When all is said and done, the history of Hollywood will be as much defined by what hasn’t been made as by what has. Time and time again, the road that a number of films take towards on-screen success is littered with aborted versions, actors leaving halfway through filming and unproduced scripts. Tellingly, David Hughes’ Tales From Development Hell opens with a quote from the late, great Douglas Adams: "Trying to make a movie in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into a room and breathing on it." With many of the films that Hughes examines, the steak never even got warm.
Hughes mainly concentrates on unmade projects from the past twenty years. There’s the tale of Smoke and Mirrors, the script of which got the major studios into an intense bidding war and promised to be the next big thing. But then the studios worked their magic and the prospect of the film being made went into a puff of, erm, smoke. Or the epic Crusade, which looked to be an intense tale of the Middle Ages starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven, that was stifled by money and politics. What about the screen version of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which promised to either delight or enrage the comic fandom community? And we’d better not get on to the amount of rumours surrounding Batman or Indiana Jones IV for fear of a massive migraine.
In each story, Hughes has clearly done his research and garnered interviews with many of the key players – especially impressive considering that, in Hollywood, everybody would much rather talk about their successes than their failures. Whilst each story has its own individual set of circumstances, a pattern emerges amongst them all. Scriptwriters deliver but then find a star/producer/director comes on board, who want the part tailored to themselves. Or, studio heads greenlight a project only to find themselves replaced. The replacement then pulls the plug. It’s also now a given that, when a project is announced or eagerly anticipated, there will be a litany of fake scripts and dissenting voices around the internet within hours.
In all the stories, there’s an exasperation at the machinations of Hollywood, but also a thin layer of hope that their project may actually made (though many of the films mentioned in the book hinge on the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is involved with them – and he’s going to be rather busy for the next few years.). Indeed, Hughes takes a look at some films that have actually made it to the big screen and charts their problems coming to screen. Did you know that The Beatles were actually interested in bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen? John Lennon as Gollum anybody? (And, yes, that was seriously considered).
Those who have read Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made will known what to expect here. Whilst it’s a shame that Hughes couldn’t expand his scope (everything here is almost exclusively sci-fi) or timeframe (you only have to look at some of Hitchcock’s and Welles’ unfinished works to appreciate this has been an age-old problem), this is still a fun, well-researched read that once again proves William Goldman’s view of Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything."