My first thought was ‘Oh, please, a novelization,’ ” Lehane said, recalling his reaction when his longtime editor at William Morrow suggested the idea.
“That’s so cheesy. That’s what you do for $10,000 when you’re starting out, and you do it under an assumed name, which I never did, but I’m just saying.”
But in an age when writing for even television no longer carries a taint, why not?
“We’ve seen this shift in how we regard narrative art,” Lehane said from Santa Monica, Calif., where he has moved to be near television and film work (while keeping his home here). The screenplay for “The Drop” — which he wrote — marks his movie debut.
“Respected authors are doing graphic novels,” Lehane said. “Some do comic books. Suddenly ‘genre’ isn’t a dirty word. Twenty years ago, people scoffed at TV. Now it’s an art form. Why be held to one school or another?”
The movie version of “The Drop” — inspired by a Lehane short story called “Animal Rescue” — premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday and opens Sept. 12.
Like Lehane, Mezrich is used to seeing his work in multiplexes after it’s been in bookstores. “The Accidental Billionaires” was made into “The Social Network,” and “Bringing Down the House” was turned into “21.”
But Mezrich’s new book began as a Hollywood pitch, as the back cover makes clear. “A fast-paced, globe-trotting thriller that’s rife with historic secrets, conspiracies, and intrigue,” it reads.
“I was scouting for ideas,” Mezrich recalled. “And what usually happens is that 20 or 30 ideas come in a week through calls and e-mails. Every time a college kid does something stupid, I get a call.
“I happened to put in a call to Brett Ratner. He was attached to ‘21’ as a producer. I said, ‘I’m looking for a new story.’ Beau Flynn” — a producer — “was on the phone, too, and Brett said, ‘I’ve got something, but it’s not nonfiction [like Mezrich’s bestsellers], but do you know anything about the Seven Wonders of the World? If you can find a way to connect them, we can set up a big franchise movie.’ ”
A star was not born, but book and movie deals were.
Ratner recently hired a screenwriter for “Seven Wonders,” and Mezrich is now writing his second Ratner-generated idea, inspired by Ratner’s love of the film “Once Upon a Time in America” starring Robert De Niro.
Mezrich’s book, “Once Upon a Time in Russia,” will tell the true story of the rise and fall of the Russian oligarchs — “The Godfather,” but in Russia. “I’m also turning it into a movie,” Ratner said.
In another Boston-books-screen connection, director Guillermo del Toro originally envisioned “The Strain” — now running on FX — as a TV series, but the networks and studios wanted the horror-drama only after del Toro (along with Boston author Chuck Hogan) first wrote it as a book (“The Strain”), according Deadline Hollywood.
Even as books and movies get cozier, differences remain.
Screenwriters, Lehane said, have it easier than novelists. “With a novel, you are the architect and the builder, god. When you write the script, you are like the guy who does the flooring. At the same time, do I feel the same sense of satisfaction? Not at that macro ego sense.”
Another difference: the publicity. “When a movie comes out, it’s crazy,” said Mezrich. “There are private jets involved. In Vegas, there were dancers hanging from the ceiling. When a book comes out, you go to a bookstore in Detroit.”