THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
Byline: Eileen Daspin
There’s probably only one thing that is more difficult for a novelist than writing a financially successful and critically acclaimed book: turning that book into a movie deal.
“From my point of view, it’s a joke,” says D.M. Thomas, whose 1981 novel “The White Hotel” — a provocative mix of poetry, prose, Freudian analysis and the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar — was an international bestseller and bore the phrase “Soon to be a major motion picture” on the first paperback editions. It was translated into 20 languages, optioned by Keith Barish, and went through five or six screenplays and five or six directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci and David Lynch.
Thomas recites the history. “Barbra Streisand told Keith Barish to buy it because she had been told she should get into more serious roles,” says Thomas. “So, she said, ‘Buy it for me.”‘ When that option lapsed, it was picked up by New York producers Geisler Roberdeau, who brought Bertolucci on board, then dropped him. “They had disputes about the emphasis put on Freud and maybe financial things.” David Lynch wanted to make the movie a star vehicle for his girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini. “When he fell out with Rossellini, he lost interest in the project.” In the meantime, Thomas has written a half a dozen other books, including the recently published “Eating Pavlova” (Carroll & Graf), a fictional memoir of the last months of Freud’s life, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” about analysis, and “Flying in to Love,” which features a lesbian nun sexually obsessed with President Kennedy. In fact, Thomas’s work has become increasingly controversial for its graphic sex, and he’s been accused of relying on a formula of sex, literature, history, dreams and more sex.
“They’re right,” he responds. “I write about sex and dreams and history. I’d rather write about that than tea parties. Eroticism is a great subject.”
It’s a subject also at the center of “The White Hotel,” which still hasn’t been made into a movie, but is getting closer. At the Walter Reade Theater recently, Geisler Roberdeau staged a reading — with Rebecca de Mornay, Len Cariou, Joanna Merlin and Phyllis Newman — of a finished screenplay by Dennis Potter (“The Singing Detective”). Word has it that Lallie Halstrom is now set to direct, with his girlfriend, Lena Olin, starring. Thomas, who is English, flew in for the reading, and approves.
“It’s very eccentric and a long way from my novel, but it works,” says the writer. “It could be Dustin Hoffman in drag and I wouldn’t care. I just want to see it get made.”