Book Review: Tales from Development Hell
Hollywood insiders know that for every movie that gets made, there is an even greater number sitting on the shelf. These projects live in a world known as Development Hell, just waiting for the right break, whether it’s financial, creative, or legal in nature. If you want to learn exactly why some of these films never see the light of day, but you’re not well-versed in the filmmaking process, fret not, because critic and screenwriter David Hughes gives you the necessary education in his engrossing book Tales from Development Hell.
Hughes provides a crash course for understanding the Hollywood machine in his entertaining introduction, titled “Welcome to Development Hell.” He leads with a brilliant quote from author Douglas Adams, who is known best for his novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams hilariously said, “Trying to make a movie in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” This statement primes you for the messy creative process, which Hughes describes in five easy to understand steps that land a picture in Development Hell.
At the lowest level, Hughes boils creative problems down to the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen. Studio execs, producers, directors, and actors all like to stick their nose in to provide input on the film, leading to numerous rewrites. Not only do these revisions cost serious time and money, but they usually take the concept in a completely different direction from the writer’s original intent. Often the new path, as Hughes alludes, is not a better one.
The following chapters in Tales from Development Hell explore numerous films that never came to fruition like “Smoke and Mirrors,” “Isobar,” and “Crusade.” Hughes doesn’t limit himself to entire movies though; he also examines versions of existing flicks that didn’t make the cut such as John Boorman’s “Lord of the Rings,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Batman: Year One,” and various iterations of “Indiana Jones IV.” In these instances, he makes an effort to retell the story so that you can get a sense of what the movie could have been, although these summaries can be a bit hard to follow at times.
Maintaining the same format as his introduction, Hughes prefaces each chapter with a clever title referencing the film’s plot, as well as a cynical, yet humorous quote from people involved. As a screenwriter himself, Hughes is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of his peers; however it’s hard to accuse him being biased given his meticulous research.
There are extensive interviews from the players involved, commentary from online script reviewers, and references from reputable sources to round out these accounts. At points Hughes is arguably too detail-oriented, as his last name references to numerous producers, writers, and studio execs are slightly confusing when trying to digest the drama associated with a given project.
Probably one of the most surprising elements is how many famous actors and directors have been attached the failed attempts that Hughes chronicles in Tales from Development Hell. While certain films like “Smoke and Mirrors” seem incredibly promising, a depressing realization when you finish the book is that many of these ideas, like some of Hughes’s own screenplays, may live forever in Development Hell, or as he states, in a worse place: Limbo.
If you’re familiar with the moviemaking process you’ll get a kick out of this book, although even if you’re not, Tales from Development Hell will provide you with amusing insight into its horrors. Aspiring screenwriters beware.
Tales from Development Hell is currently available from Titan Books.
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