When Hollywood Comes Calling On British Writers

Reading & Writing

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How dumb of me – there I’ve been keeping mum for months instead of shooting my mouth off like I usually do, carefully avoiding any mention of what occurs in ‘Bryant & May 12: The Burning Man’ and what happens? I forget that the ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) have gone out this week! The cover has already popped up on the internet, and I can confidently predict that any day now some Hollywood suit will pick it up and try to work out a way of turning Bryant & May into sexy young surfers.

So, despite the official launch being two months away, there are copies in reviewers’ hands. This is how Hollywood sometimes comes a-knocking (not in this instance, as I really do think my heroes are too old and English to be Hollywoodised), but I did once have a film made before I saw the story it was based on printed up.

What happened was this. I wrote a tale called ‘The Master Builder’ for a New York editor, she published it, the ARC found its way to Hollywood (despite not having any big colourful pictures in) and they gave me a shedload of dosh to make it into a movie called ‘Through The Eyes Of A Killer’, with Tippi Hedren, Richard Dean Anderson and Marge Helgenberger. I have a copy but I’ve never watched it. Apparently it’s nothing like the story. Still, easy money, I thought. Little did I know it would NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.

Anyway, despite the ARC of ‘The Burning Man’ being out there already, I’m still not telling you anything beyond the fact that the ending reduced my editor to tears. Although I will tell you that I’ve now delivered two standalone thrillers which have nothing to do with the world of Bryant & May. I know it looks as if I’m writing quickly, but I’m really not. It’s just that several projects have gestated (quite slowly as it happens) along different timelines. In fact, I have germs of ideas that won’t see the light as finished books until around 2018, by which time we may all be fighting each other for food and dry land.

Back to Hollywood. Why do they do it? The studios are great at blowing stuff up, sending superheroes into buildings and staging space battles, so why would they want to go anywhere near something as drily amusing as British writing? Last month I was approached by a comics company working with a major studio anxious to tap into new ideas, but since then I’ve struggled to come up with anything that would appeal to a company which suggested I might like to explore two particular areas – fairies and Egyptian mythology.

Don’t Point That Thing At Me

So what on earth attracted Hollywood to the Mortdecai novels? Johnny Depp plays the art thief chasing a stolen Goya, and while it’s unfair to brand him box office poison as some critics have (I found both ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’ terrific), you do wonder at his choice here, inventing the bibulous, scrofulous drunk Mortdecai as an elegant dandy.

Imagine a politically incorrect combination of Bertie Wooster, Falstaff and Raffles, and you get an idea of this author’s fictional hero. He appeared in (almost) four of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s books, and is a wonderful invention. Most of the biographical information about Bonfiglioli – that he was an expert swordsman, a good shot and a teetotaler, for example – is entirely wrong. Luckily, we have his second wife’s biography ‘The Mortdecai ABC’ to thank for the facts.

Before his first book ‘Don’t Point That Thing at Me’ has even started, Bonfiglioli warns, ‘This is not an autobiographical novel. It is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.’ In fact, the first line is; ‘When you burn an old carved and gilt picture frame it makes a muted hissing noise in the grate – a sort of genteel fooh – and the gold leaf tints the flames a wonderful peacock blue-green.’ This is his snobbish, cowardly art thief Charlie Mortdecai speaking before fencing a Goya and attracting the murderous attention of several governments.

Mortdecai is a delicious creation who, accompanied by his thuggish sidekick ‘Jock’ Strapp, outrages the art world dullards of the 1970s as he heads towards come-uppance and a disgraceful cliffhanger of an ending. Mortdecai returned (with no explanation whatsoever for the precipitous season-end interim) in ‘After You With The Pistol’, ‘Something Nasty In The Woodshed’ and three-quarters of ‘The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery’, which was published posthumously, having been finished by the literary mimic Craig Brown, a forgery act Bonfiglioli would surely have adored.

His only other work is the hilarious ‘All The Tea In China’, which features a scurrilous Dutch ancestor of Mortdecai’s. Everyone agrees that Bonfigioli should have become world famous. The sad truth was that although his joyous books would have you believe otherwise, he lived in various states of poverty and alcoholism, and died of cirrhosis.

However, his wife told me that a friend of Kyril’s said her husband had taught him knife throwing, fencing and how to fry peas in Worcestershire sauce, so there’s a real basis in the tall tales. She also pointed out that he could shoot a sixpence from the bravely held-out thumb and forefinger of a visiting French art dealer, standing at the far end of a large room.

Bonfigioli’s novels aren’t ordinary enough to be simple crime capers; they’re scabrous, witty, packed with demanding intelligent jokes, rude in the very best sense. He never found the right fans in his lifetime, but has become a true cult hero. So what happens? Hollywood makes the first book into a caper, and gets it spectacularly wrong. Only Depp comes out with any credit, but this is not how I ever imagined Bonfiglioli’s hero.

Not that I’m much of a judge of public taste. I was the one person who thought that although ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ had some funny sequences, it was at heart every bit as nasty and shallow as the director’s previous ‘Kick-Ass’. It, too, was based on a graphic novel.

3 comments on “When Hollywood Comes Calling On British Writers”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    Don’t worry admin, you’re not alone thinking the Mortdecai adaptation completely missed the point, based on what I’ve read elsewhere.
    Same thing for ‘Kingsman’ -Vaughn’s efforts sadly reflect those of the writer from the original graphic novels (Mark Millar) who, despite some occasional nuggets of true inspiration lately (Starlight, Superior, Jupiter’s Legacy), has also devolved into more & more dumb, shock-value for the sake of it and falsely “controversial” & “satiric” stories -with pandering openings and lazy endings, and huge unsavory clichés… Sadly, Hollywood loves the way Millar pitches these things so they gobble them up even before the whole story is published, he clearly writes while eyeing the big screen all along. Sorry about the rant, he’s probably not a bad cookie himself but the movie business seems to be interested in only his worst works, so of course we get more.
    Also, looking forward to the new B&M, cheers-!

  2. Agatha Hamilton says:

    My heart sank when I first saw ‘Mortdecai’ advertised on the side of a bus, with a dandified picture of Johnny Depp who is absolutely no-one’s idea of the character – and then Paul Bettany as Jock! What were they thinking of? One review I read said ‘I confidently predict this is the worst film of 2015’ and another said ‘Mortdecai? Mort de Cinema more like.’ It really is very annoying that they have taken these excellent books and cocked them up completely. Beyond annoying, actually. Vandalism.
    I feel that your editor being reduced to tears over the latest Bryant and May bodes ill. Oh dear, who have you killed off?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    That should be “Who have you killed off _now_?” First Liberty and do we now lose Fraternity? Do we lose our favourite cat? The two Daves? Oh, help!

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