Oh, dear Russell, what have you done?
A lot of people have described my first two books, Caligula and Claudius, as cinematic, which hopefully is a compliment, and I keep being asked, jokingly or otherwise, if I have a film deal yet. The answer, if you're interested, is no, although one film company did have a little nibble at Caligula right at the start.
So it was fascinating to read the other week about Victoria Hislop turning down £300,000 from a Hollywood studio for the film rights to her book The Island. Her decision to decline was a matter of principle. She believed that a big studio would take liberties with the book and turn it into something she never intended it to be, instead selling the rights, no doubt for considerably less money, to a Greek TV company who plan to turn it into a mini-series. A very laudable decision that says much about her principles, and just as much about her circumstances.
But back to Russell, fine actor that he is. I went along to see Robin Hood at our local cinema on Sunday, full of anticipation based on the reviews I'd read and the fact that no-one could go wrong with the Hood legend. What I found is that no matter how much money you pour into a film, how much star power you have or how good the director, in this case Ridley Scott who made the fabulous Gladiator along with Crowe, if you don't have a proper narrative your film is destined to be a turkey. Sure, make it gritty and hard and brutal (think the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan). Russell Crowe doesn't do men in tights. Fine. But why completely ignore a brilliant, iconic tale of good against evil and replace it with a story that says nothing except: We're planning a sequel to make use of all this armour and leather gear.
Russell's Robin Hood - and I have no objection to his accent if he'd only make up his mind which one of the four or five to use - isn't sure whether it is trying to be Maximus Hood or Kevin Costner without the coiffure. The problems start, as they do, at the beginning. He's an archer, among the lowest of the low of Richard the Lionheart's crusading (looting) army. Ten minutes later he's landed gentry and handing over dead King Richard's crown to the Queen like he's to the manor born; give him half an hour and he's leading a whole army. Full of action? Yes. Believable? No. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief when you go to the pictures, but there were moments when I laughed out loud and I'm sure I wasn't supposed to. In Costner's Robin Hood, the supporting cast, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman et al, were interesting. In this film, they're cyphers. You know who Will Scarlet is because he's got red hair. Little John is Little John, because he's not er' little. Alan a'Dale plays a mean lute but he doesn't do anything else.
Ah, I hear you say, but surely the winsome Cate Blanchett must save the day? Well she does, in a manner of speaking, at the end (that was the bit where I put my head in my hands) but the screen chemistry between the two leads is about as interesting as a Primary Two litmus test. Throw in an unlikely storyline about Rob's dad writing the original Magna Carta, a Prince John who's about as camp as a two-man tent and the longest 'Nnnnnnnnoooooooohhhhhhh!' in mainstream movie history and you have a film that's lost in the wilderness and not coming out for a long, long time.
If you don't want to know what happens at the end, please stop reading here.
Poor Cate, you could almost feel her cringing when, at the start of the final climactic battle scene (see Saving Private Ryan above), some idiot decided it would be a good idea to have her ride into the battle line in full armour, leading the bunch of ten-year-olds who'd up until this point only ever haunted Sherwood Forest like little pointless ghosts. Now they slaughter fully kitted up French men-at-arms with the aid of their little, but lethal, pen knives. Please God, let it finish here. But I doubt it will. Robin will be back for Hood Two, hopefully with better scriptwriters.
So there's undoubtedly danger in selling your book to some mega-bucks, megalomaniac Hollywood producer (I know Robin Hood is a legend, not a book, but I'm trying to make a point) and they turn out Caligula: the Musical with Darius as the lead, or Claudius meets Godzilla. Does that mean I will follow Victoria Hislop's lead and put artistic integrity above profit? Well, I'll probably take about ten seconds to think about it, but I fear that when the phone call comes I will reluctantly park my principles in a safe place until such time as I can actually afford to have them.