Sunday 15 April 2018

False Dawns and Development Hell - the fate of 'non-movies'

It is the fate of perhaps the majority of books which are 'optioned' to be made into films of TV series never to reach the small or silver screen. While there are some lucky writers, like Ian Fleming, whose entire canon pretty much has been adapted in some, even for established spy and thriller writers like Len Deighton - whose books memorably delivered the 'Harry Palmer' trilogy of movies - getting optioned is no guarantee of seeing a film or TV series being produced.

There are, in the Deighton canon - as is the case with other writers too - many stories which had hopes of being made into films or TV series, but have instead languished as 'non films', ethereal 'might have beens' which are destined to roam the corridors of Hollywood or Soho as film spirits, seeking a corporeal existence.

I was prompted to think about these might-have-been films after some Twitter communications with a Dossier reader George White of Ireland, who got in touch asking if I knew anything about the filmed version of SS-GB made in the 1970s in Canada?

What might the Canadians have done with this?

I admitted I didn't, but it piqued my curiosity. Especially so as the novel SS-GB had - finally - made it to the BBC as a mini-series in the spring of 2017. The seventies version was, George informed me, evidently a Canadian tax dodging exercise in Canada by the film mogul Harry Alan Towers.

This producer, who had a varied career in the UK with the BBC and then internationally, frequently churning out what might be called product targeted at the lower quality end of the market, or producing films linked to Liechtenstein-based companies - tax write-offs, in other words - has a couple of interesting Deighton connections.

In 1995, he was responsible largely for persuading Michael Caine to return as spy anti-hero Harry Palmer in two straight-to-DVD movies, the (infamous) sequels to the sixties classics: Bullet to Beijing, directed by George Mihalka, and Midnight in St Petersburg, directed by Douglas Jackson, both filmed in a Russia adjusting to the post-Gorbachev economic realities of gangster capitalism.

So we have Towers to thank - if that's the word - for these two movies reaching the screen and reminding viewers, in a perverse way, of just how good the original Harry Palmer movies were. That Deighton had very little say in the matter is a reflection on Towers' approach to quality film-making and, more importantly, deal making!

As Len Deighton told the Deighton Dossier in November 2011:
"When I was asked to give the OK for the Harry Palmer character to be used on these original screenplays my feelings were negative. I said, ‘If you can persuade Michael to play the lead I will let you have the necessary screen rights.’ I was quite confident that I would hear no more about it. But I did. They were not stories I had written. In fact I was not involved in any way other than my agreement to the character rights. When I eventually saw the films I thought they were both well above average. Michael was inspired as always and the locations were great."
Len here may be being overly generous as while fun curios, they're not a patch on the originals.

So, I knew of Towers' involvement in these two films - and his connection to Linsday Shonteff, maverick director of the equally questionable adaptation of Deighton's Spy Story; Shonteff directoed Towers' sixties exotic drama Sumuru (no, I've never heard of it either!) - but not of his SS-GB attempt.

Anyway, checking the BFI film register online, it turns out that indeed Harry Alan Towers did get some way with filming SS-GB. It was to have starred James Mason (presumably as Douglas Archer?), Rod Steiger, Ralph Richardson and Kate Nelligan andbeen directed by Peter Carter. It sounds like a potential quality film - judging by the line-up of actors - but, like many films, never reached the cinema or the TV screen, ending up as an 'unfinished project' which, like so many, never got off the ground. Towers died in 2009.

There are other Deighton books that have similarly sat frustratedly on the movie tarmac, waiting to get off the ground and fly. Stuck, in other words, in 'development hell' where movie options are ten-a-penny and successfully completed projects are as rare as hen's teeth.

Bomber, for example, is one of Deighton's greatest works - one of the 99 novels of the 20th Century according to Anthony Burgess - but has never made it to the silver screen. In the early nineties, there were plans to bring it to cinemas but the production was switched by producer Michael Caton-Jones to the US and became instead Memphis Belle (the story is no dissimilar), primarily on account that there were more sky-worthy US Flying Fortresses at the time for filming than Lancasters, which feature heavily in Deighton's novel.

Destined to be stuck on the runway?

As I reported back in 2010 on this blog, it was 'in development' by a London-based financier called Bob Wigley. Eight years on, the legal option for this movie clearly still weighs down Wigley's bookshelf (and he has never responded to email enquiries about the status of the film). And while the option is still owned by him, it's not open to others to try and make what could be one of the great British wartime movie stories. 

Options are simply that: an opportunity to make a film agreed with the author, which can remain valid for many years before lapsing. It proffers no obligation on the rights owner to make a film. An option is simply a potential film, an idea which requires financing, timing, and the right cinema market to be made.

So even those SS-GB got through the options stage in the 'seventies, it never made it through production, which could have been due to a number of factors - the state of the market; changing consumer tastes; lack of available financing; lack of distribution options. Bomber, by all accounts, is balked by similar considerations.

The great second 'Harry Palmer' novel, Horse Under Water, has I've been reliably informed also been held under option for a number of years, with the intention of eventually filming an 'updated' version of the story that will likely depart from the Caine-influenced Palmer tradition. But again, in terms of actual work on the film or any financing efforts, I've heard nothing since. Another 'non-film' that makes the viewer wonder just what might have been, or could still be. Another book which has been optioned at some point, I understand, is Goodbye Mickey Mouse. But that's all it really is, a rumour, an idea.

The most egregious example of 'development hell' - where development is a euphemism for doing nothing - is the Game, Set and Match ennealogy, whose rights were purchased by Clerkenwell Films. As I reported five years ago on this blog, the company made a big song and dance at the time of bringing in Oscar-winning producer/director Simon Beaufoy on board and talking of 'big names' in the frame.

Will this ever get re-made?

Five years on, the tumbleweed continues to drift aimlessly across this particular development desert. Indeed, the original announcement can no longer be found on their website, which gives a hint perhaps as to where it is in the company's priorities. Is this book destined to be another 'ghost' mini-series, never to see the light of day?

If it is, then Clerkenwell are missing the boat. In these days of Amazon Prime and Netflix when box-set mini-series are produced with production line frequency and are gorged on by viewers, and at a time when with the success of films like Homeland the public's appetite for spy thrillers with complicated tapestries and convoluted story arcs remains unsatiated, Game, Set and Match - all nine stories, mind, not just the first three filmed by Granada TV in 1988 but never re-broadcast - offers a potentially thrilling and deeply satisfying mini-series.

But it can't do that while the options remain sitting in Clerkenwell Film's to-do pile. Come on, Clerkenwell Films, and do us all a favour - if you're not going to make Game, Set and Match, give someone else a go. Let's not have another film end up as just another missed opportunity.


  1. I remember reading once that Harry Saltzman was considering making Horse Under Water in the 60s with Nigel Davenport taking on the role of Harry Palmer. But, in the end, Saltzman decided to cut his losses with the franchise after Billion Dollar Brain.

  2. What a pity there's no progress with Bomber. The story of the RAF crews needs to be told and a production which retained Len Deighton's technique of covering the guys in the nightfighters, the nightfighter control room as well as in the Lancasters could tell the story in an especially effective way.

    best wishes Terry Kidd

    One might have thought that the era of world war 2 war movies was past though but with Dunkirk and the Churchill movie there does seem to be a window open. I hope something can be done about filming Bomber before that window closes.

  3. Ian Fleming produced a highly marketable character called James Bond who is still going strong decades later with the Bond 25 film to be directed by Danny Boyle. Jason Bourne for a time tried, it appeared, to challenge James Bond in terms of the strong franchise, but then this franchise has run its course.
    Unique character or strong story lines emerging from novels alone is no guarantee for success in the financial sense when cast into films. The 2 Jack Reacher films come to mind. Even with actor like Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher, these 2 films were flops; with the result, there is tremendous hesitation from film producers to pick other Jack Reacher thrillers by Lee Child. Film production is a very expensive business, and one can understand why there is such hesitation in turning some dated thrillers into films. That is the reality.

  4. I see every day groups of tourists taking pictures of Churchill's statue in the Parliament Square, and every day, there is a long queue to see Churchill's war rooms.There is incessant interest in Churchill as a great war time leader. The success of the recent film on the great man is a testament to this unique appreciation of him all around the world. In regards to Dunkirk it was not merely a WWII event; it quantified something unique beyond that event.
    We cannot simply extrapolate that there is interest in seeing film versions of all things related to WWII, as for example seeing Deighton's "Bomber" in its film version. I feel that this was an excellent narrative in an important area in Britain WWII history and will remain as a narrative.
    I am not sure about the form of film rights given to Clerkenwell Films in regards to Game Set and Match stories, and what freedom the producers have in respect of their film version. Film production being a very expensive business, producers are understandably anxious of recovery of costs.
    Finally, we may have to accept that some stories which appear in the printed version are best left as they are, as they give more enjoyment to a reader in that form.