Books

Too Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture?

Novels have quick turnaround from page to screen -- Books like ''Sideways'' and ''An Unfinished Life'' are being adapted to film soon after they are published

Talk about a short shelf life. This fall, movie adaptations of Rex Pickett's Sideways and Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life will unspool in theaters mere months after each novel debuts in bookstores. (This month also marks the U.S. publication of J.J. Connolly's 2001 British crime thriller Layer Cake, the basis for this spring's Sony Pictures Classics film.) Given the usually glacial pace of film development, such quick turnarounds are rare.

Increasingly, though, industry-savvy writers are hedging their bets by pursuing both publishers and studios at once. In fact, Pickett landed a movie deal first, optioning his Sideways manuscript in 1999 to writer-director Alexander Payne, who adapted it but then opted to shoot 2002's About Schmidt. Though publishers had passed on Sideways, Pickett approached them again and sold the novel to St. Martin's in February 2003. As if on cue, Fox Searchlight greenlit Payne's film, a bittersweet tale about two buds (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church) on a raucous wine-tasting trip. (The film opens Oct. 20.) Marvels Pickett, ''I have summited the adaptation Everest!''

Spragg took his campaign for Unfinished Life a step further. He wrote both a novel and a screenplay version of his tale about an embittered rancher who blames his son's death on his daughter-in-law. (He says the two stories ''differ only in places where the medium demanded it.'') Amazingly, he managed to sell both, and the Lasse Hallstrom-directed Miramax drama starring Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez was put on a fast track (it's due out Dec. 24). Spragg is calm about the compressed release schedule: ''I'm not very good at many things, but not worrying about things I have no control over is one of them.''

Originally posted Sep 17, 2004 Published in issue #784 Sep 17, 2004 Order article reprints