Would you enjoy reading a compilation of thwarted dreams? What if I told you it would make you feel much better in your own dealing with Hollywood producers or the type of people who act like Hollywood producers? Also, Tales from Development Hell is super-well-researched and contains the fascinating true stories of, unquestionably, some of the greatest movies that haven’t (at time of writing) been made.
Smoke and Mirrors, the semi-true story of French magician Robert-Houdin battling an Algerian wizard? Check. History of the various Planet of the Apes movies? Check. The saga of putting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on the big screen? Check. The tragedy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull not staying in development hell? Check. Various attempts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics? Check. Isobar, the story of an HR Giger-designed alien killing people on a train… in the future. Check. And so on.
While the book impresses with the multiple first-person interviews and additional secondary sources (especially anonymous internet reviews) that are deftly interwoven to tell the tortured history of these lost projects, there are some cases where either discretion or self-censorship leaves out a part of the story. For example, on page 25 we are told an “A-list” screenwriter “spent six months and a great deal of money” rewriting Smoke and Mirrors only to deliver a draft that was “unreadable”. Who is the writer? Let’s name names and get their side of the story. (This may be the author playing some Hollywood politics. The final chapter details the labyrinth of development hells of Hughes’ own various projects.)
The overall takeaway from the book is that a lot of things can go wrong with a film project when it is in development, and it’s not always the fault of the filmmakers. Events in the real world can tamp the energy motivating the film, or, in the case of Crusade, an almost Arnold Schwartzengger/Paul Verhoeven film, temporarily revive it. Good filmmakers bounce back, and good material never really goes away. For every development hell, there is a distribution heaven.
Note on the editions: I have not read the original 2004 edition of the book, but this version seems fully up-to-date, even including films as recent as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.