September 10, 2013 | by Scott Spencer
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.