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Hollywood: my failures in the film business

My failures in the film business go right back to my second novel, Tennis and the Masai. It was serialised on BBC Radio 4 soon after publication, but has never been filmed, despite numerous approaches over the years.

Sir Alec Guinness named Tennis and the Masai as his book of the year in the Sunday Times. He also wrote to tell me how much he had enjoyed it. Trevor Howard got in touch too, ringing to discuss a film version. He contacted the BBC, but nothing ever came of the idea, despite the enthusiasm of two such big stars.

I had high hopes too of The Greatest Day in History. To the disappointment of Christian booksellers in America, who returned the book in droves, it isn’t about the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s about the Armistice of November 1918 and takes its title from a contemporary headline.

Again, I have had numerous approaches over the years. My annus mirabilis was 2008, when it looked as if I was going to sell the same book twice: once as a major motion picture in Hollywood, again as a TV spectacular across Europe.

The Hollywood version was to be fiction. The TV version was to be a documentary. It would have been a pretty showy double if I had managed to pull it off.

I got as far as a telephone call from Cannes. It was the call authors long for. The TV version had been taken to the film festival and the money to make it had been found. ‘Good news!’ they told me down the line. ‘We have the cash. It’s a go!’

What went wrong? The clue lies in the date. The year 2008 saw the banking crisis and a worldwide collapse in confidence. The money evaporated overnight and both projects were shelved indefinitely.

The next approach came from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, if you didn’t know). His film company had a reassuringly spartan office near the BBC in London.

I duly turned up for a meeting. Surrounded by enormous posters of Keira Knightley, I listened happily as I was told that Wright’s production team would take The Greatest Day in History to the BBC. With a brilliant, award-winning director behind the book, I told myself that the BBC could hardly say no.

They did, of course. They told Wright that they were already planning a film about the Armistice and didn’t need him or my book. From past experience of the BBC, I suspect their version will be pretty pedestrian when it comes out.

Other books? Five Days that shocked the World was a success all over the world when it first came out. I may even get some money out of my Rumanian publisher soon. I got the Hollywood call again, accompanied by an actual contract this time, but the terms were so dishonest that I refused to sign it. I never heard anything more.

My biggest disappointment has been Point Lenana. It’s a novella about a Kenya settler’s daughter who falls in love with a German mountaineer in the summer of 1939. Fifty years later, his body is discovered, perfectly preserved, in the ice of Mount Kenya. He is still young and handsome when he is brought down, but she is old and sad, grieving for all the lost years that they could have had together.

I wrote Point Lenana with cinema in mind. The San Francisco Chronicle guessed as much when its reviewer gave the book a big thumbs-up and called it ‘a Hollywood blockbuster in miniature’.

Nobody else noticed, though. Certainly not in Hollywood. Perhaps Amazon or Netflix will come to the rescue one day.


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