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Spoiler Alert

September 10, 2013 | by

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Here’s what happens when Hollywood makes a really bad movie out of your novel. You cringe, you pretend you don’t care, you laugh when they play the bad movie’s theme song at weddings you attend, and you wait for the whole thing to pass. And when it finally has, when your book has at last outlived the bad memories and associations of the first movie and it is making its leisurely literary way out in the world, without any connection to the bad movie, someone decides to make an even worse movie out of it.

I wrote Endless Love between the years 1975 and 1979, beginning it as my first marriage unraveled. In that stretch of time, I lived on unemployment, house-sitting for semifamous people in their isolated country houses in New England towns too small to have things like post offices. When my unemployment ran out I moved back to New York and worked for a small publishing company owned by a drug addict. I married again and I became a father and I sold my book for what was a small sum in those days and for what today wouldn’t buy two courtside tickets to a Knicks game. The marriage was good, the baby was great, and the book succeeded to the point where I had to take to my bed with a mysterious crippling illness. Eventually, it was diagnosed as sciatica, which couldn’t even begin to disguise itself as anything other than a nervous system overload.

The baby and I vied for my wife’s attention, both of us learning to crawl around the same time. By the time the movie deal was becoming a reality, I was more or less back on my feet, but keeping a wary distance from my own success and the people who had their fingers in it.

Franco Zeffirelli will probably be most enduringly known as a talented, maximalist director of opera, both on stage and on film, but what drew the studio to him was he had directed a version of Romeo and Juliet that was successful, and the thinking seemed to go like this: He’s already done one movie about two young people in love and made it a hit, and he even did it in iambic pentameter, so what more logical choice could there be?

I was invited to dinner in the Fifth Avenue penthouse Franco was using as his East Coast base of operations and as I listened to him denounce the New York Times as a communist newspaper, twinges of the old sciatica rippled through me like distant lightning. 

I visited the set a couple of times, conversing with Brooke Shields, who was polite and preoccupied. (She came out of her protective shells for a moment, showing proper teenage pique when her mother, after looking at her appraisingly, said, “Brooke, your face is getting boxy.”) Months later, the Shieldses were there for the New York premiere, as was I, watching glumly along with my wife, Elizabeth Taylor, and Diana Ross, as the film went on for what felt like an eternity. I was frankly surprised that something so tepid and conventional could have been fashioned from my slightly unhinged novel about the glorious destructive violence of erotic obsession, but I’d been warned. Riding to the premiere with Zeffirelli, he reached across the expanse of his hired car and, patting my knee, said, “Scott, this movie is going to be like a knife in your heart.” 

He was already on his way back to Positano by the time the reviews rolled in.

*

“Anyone unfamiliar with the story of Scott Spencer’s novel is bound to be mystified by Franco Zeffirelli’s latest film, which reduces Endless Love to a whimperingly latter-day Romeo and Juliet with a little pyromania thrown in.” —Janet Maslin, in the New York Times

While the movie was being eviscerated (Maslin’s was one of the more temperate reviews) I was often invited to weigh in on my reaction to the film. It seemed like bad manners to take money from people and share meals with them and ride in their limos and then trash their work in the press, so I remained silent. I wasn't, however, naïve. I knew from the moment I signed the contract that I might not care for the end product, but I could not resist the money. A deal is a deal.

Thirty some years later, the deal goes on. I first learned of Universal’s plans for a remake when a reporter from New York magazine called me. In the years since the first movie was made from that novel, many directors and producers have contacted me, all of them committed to somehow erasing Franco’s folly. There was nothing I could do to help or hinder them, since I signed away not only the movie rights in 1980, but the remake rights, as well. From that point on I had no more control over my novel’s movie life than I had over the novels of Philip Roth.

The force spearheading this new version of Endless Love was the producer of a long-running teen soap opera. I was familiar enough with the movie business to know the difference between a development deal and an actual motion picture. The movie business is full of false starts, projects begun and abandoned, fanfares trumpeted in front of doors that never open, stars that implode, directors who fall out of favor, executives who are fired, schedules that conflict, budgets that balloon and then burst.

I know it’s not really the done thing for authors to speak ill of the folks who are turning his or her work into a movie. We love movies, and the reflected glamor of being involved in one is difficult for most people to resist. But since I haven’t met anyone involved in the making of this new Endless Love I haven’t been charmed by any of them. Plus this: I have read the script.

It’s about one hundred pages, and the only ones that were not dreary were sciatica inducing; Chicago is now somewhere in Georgia; my Jewish lovesick arsonist protagonist is now a gentile with flying fists; his communist father is now an aw-shucks guy who works on cars, and, like most working class people in movies, is ashamed of his position in life; the communist mother has vanished—you can’t even hear the empty hangers chiming in her vacated closet. The inaugurating action of the novel—David setting his girlfriend’s house ablaze—is now the climax of the movie, though in the upcoming version David has nothing to do with the fire. However, he does appear to die in it. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t.) 

The studio’s plan is to open the movie in the winter of 2014. On Valentine’s Day.

*

What none of these folks seem to get is that Endless Love was meant to be a knife to the reader’s heart, not the writer’s. As that old elegant Italian filmmaker was giving me fair warning, it turned out the knives were being sharpened for him, and—unfortunately—for several of his principal actors. And now a second generation is blundering into their own Valentine’s Day massacre. As the late Leonard Michaels said, I would have saved them if I could.

Scott Spencer is the author of ten novels, including Endless Love, Waking the Dead, A Ship Made of Paper, and Man in the Woods. His nonfiction has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, O, Harper’s, and the New York Times.

 

35 COMMENTS

25 Comments

  1. Yoghurt | September 10, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Not as bad as Love Story.

  2. Amy Kamp | September 10, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    I liked the book a lot when I read it. I suppose I’m glad I never saw the first movie, but the new movie sounds like it might be so spectacularly bad as to be entertaining. Does it have a happy ending?

  3. Esme Sharp | September 11, 2013 at 3:12 am

    I might be able to sympathise if not for the ‘I could not resist the money’. It must be awful to see something you put that much into turn into glorified hollywood crap, but…at the same time, I would not have let it turn into that for money. You should have made sure that the book went into the right hands if you wanted a movie deal….

  4. Ian D Smith | September 11, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I’d let the film makers get on with it. I think the Harry Potter movies lack the humour and innocence of the novels, and the author controlled them.

  5. Jonathan James | September 11, 2013 at 9:14 am

    The plural of Shields is Shieldses.

  6. Jonathan James | September 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

    And Scott Spencer’s most recent novel is “A Man in the Woods.” Jesus, does anybody check anything anymore?

  7. Christine | September 11, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Actually, Jonathan James, his last novel is “Breed” written under the pseudonym of Chase Novak. It’s the best horror novel about fertility since “Rosemary’s Baby.” It came out in 2012 from Little, Brown.

  8. Jonathan James | September 11, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Even better proof of my point, Christine.

  9. Pat Hartman | September 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I’ve always remembered “Endless Love” as a standout, and I mean from thousands of books read. “Waking the Dead” pretty special too. But “Endless Love” made a deep and lasting impression.
    Never saw the movie & have no plans to see it or its successor. In my mind, your pedestal is untarnished.

  10. Dersu DeLarge | September 12, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Regarding Zeffirelli’s movie, do you know what happened? On the car ride to the premier, it sounds like he knew perfectly well how bad the movie was. Did he lose creative control? Was he simply unable to make it work? I unfortunately haven’t experienced much of his work, but I thought Zeffirelli was well regarded in the ’60s and ’70s.

  11. rubiene cartier | September 25, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    I loved the movie. I was in grade 6 when I saw it on beta max. I still have the read the half of the novel. But I guessed the great Franco Z. whom I admire because of his movies. I am sure he had a different take on how to show the deepest emotions of the two characters in the movie. He is a European Director and by far the movie is a huge hit to Asian countries and European nations to this day. :)

  12. Tammy | October 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I liked the movie, but I was the same age as brooke when it came out, so my taste has improved quite a bit. Also, I never read the book. I would love to though. I was in a very clandestine romance at the time, too, at age 15. This movie brings back so many memories for me.

  13. christina chicago | October 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Scott, it was a knife to my heart.
    i read it while living in hyde prk and going to the U of C. It had just been published an I have no idea how I discovered it.
    I could not fathom how key scenes could be rendered in film, especially by someone so “mushy” as Zefferelli.
    Even if you endorsed this one, I would have taken a pass.

  14. Don | October 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Endless Love doesn’t belong on the screen. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s about WORDS — a beautiful narrative.
    The only way this could be successful on the screen would be with a thorough voiceover narration, and it would be 25 hours long. Something like Brideshead Revisited, only longer!

  15. Suzannw | November 11, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I read “Endless Love” at age fifteen and it was, by all accounts a game changer. I’m in my forties now and still consider the novel to stand out in a field of novels that charted a course to my own writing life. No movie could ever come close to giving voice to that incredible, amazingly executed, earth quaking experience of the lives of those characters. It was at once highly charged and masterfully constructed and at it’s core, unflinching and beautiful.

  16. CB Kurtz | December 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Saw the trailer for the new remake at the theater yesterday and just about came unglued. Endless Love remains one of the most memorable novels I’ve read and one of my favorite. I hated how the timeline from the novel was made linear in the first film, and I hate what it appears they’re doing to this one. We had no idea it was a remake of Endless Love until they flashed the title at the end of the trailer.

    Glad you weighed in on this Scott.

  17. Saira | January 2, 2014 at 6:06 am

    I actually just re-read the end of Endless Love today, Scott, a signed first edition no less, what a book for those that love knives to the heart. I actually liked Franco’s version tho the knife certainly is missing… pales in comparison to the book… this new version sounds like a knife into my readers heart, as a huge fan of the book..

  18. Dan Movie Man | January 8, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    According to Zeffirelli’s autobiography, the rough cut was close to three hours; the studios hacked away at it perhaps slicing away at elements closer to Spencer. Doubtful that a “directors cut” will ever emerge. Did anyone forget this movie was Tom Cruise’s film debut?

  19. Suzanne | January 20, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    I read Endless Love in my early twenties, and I remember being completely blown away by the writing. I can still remember sitting up all night in my college apartment to finish reading it and collapsing in tears of exhaustion when I finished the last sentence, it was such an engrossing and hypnotic reading experience, and one that doesn’t come around nearly often enough. It was very interesting hearing Scott’s side of the story and I appreciate his honesty that he gave his material over to hacks knowingly because the money was good. It’s a shame this ill advised remake got the green light, with the stench of the first movie having worn off through the years, it didn’t deserve a second hatchet job, esp. one as stupid and off base from the source material as this one looks in the previews.

  20. joblo | January 21, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    I remember one particular passage in the book that didn’t make the first movie (I don’t think: can’t remember if I ever saw the movie) that, judging from the trailer, won’t be in this one either. A bloody shame, that. Bet they’re going for a PG-13 rating anyway(s).

  21. LMA | February 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    When I saw this movie was coming out again with a PG-13 rating, I had to track down the production notes, because I couldn’t fathom what they’d done to it to get it to that point.

    I read EL when I was fourteen. I’m much older than that now, and there are passages of that book that have stuck with me, and parts that still disturb me. This looks like Twilight set in Georgia without sparkly vampires. If teens rush to buy the novel once they’ve seen the film, they’re in for quite a shock!

  22. Colleen Devlin | February 12, 2014 at 2:49 am

    So disappointed the new movie promises to be even worse than the first. It’s a truly glorious novel, or, as Spencer says, “a slightly unhinged novel about the glorious destructive violence of erotic obsession,” which folks who only see the movies will never experience. I was excited when I saw a headline tonight that there was to be a remake, then I watched the trailer, and, much like another reader here, nearly came unglued. When will somebody finally do this book justice? Such a shame.

  23. Jenny | February 17, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    @Esme Sharp – oh yes, how wonderfully easy it is to make retrospective decisions with hindsight, when the money and life are not yours… ;p

  24. Bob | March 19, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Someone here writes, “You should have made sure that the book went into the right hands if you wanted a movie deal.” This assumes that, when Hollywood is involved, the writer controls the book’s fate. Not so.

  25. Kayla | August 23, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Mr. Spencer, I am excited to see that I can leave a comment on something you wrote, as I have wanted to express to you how dear to me Endless Love is for years. I am (forgive the cliche) a voracious reader – to me, a good book beats a movie any day – and there are a handful of novels, perhaps a dozen or so, that are dear to my heart, old friends I revisit every few years. In my circle of friends, as it were, Endless Love pals around with Salinger’s Nine Stories, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird; these are books that get packed for moving in a box labeled “MOST IMPORTANT BOOKS”, books that have made me think and feel to a degree that I refuse to part with their worn-out pages. Of these, none have make me feel so deeply as Endless Love; just as Suzanne commented here a few months ago, I also collapsed in tears of exhaustion upon finishing it, and when people ask me about my favorite book or if I can recommend a good fiction, it is my automatic, unthinking answer. No movie can ever tarnish that. It’s been years since I first read it, but I still come back to it, sometimes to re-read the whole thing, sometimes to just revisit particular parts. In fact, I just recently was going through my box of Most Important Books and found it there waiting for me and am undertaking the journey once again. :) Thanks and take care.

10 Pingbacks

  1. [...] “Spoiler Alert” — In a fascinatingly personal piece, author Scott Spencer describes what happens when Hollywood adapts your novel into a bad movie (and then plans to remake it). [...]

  2. [...] “Spoiler Alert” — In a fascinatingly personal piece, author Scott Spencer describes what happens when Hollywood adapts your novel into a bad movie (and then plans to remake it). [...]

  3. [...] Spoiler Alert – What happens when a good book gets turned into a bad movie? Endless Love author Scott Spencer shares his experiences. [...]

  4. […] The 1981 romantic drama starred Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in an obsessive teenage love affair, based on the 1979 novel by Scott Spencer who, to put it mildly, wasn’t a fan of the original movie.  […]

  5. […] The 1981 romantic drama starred Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in an obsessive teenage love affair, based on the 1979 novel by Scott Spencer who, to put it mildly, wasn’t a fan of the original movie. […]

  6. […] The 1981 romantic drama starred Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in an obsessive teenage love affair, based on the 1979 novel by Scott Spencer who, to put it mildly, wasn’t a fan of the original movie. […]

  7. […] You wrote a post back in September for the Paris Review’s website about the “Endless Love” remake, in which you implied that the people had just started to separate the book from the first movie. […]

  8. […] the same name. However, in an interesting and rather unusual (do author’s usually do this?) article for the Paris Review, Spencer voices his feelings about both movie adaptations. Personally, as I have neither read the […]

  9. […] Scott Spencer penned an essay at The Paris Review regarding this travesty that’s been visited and re-visited on him and his work, and he’s more gracious than I could ever be. I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and the novel for that matter, but here are the two grafs that cut to the quick: […]

  10. […] capable hands, the reader is taken someplace dark and weird, but never sentimental. As Spencer discovered when he read the recent film’s script, it’s been purged of its danger and politics (the […]

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