Back in 2002, EW dubbed Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ”the It Script” of the year. With near-unanimous praise for the Pulitzer-winning novel — an unlikely mix of superheroes, Jewish mysticism, and war — and backing from top producer Scott Rudin, who’s known for taking on difficult literary adaptations like No Country for Old Men and next month’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a brilliant Kavalier & Clay picture seemed destined for theaters. Yet in 2004, Chabon declared the project ”very much dead,” and despite many attempts, it’s never been resurrected.
Adapting complex novels like Kavalier & Clay from page to screen can be a treacherous process, one that can begin long before the book itself is even published. Book editor and Macmillan Films head Brendan Deneen, who worked for years as a scout for Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Rudin, describes an almost ”black market” for manuscripts and books in New York City. ”Basically, the minute an editor buys a book, if it sounds even vaguely cinematic, every scout in New York is scrambling to get it as soon as possible,” he says.
Scouts read a manuscript in one night — or sometimes a few hours — then report back to the producer or studio exec about the story’s viability for the screen. Then an interested producer will make an offer to the author that consists of three components: the option, or the money required to ”rent” the film rights for 12 or, increasingly, 18 months at a time; the purchase price, which is the amount the author will receive (minus the option money) in the unlikely event that the film gets made; and the back end, a portion of the film’s net profits.
While young-adult and commercial fiction can be an easy sell in Hollywood, novels that are high in prestige but low in flash can be less attractive; they come with built-in expectations without the built-in audience. For every No Country for Old Men or The Help, there’s a box office dud: Never Let Me Go or The Road. ”Generally, the critically acclaimed novels that Rudin tended to gravitate to are character pieces more than anything,” says Mira Shin, who served as Rudin’s creative executive during the filming of Revolutionary Road, adapted from the 1961 Richard Yates novel. (Rudin himself declined to comment for this story.)