The final challenges of moving an academic book to the screen (opinion)

In a previous article, I recounted how my book The Last Due was sold to a major trade publisher and, over a period of 15 years, optioned three times for film. In this essay, I’ll describe its final journey to the big screen.

Visitors and Masks

In May 2019, I was invited to a meeting at Pearl Street Films to discuss plans for the screen adaptation of my book. Around the table were Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as Drew Vinton, the Pearl Street producer who had discovered my book at his public library, and Kevin Walsh, president of Scott Free Productions. I was thrilled to be at the table, and all of us were instantly on a first-name basis.

Matt had with him a well-thumbed paperback copy of my book with yellow Post-it notes sticking out of the pages. After a few questions to me about how I had found the story and researched my book, he and Ben began outlining the script in progress, taking turns to narrate a three-part story reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon.

I was delighted—I’d been inspired by Rashomon years earlier while writing my book, and I’d also read the source material by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I’d been especially struck by a line in the original “Rashomon” story, although not the film, that seemed to echo Marguerite’s terrible plight after Le Gris’s brutal attack: “The thunder of his descending steps pounded in the hollow tower, and then it was quiet.” The resulting film would depict Le Gris pursuing Marguerite up a tower and descending afterward.

That summer, the writing team grew to include acclaimed writer and director Nicole Holofcener, who was responsible for the third crucial part of the story, Marguerite’s. I’d been hired as a consultant, and for several months, I fielded questions from the writers about medieval law, feudal society, knighthood, weaponry, military vocabulary and the rules for duels.

Three writers evidently can work faster than one, and by December, a completed script was ready. Kevin and Drew called me to relay a command from Ridley Scott: “Tell him to kick the shit out of it.” The script was brilliant, and I found no shit to kick. But I sent back some notes suggesting small changes here and there, many of which the writers adopted.

Months earlier, I had also suggested something else—at the outset, why not show the two men as comrades in arms during a bloody skirmish where Carrouges saves Le Gris’s life, giving the climactic duel a tragic: Carrouges now must twist the man he saved—or be killed by him. It was satisfying to see this beat also embedded in the script and framing the whole story.

Shooting began in February 2020 in France at some spectacular locations, including the Château de Berzé, a splendidly preserved fortress, and the Abbey of Fontfroide, near the old Roman city of Narbonne. Casting calls for extras drew huge crowds. Some enthusiastic applicants showed up in full medieval attire and carrying weapons or other props.

Early on, I’d been invited to join the team on location, and my wife, Peg, and I were full of anticipation. But then in March, with another turn of fortune’s wheel, production halted because of the worldwide pandemic.

But Ridley had proven his logistical genius a few years earlier, when forced to reshoot much of All the Money in the World due to unsavory accusations against its leading man. Production on The Last Due resumed in September in Ireland, as originally planned, with cast and crew adhering to full pandemic protocols.

Even with all the extra COVID precautions, the shoot wrapped in mid-October. Under a “Breaking News” banner, Deadline Hollywood saluted the director, who had more than lived up to his knighthood: “While most are hunkered down due to the pandemic, Scott is moving like a locomotive.”

Postproduction began, with a release date pushed back from Christmas 2020 to nearly Halloween 2021. It was a foreshadowing that was lost on me at the time.

Trailers and Tie-Ins

In July 2021, the first of several trailers was released, garnering millions of views on YouTube. In September, Jodie Comer, playing nuanced versions of the courageous Marguerite, wowed audiences at the film’s world premiere in Venice. Early reviews were mixed, however, and controversy flared on social media about the on-screen depiction of rape.

Detractors posted trigger warnings, denouncing the film weeks before its release and long before they could have seen and judged it on its actual merits. The Vatican’s 1988 condemnation of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ had inadvertently promoted that film worldwide. Perhaps in this case, too, there would be “no such thing as bad publicity.” We could only hope.

The critics came around, and eventually the film (with over 250 reviews tallied) scored an 85 on the influential “Tomatometer.” It was a critic’s pick in The New York Times, where Manohla Dargis, noting Scott’s “affinity for tough women,” wrote that he “has directed what may be the big screen’s first medieval feminist revenge saga.” Other critics found much to admire, as well.

By now, my book had sold in nearly 20 languages, and movie tie-in editions proliferated. A once-moribund title had been reborn. The audio rights, unused by the publisher, had reverted. My brilliant agents Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu enlisted English actor Robert Glenister, who had read the book on the BBC years earlier, to do the unabridged version, and his entrancing performance was selling well on Audible.

By October, the movie poster was plastered on billboards and rumbling by on buses. Teasers ran on TV, and friends reported sightings to us. I kept busy with articles and interviews for the London Times, Le Monde and the Los Angeles Timesas well as podcasts such as The Jess Cagle Show, Most Notorious and others. It was fun and exciting to reach a wider audience. Given the continuing controversy, however, I asked Peg to vet everything I wrote and to help prep my interviews, eyeballing every detail for content and tone—in short, to “kick the shit out of it.”

After Venice, photos had popped up online of someone impersonating me on the red carpet. My amused disbelief turned to alarm: Had the impostor spoken to the press? Was I about to be pilloried on Twitter for something I’d never said? At Peg’s urging, I alerted the studio, and they got Getty Images to take down the pictures.

Even bona fide interviews carried risks. At foreign media outlets, my careful English was translated overnight, and we crossed our fingers that a misquote would not attract online trolls. We completely avoided social media, leaving that to the publisher and the studio, especially the skilled publicist at Penguin Random House, Michelle Giuseffi.

On the eve of the film’s release, our hopes soared that the amazing true story of the 1386 trial by combat, and one woman’s courageous stand for the truth, would be a success on par with Ridley Scott’s The Martian or Gladiator. Others were evidently hopeful, too—solicitations for money we didn’t have began rolling in.

A Box-Office Bomb

The Last Due came out from 20th Century Studios in US theaters on Oct. 15 against Universal Studios’ Halloween Kills, a franchise slasher film. Both were rated R, and Universal’s film was also available on streaming, which might have bled off some of its own box office. Still, The Last Due tanked, earning only $4.7 million in the US that weekend, while Kills lived up to her name with $47 million.

As widely noted at the time, an older audience afraid of catching COVID stayed home, while a younger audience eager to be back in theaters after months of lockdown did not, understandably, see The Last Due as a great date movie. And yet I wonder about that younger crowd of people—including many college students—who rightly demand that society take sexual assault much more seriously and yet shunned a brilliant film offering a serious historical look at Me Too issues, instead cramming into a slasher film for a bloody feast. “A Movie for Grown-Ups,” wrote the columnist Ross Douthat, lamenting the film’s box-office failure.

Ridley, understandably annoyed that his epic historical drama tanked at the box office, blamed it on “millennials” with cellphones. If his ire was a bit off target, the man is still entitled to his outrage on behalf of the 13,000 people for whom the film provided jobs and who had worked very hard under challenging conditions to deliver a meticulously crafted work of art.

The Last Due is a tour de force that thrilled many critics and viewers, ourselves included. I’ll never forget seeing it with Peg at a private screening in Los Angeles on the Fox studio lot: we both were completely blown away. But as a huge Ridley Scott fan, and author of the book, I’m obviously biased. And my first date with Peg, almost 40 years ago, was Blade Runneranother box-office bust—although eventually redeemed by time and immortalized by the American Film Institute as one of the “100 Greatest American Films of All Time.”

Afterlife

When The Last Due flopped, many critics lamented the demise of big-budget Hollywood historical epics. I hope that’s premature and that future generations will know the thrill of watching big-screen historical films. In December, the movie had its streaming debut on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu, followed by Hulu and HBO Max, as well as Disney+ and Star+ overseas.

Almost overnight, it found its audience, and a big one, even rivaling later Oscar favorite The Power of the Dog for the No. 1 spot in home viewing. And over the next two months, it made the Top 10 on numerous platforms worldwide. It also has held its solid critical score of 85 on the Tomatometer, and a healthy 81 among moviegoers. True, it’s been largely snubbed in the awards race. The box office, certainly, and perhaps the controversy, too, have taken a toll.

Still, the film’s streaming future looks bright, and book sales have also been brisk, including five weeks last fall on the New York Times best-seller list. Not bad for a title that was remaineddered 20 years ago after it failed to sell out in hardcover.

I hope that this cautionary tale about the ups and downs of fortune’s wheel that can attend any trade book, and any film adaptation, hasn’t dampened the hopes of anyone aspiring to see their own apotheosized book on the screen. Some authors are understandably leery of Hollywood or even reluctant to help adapt their own work. A much beloved and wonderfully successful author with millions of books in print told me that when Hollywood calls, he always says, “I have just one condition: I don’t want to be involved.” But if you truly want to see your book on the screen and would jump at the chance to be involved, my advice is, do your very best research and writing, hang on to your dream, and go for it.

Perhaps most important of all: enjoy the adventure as you chase your dream, and be grateful to everyone who shares it with you. But again, don’t hold your breath, and be careful what you wish for. Good luck. May fortune smile upon you.

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