‘Tales From Development Hell’ Book Review

Author: David Hughes (Note to our Australian readers – not THAT Dave Hughes!)

Publisher: Titan Books

‘Development Hell’ is a term used in film circles to describe a movie that has gotten bogged down in complicated pre-production. This can happen as a result of changing social interests, studio politics and trying to make all the big names involved happy. It’s a damning indictment on the Hollywood system the number of brilliant products that get consigned to Development Hell never to see the big screen and how often it’s the result of petty conflicts or someone with a minute ounce of power trying to put their own stamp on a film. Author David Hughes is all to familiar with how heartbreaking seeing the results of a screenwriter’s labor being stripped down, torn apart and re-assembled as slush by indifferent business men because they want it tailored to appease Arnie or some other A-Lister because every single script Hughes has personally written has been through the process.

In this volume Hughes goes behind the scenes of thirteen films that were put through a ridiculous development process. Some films did eventually reach an audience with varied results, such as Batman Begins and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull whilst others are still in development hell. Each of the tales focuses on a movie whose concept was a fantastic idea but eventually resembled something radically different. One thing they all have in common is the strange insistence of studio executives to demand endless re-writes regardless of how good a script is, sometimes employing multiple writers to rework the product. Although the evidence that this does very little to improve a film it’s something that the studios still insist on doing. With some examples from the book, such as Lord of the Rings and Batman Begins proving that a single voice is stronger than a committee, this automatic response is baffling.

Yes, this almost happened.

Although some of these tales are already industry legend – such as Darren Aronofsky’s version of Batman starring Clint Eastwood or the Beatles playing Hobbits – Hughes has done his homework and separated the myth from the fact to give the definitive version of behind-the-scenes mess which accompanied each film. Many screenwriters have been interviewed to tell their stories as to how they approached the films and the reasons why it never went any further. It’s surprising how often a writer would be told by producers, directors and other writers that the work is great only for an actor to dismiss it and order a rewrite, or have all the lines and characters rewritten to suit a particular person.

The stories are interesting and it’s easy to feel the frustration of the people trying to make their films happen. At times the re-iterations of rewrites and changes to the scripts can start to feel repetitive but this only serves to to highlight the ludicrous attitude of the business. Hughes states early in the piece that he doesn’t offer any personal opinion on the material and the versions of the scripts, and this leaves portions of the book feeling quite dry. Some of the more moronic ideas (such as the many alternative versions of Indiana Jones IV – even compared to the final product) do speak for themselves, but a bit of commentary from an experienced script writer wouldn’t have gone amiss.

As hard as it is to imagine something worse than this...

Ultimately this work of non-fiction holds easy appeal for movie buffs. It’s full of great trivia and anecdotes about the biz, with plenty of potential alternatives to the films that we’ve grown to love or hate. As much as fans would want to see a live adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, finding out how poorly the property has been treated at the hands of the studios makes you hope the scripts stay buried. On the flip side of the coin, after the ‘meh’ response to Outbreak you’d wish that we’d gotten Ridley Scott’s Crisis in the Hot Zone or the authors own Airborne (directed by Paul Greengrass) instead.

If you want to read about the stories behind the stories it’s well worth picking up.