Book Review: ‘Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?’

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CHICAGO – There’s some incredible alternate universe in which Darren Aronofsky directed “Batman: Year One,” John Boorman made “The Lord of the Rings” (with The Beatles!!!), James Cameron filmed “Fantastic Voyage,” and Frank Darabont wrote the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie. How these films, and many others, fell apart before they could even make it to the big screen is chronicled in David Hughes’ excellent “‘Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?,” a wonderfully entertaining read with a perfect mix of trivia, movie history, and cautionary tales. Hughes’ skill as a researcher is more notable than his skill as a writer, but the book is still a must-read for serious movie buffs who like to wonder “what if”.

Casual film fans may be surprised to know that it’s incredibly common for a script to fall apart before it even gets to the first day of shooting. What happens most often is that someone, usually a producer, likes a script and starts the long pre-production process to get it made. Then other producers, a director, and actors get involved and it’s not unlike someone starting a recipe and then being forced to have someone else finish it. There’s as good a chance that it’s going to turn out inedible as there is that it’s going to resemble what its originator intended in the first place. The constant rewriting, tinkering, firing, hiring, etc. that happens in pre-production to the point that it can derail a film entirely is known as Development Hell and both the most well-known writers in the world and those you have never heard of have taken a trip to the Hades of Hollywood at one point or another.

After the success of his excellent “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made,” Hughes set out to chronicle some of the more notable tales of Hollywood nightmares in his follow-up to 2004’s “Tales From Development Hell,” which has been updated and expanded with up-to-date information. For example, the chapter about how the best of intentions resulted in a stinker like Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” now includes information about how the franchise has been saved with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the amazing chapter on both the original “Total Recall” and aborted attempts at a sequel has been updated with information about how the film is currently being remade with Colin Farrell. So don’t worry about these stories being tales of old Hollywood. In many ways, they are as current as what you’d read online today.

Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Stories Never Made
Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Stories Never Made
Photo credit: Titan Books

And don’t worry about the stories getting repetitive. There’s a startling variety of ways to descend into Development Hell. In the first chapter, you’ll learn about one of the most interesting projects in the book, an adventure film called “Smoke and Mirrors” that, by all accounts, really should have happened. It’s understandable how larger-than-life personalities like Frank Miller, Arnold Schwarzenneger or George Lucas might derail a project before it starts shooting but this one kind of just kept being re-written until it just fell apart over time. It’s almost as if you tinker with something for too long that it starts to become unrecognizable. I wish “Smoke and Mirrors” had gotten made. Maybe it still will.

By the same token, there are a number of film histories that Hughes details for projects that we should all be grateful completely fell apart. As much as you hated “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,” there were some FAR worse ideas before the one that made it to the screen. The entire process behind “Total Recall” and the attempt to make a sequel (even considering turning “Minority Report” into “Total Recall 2: Minority Report”) was a disaster in waiting. It’s a miracle that Verhoeven’s film turned out as well as it did (although I would kill to see David Cronenberg’s aborted version).

Hughes interviewed many of the major players (probably often opening with “So…what happened?”) and got some incredible insight into not just the specifics but the Hollywood process overall. He has STUFFED his book with details almost to the point of exhaustion. For example, the time between “Last Crusade” and “Crystal Skull” featured so many rumors, false starts, fan fictions, etc. that nearly every paragraph in that chapter tells of a different “greatest film never made”. Chapters like that can be a bit exhausting and I vastly preferred ones that focused on a specific script (like Smoke and Mirrors) instead of ones that never really got off the ground in the first place (or, in the case of a lot of the Indy scripts, never even existed). It also doesn’t help that Hughes’ writing can be a bit clunky at times. He’s incredibly informative but doesn’t always segue well from interview to anecdote to recorded fact.

It’s a minor complaint. I wish some of “Tales From Development Hell” flowed more smoothly but this wonderful book is so dense with information and incredible trivia that I was too entertained to care. I love books like Hughes’, ones which allow the reader to look at known movie history in a new light. Not only can one imagine what might have been but go back to their catalog and appreciate what is and wonder how Aronofsky & Miller’s film would have derailed “Batman Begins” or what Tolkien’s legacy would be if Paul McCartney played Frodo. Read David Hughes’ excellent book and then go watch “The Dark Knight” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and realize that Hell ain’t always a bad place.

“Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?” by David Hughes was released on February 28th, 2012 by Titan Books. content director Brian Tallerico

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