Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: 'Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?'


Moviemaking is a tough job, not least of all because so many long-labored projects never even go into production. A screenplay can just as easily linger for decades before being made as it can get batted around, second-guessed, and (often needlessly) revised for the same number of years without ever even moving beyond the page. This painful, protracted process is known as “development hell,” and David Hughes explores more than a dozen such afflicted screenplays in his new book Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? As the writer of more than ten unproduced scripts, Hughes knows the pain of development hell well, but it apparently hasn’t made him so bitter that he was unable to tell these tales with lively humor and entertaining briskness.

Despite the book’s title, not all of these movies were “never made,” nor do they all sound like they had the potential for greatness. Hughes deals with a succession of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and comic book flicks with varying fates. Some died on the vine, such as an ill-conceived remake of Fantastic Voyage and a Sylvester Stallone vehicle called Isobar described as “Alien on a train.” Some were actually produced to great success, such as Lord of the Rings and Batman Begins. Some were made, but probably would have been best left in development hell, such as the laughable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Tim Burton’s awful Planet of the Apes remake.

No matter what came of each film he discusses, Hughes treats each with the same impeccable attention to detail, tracking the projects over their unfortunate speed bumps and through their various permutations, providing provocative synopses of key script and treatment drafts. Several went through some pretty interesting incarnations along the way. Lord of the Rings passed through Forrest J. Ackerman’s hands before landing with The Beatles, who allegedly would have starred as Frodo (Paul), Gollum (John), Gandalf (George), and Sam (Ringo) (I suppose that means Victor Spinetti was a shoe-in for Aragorn). Batman Begins could have been a straight adaptation of Frank Miller’s nitty-gritty Batman: Year One directed by Darren Aronofsky or a dark superhero rally called Batman vs. Superman.

Hughes devotes his final chapter to his own unproduced projects, though I have a feeling the world is no worse for lacking T.J. Hooker: The Movie or Stigmata: The TV Series. Having written such a fun, well-researched book about his chosen business, he may want to consider quitting his day job.
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