Soon To Be A Major Novel

Reversing the path from books to movies

Warren Adler thought "Private Lies," his latest novel about clashing couples, would make a great movie. So he took the manuscript to Hollywood even before showing it to a publisher. Last year Tri-Star Pictures bought film rights to the book by the author of "The War of the Roses" for $1.2 million. That transaction helped persuade William Morrow to publish "Private Lies." Eager for it to become a best seller, Tri-Star even anted up $200,000 for promotion.

The traditional path from books to movies is starting to run backward. Typically, a publisher brings out a book, then Hollywood decides if it's movie material. Now studios are buying more book manuscripts directly. The deals, usually brokered by aggressive agents, can solve problems for everyone. For movie studios, it's cheaper to buy a book before it becomes a best seller. And for some financially hard-pressed publishers, "a film sale is an endorsement of a book's commercial potential," as William Morrow publicist Susan Halligan puts it.

Take "The Firm," a novel by a little known writer named John Grisham. The book, about an attorney who discovers his law firm is linked to the mob, was turned down by four publishers when it first circulated in New York. Then a Hollywood scout heard about it, and Paramount Pictures made an initial payment of $350,000 for the rights. Suddenly, Grisham's book was hot. Doubleday bought it for $200,000, and it is now climbing the best-seller list.

After a binge of paying huge amounts for original screenplays (a script by Joe Eszterhas sold for $3 million last year) producers are finding they get more for less in a book. "Books have a mystique," says Hollywood agent Todd Harris of Triad Artists Inc., who engineered the deal for "Private Lies." And if a book becomes a best seller, that can only build a bigger audience for the movie.

Moviemakers can also be more receptive than publishers to quirky ideas. New York literary agent Liz Darhansoff followed the Hollywood-first strategy with a novel called "Wilderness" by Dennis Danvers, a love story about a female werewolf. "It would have seared New York because it was nontraditional and difficult to categorize," says Darhansoff. MGM-Pathe paid $100,000 for the book, which helped persuade Poseidon Press to publish it. Links between top studios and powerful New York publishers have accelerated the trend. Producer Sherry Lansing brought "The First Wives Club," a novel about three discarded wives who seek revenge on their former husbands, to Paramount Pictures for $250,000. A clause in the contract gave Simon & Schuster first rights to the book. No surprise: Simon & Schuster is a division of Paramount Communications.

Once the Hollywood connection is established, it can eliminate the need for book advances entirely. So entranced was producer James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News") with Beverly Donofrio's memoir, "Riding in Cars with Boys, " that he bought the rights to her next book for a six-figure sum before Donofrio even decided what it would be about. Though she's started the novel, Donofrio hasn't yet approached a publisher. "I don't need the money," she says. "It's a real tough fiction market. Hollywood has a lot more money to spend." For some struggling writers, that money may offer hope for a happy ending.