The Descent Of Man

THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW HOLLYwood sent publishing back to the Stone Age. In 1994, literary agent Pine gushed to someone in the movie industry about a couple of chapters of a novel that he'd just received from a writer named Petru Popescu. The book, called "Almost Adam," was an international thriller about a society of hominids who'd secretly been living on an African savanna for 2 million years. "This thing is 'Jurassic Park' meets 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'!" Pine told his friend. And then he got 300 phone calls. "Literally," says Pine. "For about eight months, I was massaging it, I was getting everybody salivating." Hours after the film rights to "Almost Adam" officially went on sale, Twentieth Century Fox bought them for $1.5 million. A couple of days later, Pine finally offered the novel to publishers. The rebounding William Morrow, smelling a blockbuster and all hopped up on the hormone known as synergy, paid $1.75 million before lunch.

Then, if you believe Pine, the folks over at Random House behaved in true caveman fashion. They tried to steal Popescu's fire. The publishing house had recently acquired a first novel called "Neanderthal," a Crichtonesque effort also about a race of hominids who'd managed to survive. Random House wasn't initially floored by the book. Publisher Harold Evans says he allowed one of his editors, the late Joe Fox, to spend a paltry $25,000 on the novel (by The New York Times's London bureau chief John Darnton) because Fox knew "how the pace of the plot could be improved, how the gruel could be thickened." Then the lights Hollywood beckoned. Shortly after the "Almost Adam" movie deal went through, "Neanderthal" was put on the block. DreamWorks SKG paid more than $1 million for the film rights. "Neanderthal" hardcovers were printed bearing stickers that trumpeted, "Soon to be a STEVEN SPIElBERG (DREAMWORKS) movie." DreamWorks says it insisted that the stickers be discontinued, because Spielberg may not direct the movie himself. It seems unlikely that he will, since he's directing another prehistoric romp, Crichton's "Jurassic Park" sequel, "The Lost World."

But Hollywood's seal of approval had already turned a dark horse into a potential best seller. "Neanderthal" should bring in $2 million from foreign and paperback publishers. These days, its newspaper ads sit right next to "Almost Adam" ads, practically brandishing a club and demanding, "Who's your caveman gonna be?" Pine can't believe the way "Neanderthal" came out of nowhere: "Suddenly, this brokendown little book was our competition! They chased us all around!" Publisher Evans denies the rivalry: "I don't regard myself in competition with their pygmy."

OK, it's time to pick a winner. The two books ask similar and not entirely riveting questions about the descent of man. Are scientists hunting for fossils or glory? Have we really evolved, or are we still a bunch of blockheaded, warring tribes? And, of course, the biggie: What if the Neanderthals still walked among us? "Almost Adam" is a far better pop thriller, though at nearly 550 pages it's a hundred pages too long. Popescu, a Romanian-born writer and filmmaker, gives us political unrest in Nairobi, some murderously conniving professors and poachers, and a pretty decent love story. Not to mention the central plot about a young scientist who befriends a protohuman boy and nearly makes fire with a tough prehistoric babe named Niawo. Darnton seems more genuinely fascinated by evolution. But, like Crichton, he's weak on character. "Neanderthal" concerns a paleontology professor who's gone native among peaceful Neanderthals in Asia. Two of his proteges (a man and a woman, so they can have sex) are sent after him. Then there's a prehistoric war between the sweet Neanderthals and a nasty, brain-eating breed that lives nearby, not to mention some hokey dialogue (""Look out!' shouted Matt. "Avalanche!'"). The overheated finale, in which Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." is played loudly as a weapon, is perhaps best appreciated as camp.

Some Big Questions are indeed raised by all this, but none of them involves the descent of man. Is the movie industry a dangerous influence on publishing? Should Hollywood stick to making bad movies, instead of helping to get bad books published? Pine fairly gloats about doing an end run around publishing, and selling novels to Hollywood first. "There's a conservatism that's struck the hearts of publishers: they've become faint of heart about buying new books in a big way," he says. "When you get big action on the Coast, it puts the steel in their spine, and wakes them up." One side effect, says Evans, is that writers start pandering to Hollywood's admittedly unliterary standards, that they start trying to write the Great American Novelization. Another, says literary agent Jimmy Vines, is that small books start to disappear: "Publishers are saying, 'I'd rather spend $100,000 on one book than $10,000 on 10.' So you get a lot of authors left sitting behind the typewriter without contracts." Long live the strong. Tough luck for the weak. It's downright Darwinian.