I don’t read many books about screenwriting, but my assistant Stuart Friedel does. From time to time I ask him to write up his impressions.
Several readers had written to ask about David Hughes’s Tales from Development Hell, so I asked Stuart to look at it during a break from reading Three Page Challenge entries.
Hughes’s book is a collection of historical accounts about the development — and sometimes eventual release — of famously troubled titles. In order, they are: Smoke and Mirrors, the new Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings, Total Recall 2, Indiana Jones 4, Crusade, Isobar, various Howard Hughes projects, The Sandman, The Hot Zone, post-Clooney Batman, Tomb Raider, and Fantastic Voyage.
Each chapter covers one project, going into detail about who owned what rights when, who was hired to do what rewrites, why people were fired, etc. It answers questions like, “What ever happened to that Sandman adaptation I read about a few years back?” or, “Why have they never made a Hot Zone movie?”
What happened is those projects went through the Hollywood development process, which Tales from Development Hell does a good enough job of covering.
The accounts are thorough and drawn out, sometimes including long summaries of multiple almost-identical drafts, and rarely leaving out details, be they interesting or not. If you’re reading this book because you want this coverage, this over-thoroughness is probably a good thing. You may as well get the whole story. After all, this is literally the book on it.
But if you’re reading this as an aspiring screenwriter, there is little of direct value to you here, despite the writer’s pre-emptive apology for delivering these stories favoring your point of view. The tales are from the projects’ points of view. And that’s neither a particularly hellish nor interesting one.
An example: The first chapter covers an unproduced period piece — a magician adventure called Smoke and Mirrors. The spec script, written by a then-unknown, unrepped writing team with no credits (Janet Scott & Lee Batchler), sold for one million dollars plus a second script commitment. There were a bunch of rewrites — some by big-named writers, some by other unknowns. Attachments came on and fell off. It went into turnaround, got bought, went through more rewrites. It was finally ready to shoot…and then 9/11 derailed it.
In the chapter’s wrap-up, we check back in with the original writers:
Almost two decades after their million-dollar script sale, the Batchlers […] refuse to give up on the prospect of seeing Smoke and Mirrors on the big screen. “For one thing, in half the meetings we take, someone still comments on what a great script it is, how much they loved it, and how they wish it would get made. For another thing, the fact that the movie hasn’t been made means that no one has ruined a frame of it yet. […]”
If you subscribe to the book’s definition of Development Hell, the fact that Smoke and Mirrors hasn’t been made means it should be one of the book’s more hellish examples.
But as John and Craig often point out on the podcast, screenwriters’ careers are not about a single movie.
On a macro screenwriter level, the Smoke and Mirrors development cycle has employed a lot of people. And on a micro level, even the original writers don’t seem all that broken up over not seeing it made yet. It launched their careers, got them repped, got them a paycheck, a second script commitment from a major studio. It’s still brought up in meetings.
As a wannabe-screenwriter, what I was hoping for from a book with this title is a collection of war stories. Cautionary tales about hellish development experiences, told by writers who have been where I hope to go. Unworkable note sessions, passion projects that get oh-so-close but never get made, being forced to do bad rewrites for attachments that make no sense. Stories of pitfalls, and if I’m lucky, a bit about how to avoid them.
This second edition does sort of get there. Eventually. The last chapter consists of tales from the writer’s own career, but by that time, it’s too-little-too-late.
So should you read this book?
If you’re a fan of some of the more-famous project titles listed on the cover, you’ll probably find something interesting in those respective chapters. But I don’t know that you’ll get valuable screenwriting lessons out of it. Most scripts in development don’t get made, and a repetitive laundry list of the specific reasons why doesn’t feel especially helpful.
Heck, Daniel Wilson’s io9 article about his Robopocalypse experience is probably the best version of what this book is, and he does it in what would amount to fewer than five pages.
It’s not that this book doesn’t have value. It’s just not a must-have for an aspiring writer’s bookshelf.