Thanks to Andy for inviting me to do this blog. He’s asked me to consider how I would like a movie of Wolfsangel made. My immediate answer was ‘with no expense spared, particularly in purchasing the movie rights from the writer’. A more serious answer might have been ‘I’d just like it made’. I have some experience of films selling to major studios and never seeing the light of day. Two of my non-fantasy novels have sold as films – one to Universal Pictures and one to 2929. This is a great and financially rewarding experience but it’s also maddening. Neither of the books I sold ever got made, although both were retained on ‘option’ by the studios for around 4 years each. This just means that they give you a bit of money each year to have exclusive rights to make a film of your book.
It’s nice to receive the cheque, though disconcerting when it all ends because you do begin to assume it’s always going to arrive. In the case of 2929, a couple of years ago I heard the film had been greenlighted only to discover a month later there had been a last minute change of heart and my that my expected six figure cheque would not be materialising. No one told me that, we just found out the film had been canned when no one paid me a cheque. This is the thing about film companies, you’re the writer, you don’t matter. In fact, you’re not even the writer. You’re just the schmuck who wrote the book. An idea of the status of writers in Hollywood can be glimpsed in the joke ‘did you hear about the leading lady who was so stupid she slept with the writer.’ Of course no one would bother to tell you they’ve cancelled your project and with it your loan repayment, holiday, new car, food for your children. It isn’t anyone’s job to do that.
Universal Pictures produced three scripts of my novel Girlfriend 44 but eventually that was binned too. So, like I say, a lucrative but frustrating business.
So, when it comes to Wolfsangel, I would just, first and foremost, like to see it made. The question that comes up in this sort of thing is ‘would you like to write the script yourself?’ For the mainstream novels I’ve written my answer would be ‘yes, but I don’t think I should’. Scriptwriting is a different skill to writing novels, more mechanical. It’s also often a collaborative effort, with input from producers, directors, actors and even the audience at test screening. So, for a commercial, if dark, romantic comedy of the sort I was writing with my conventional books I’d like to see someone with a high level of technical skill take on the script.
For Wolfsangel, though, I’d like it to be me. The book was in many ways a labour of love for me and something that I’m very proud of. And, putting it bluntly, there aren’t that many fantasy films I admire. I wouldn’t want to see the book given the Krull treatment or Conan or Eragon, or, God forbid, see it turn out like The 13th Warrior, Reign of Fire or Harry Potter. Nothing really wrong with those films but they just didn’t engage me.
That said, a film is a different beast to a novel and it’s a mistake to open the novel at page 1 and simply try to transcribe it onto a film script. The best way is often just to take the idea of the novel and the basic plot and go from there. History is full of great books that have flopped when put on to the big screen because the people writing the script were too in love with the book. Big decisions have to made in movie adaptations and sometimes the writer of the novel isn’t the best person to make them. JRR Tolkien and JRR Tolkien alone was in love with Tom Bombadil. You can bet that had JRRT been alive to make the movie, Tom would have got in. That would have been a mistake and the film makers were right to cut him. Great adaptations actually go beyond the book. Outside of fantasy, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a much better film than it is a book, the plot is much, much improved. Writer Richard Curtis had the distance on the book to see that the ending is an anti-climax and he remedied that.
But I would like to write Wolfsangel if it ever made it into a film, to hope to protect it from falling into common fantasy stereotypes – wide eyed heroes gradually coming to experience, cackling villains, cute buddies. Nein Danke. The problem with Wolfsangel is that it’s really two books. One is a standard adventure story, lots of hack and slash, daring escapes, treachery and star-crossed love. The other is a bit weirder and was specifically written to be hard to film. I was acutely aware when writing the book that wonder does not come cheaply any more for fantasy writers. In an age of CGI, fantasy writers have to up their game. Wolfsangel very deliberately has a form of magic that is only really appreciable in a novel. It affects the emotions, the endurance of body and will and sends the magician to the edge of sanity. Hollywood can do a fireball or a magic missile. It can’t show the conventional personality being stripped away to reveal the magical self underneath nearly as easily. When I wrote the scenes with the witch queen in them I did think ‘let’s see you CGI that, you bastards’.
The challenge for fantasy films is the same. We need a sense of wonder back. The average advert nowadays is full of marvellous and weird visual treats. We need something that goes beyond what CGI is capable of, something with emotional investment and strangeness.
So I’d like a director capable of handling both sides of the story. Guillermo del Toro, who did Pan’s Labyrinth would be a dream, as would Nicholas Winding Refn, who did Valhalla Rising. I particularly liked the way he captured the freezing cold of the hills, the starkness of it. The film lacked a plot but was wonderfully atmospheric. I thought for a second that the director was using the same basic premise as Wolfsangel, with Norse Gods shaping mortal destinies – any Norse character with one eye immediately makes you think of Odin. Luckily he wasn’t. Elliot Silverstein, who directed A Man Called Horse, the hallucinogenic western, would have been a good director but I think he’s hung up his megaphone by now and Jean Cocteau is dead but I admire their work and would have gladly given them Wolfsangel, though I doubt Cocteau would have wanted it.
And one other thing, I’d like – in my filmmaking fantasy – to have some say in the fight scenes. I can’t bear it when warriors in fantasy films break off half way through the fight to pout over one shoulder David Beckham style, or sink to one knee and put one sword up in the air, the other low in a self regarding way. No Matrix posing here, please. I much prefer the way fighting was handled in Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. The fight scenes were by Bill Hobbs – who founded the Swash and Buckle fencing club where I learned to fence. They’re short, brutal and no one does any fancy bladework because that’s the sort of stuff that gets you killed. Elegant sword work is keeping the blade in the best position to hit the enemy and hitting the enemy quickly and directly. It’s not about waving the sword in patterns over your head.
So that’s what I’d like. Will I get it? I doubt it, not for a while anyway. Wolfsangel would be an expensive film to make and there are no guarantees with fantasy book adaptations. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights came out as The Golden Compass but, although it was a success in most of the world, it didn’t make enough money in the US market to justify making the sequels. It was a good adaptation ,which I enjoyed, but when a book that is so hugely successful can’t cut it as a film, other fantasy books are less likely to get made.
Perhaps the book might be picked up by an indie film maker but, to be honest, if someone was going to make it for tuppence I wouldn’t be interested unless the director could convince me they could overcome the lack of money to do something very special. Winding Refn managed it with Valhalla Rising but, for every one film like that there are 100 low budget turkeys.
So for the meanwhile my Wolfsangel film will have to remain a fantasy, I think. Still, there’s always the book!