23rd Mar2012

Book Review: Tales from Development Hell

by Paul Metcalf


As film fans we look at the finished result and it’s sad to say that often we see a mess. The big event we were looking forward to just does not meet our expectations and we blame the director or the actors because they did not do a good enough job in our eyes. We may even blame the writers as they messed up a story that we loved so much. What we don’t see very often is what happened behind the scenes to create the problems evident on the screen. Welcome to development hell.

Tales from Development Hell is quite an informative book about how movie companies, actors, directors and money makers can destroy projects before they even have a chance to show us what they truly had the potential to do. David Hughes takes us through quite a few films like Total Recall, Planet of the Apes, The Sandman and James Cameron’s Fantastic Voyage and shows just what happens to ideas that get out of control, and some not even made at all. The Sandman for example is a sorry tale where excellent ideas and source material were provided but Hollywood had another vision, something Neil Gaiman as the writer was not happy with. It was a case of killing any hope for that film because in the end an excellent story works on paper, but when making money on the big screen that does not really matter. Gaiman never stood in the way of his work becoming a film; Hollywood just wanted to sanitise it into their vision, something fans would never have accepted.

One thing this book does is change your view on how films work. You get a little cynical when you see the latest news to come out about new projects. Take for example at the time of writing this Michael Bay and his proclamation that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will now be aliens. Just from a statement like that which attacks many film fans childhood memories it screams out development help. Then again, most films that Michael Bay gets hold of do go through an element of hell but he still makes big money out of them, the man knows how to sell an explosion. You do though have a little understanding of the process of what it takes to get these films onto the big screen, it’s about politics. The politics of the film world is a complicated and film killing environment. For a film to make it through development it has to make the actors happy, the director and the money makers happy or it won’t happen. The writers have to build a concept that will catch interest then another writer will come in straight away and re-write it to fit other people’s needs.

It’s an interesting viewpoint to have really as I’m sure many have often read a book and thought it would look amazing on the screen. When it finally makes it there it’s nothing like you expected. If you read this book you’ll understand just why that happens. It’s not the writer’s fault, to a point it’s not even the directors fault, it’s the politics that gets in the way. Hell think of this, did you know there was once a Lord of the Rings movie being proposed that had the Beatles as the main characters? I bet that’s something got you thinking.

This is not the definitive “how Hollywood works” book, but it does give an insight into why your favourite films don’t often come out like you expect. Planet of the Apes for example may be a complete mess but it’s arguable that without it we’d not have had Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it paved a lot of the way to getting that film made, yes I’m saying thank Burton’s mess for giving us the better film, it was born out of the hell that it took to get Planet onto the screen. If Tales From Development Hell manages to do something it will teach you a bit of the politics of making a film while being a very entertaining read with quite a few surprises on the films it uses as examples.

Tales From Development Hell is out now from Titan Books.


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