Book Review: ‘Tales from Development Hell’

Have you ever wondered why so many movies just plain stink these days? The simplistic answer, of course, is that Hollywood executives are idiots and/or have no respect for their audience’s intelligence. Both of these may be true to some degree, but neither tells quite the whole story. In his recently-updated edition of the book ‘Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?’, author David Hughes digs deep to uncover true stories of how promising screenplays were run through the Hollywood production mill until they were so twisted and mangled and watered down for mainstream consumption that few of their original ideas survived – if the movies were lucky enough to see the light of day at all.

Like many writers, Hughes originally went to Hollywood with dreams of selling a big screenplay, hitting it rich, and watching his movie go on to great success and acclaim. Also like many writers, he found the reality of the situation to be a humbling experience. In his years toiling in the industry, Hughes has collected a great many stories of good scripts gone wrong due to the pervasive interference from studio heads, producers and talent. As Hughes discovered, the common mantra in Hollywood is: “The script is perfect. Who can we get to rewrite it?”

Some of these movies you’ve never heard of. The book starts with the tale of a script called ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, an ‘Indiana Jones’-style period adventure that was at one time the hottest screenplay in Hollywood. The original draft sold for big money and was fast-tracked toward production. Unfortunately, those plans were quickly curtailed when an ever-revolving series of big-name stars and directors became attached to the project, all of whom demanded that the script be rewritten to exert their influence or tailor it to their own whims. Eventually, after dozens of drafts from as many writers, the screenplay was essentially eviscerated, to the point that almost nothing that had been appealing about the original version remained. It died without ever going before cameras.

Other films covered in the book are more famous. Hughes has meticulously researched and laid bare the convoluted histories of such notorious duds as Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes‘ remake, the videogame adaptation ‘Tomb Raider‘ and the misbegotten sequel ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘. He pulls no punches in exposing the weaknesses of all of these final products.

For me, the most interesting part of the book is the chapter that covers the evolution of ‘Total Recall‘ from a David Cronenberg intellectual science fiction film into a mega-budget Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick. I’ve long wondered what Cronenberg had planned for the movie. Hughes describes his script in some detail. Amazingly, a number of Cronenberg’s ideas survived the transition and are present in Paul Verhoeven’s finished film. (Everything to do with mutants and Kuato came straight from Cronenberg’s pen, not the original novella by Philip K. Dick.) I happen to love Verhoeven’s movie, but Cronenberg’s version sounds like it would have been great in entirely different ways.

Other chapters talk about the many attempts to bring ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ to screen before Peter Jackson finally made a go of it, Darren Aronofsky’s unproduced ‘Batman’ reboot, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the non-fiction bestseller ‘The Hot Zone’ (which was scuttled at the last minute by the competing production of ‘Outbreak‘), and other failed projects such as James Cameron’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’ remake and several adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ comic.

Hughes tells all of these stories in an engrossing, entertaining manner. Occasionally, his desire to cover a project comprehensively leads to a dead end – such as his summaries of far too many ‘Indiana Jones’ scripts circulated on the internet, most of which turned out to be little more than fan fiction. I also didn’t really care for the final chapter about his own work as a screenwriter, which feels a little narcissistic. However, these are relatively small complaints about a fascinating and very well-written book that can currently be purchased for the reasonable price of only $10.85 on Amazon.

[The banner image is a piece of pre-production artwork from David Cronenberg’s aborted adaptation of ‘Total Recall’. You can find more images at io9.]

2 comments

  1. JoeRo

    I read this a little while back Josh and absolutely loved it. The Total Recall stuff was particularly interesting to me. I was gutted to learn how the obvious sequel was put on hold again and again to undergo rewrites only to have the governator shoot it down for being “too cerebral”. It’s a very interesting read that any film fan should really enjoy, I’m glad you featured a piece about it here on the site.

  2. JM

    I would love to know the story of how the ‘Prometheus’ script evolved.

    Ridley Scott’s entire filmography is littered with the corpses of raped screenwriters.

    And now he’s racing Spielberg to crank out a Moses movie.

    74 years old, the guy has 9 projects in various stages of development hell.

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