What is it that makes people say a story is “cinematic,” or that a book should be made into a movie? Is it something specific about the characters, settings, or plot? Is it primarily a form of praise? Or is it that our culture has become so visual that the translation of words onto the screen is necessary for a given work to exist fully?
Before following my hero, Frederick Thomas, to Russia, which is the next chronological step in my blog, I’d like to pause briefly on The Black Russian and a movie version. This has been on my mind, on and off, for a half dozen years, ever since I began the research that led to the book.
It all began in Memphis, Tennessee, at the “Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange,” of all places. I’d gone to Memphis to do research in the city’s main public library (where I found a cache of newspapers from 1890 that allowed me to reconstruct the grisly murder of Frederick’s father), and in Coahoma County—Frederick’s birthplace—which was only a couple of hours away by car. During my one day off, I visited the main sights in Memphis, including the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, Beale Street, and the duck procession at the Peabody Hotel; I also went for a short paddle-boat steamer cruise on the Mississippi (actually, a diesel engine, with fake paddle wheel and smokestacks). Then, still having an hour to fill, I stopped by the Cotton Museum, which is in the center of town. And I’m glad I went because of what I learned about the buying and selling of the crop that was the “king” of the local economy in the nineteenth century.
The day that I went, the Museum wasn’t very popular with visitors. In fact, I was the only one there, and the bored ticket seller/curator on duty, who seemed eager for some human contact, struck up a conversation with me.
“Where are you from?” she asked. When I answered “Connecticut,” her surprised response was—“What are you doing here!?” So, I told her as much as I could about my subject, which was relatively little at the time because I was at an early stage of my research.
Nevertheless, her response was: “I have only one question for you: who is going to play Frederick Thomas in the movie!?”
Where this came from, I have no idea; and I don’t recall what I answered (probably “Denzel”). At the time, I was still trying to learn what I could about Frederick, and I wasn’t even sure that I would find enough to write a book.
But as time went on, I kept getting the same kind of response from people from the most varied backgrounds and countries—Russia, Japan, Turkey, China, France, Argentina, England, etc., etc.
When the book was published, some reviewers also began to refer to a movie version: “[The Black Russian] cries out to be a Russian Moulin Rouge; it will only be a matter of time before we see Thomas on the big screen. His life was certainly large enough to fill one"; “Thomas's life is one of cinematic proportions”; “Not many people have heard of Frederick Thomas yet, but his story is surely destined for the big screen.” There were similar comments from quite a few readers.
So, why do people say a book should be made into a movie?
My impression is that all three reasons I mentioned above have been at play with regard to The Black Russian. And any way you cut the comments—or any way I turn them—they are all very flattering, appealing, and tantalizing. The remarkable changes in Frederick’s fortunes, the exotic settings in which he lived and worked, and, of course, his exceptional personality—all seem to demand visualization on a big screen.
This is not to say that any book’s path to a movie is simple. Anyone who knows anything about the process also knows how low the chances are: very few books are “optioned”; and of the few that are, fewer still make it to production. In the end, the odds are a small fraction of one percent.
So who knows what will happen.
I have gotten a nibble or two. But I’ve also done enough real fishing to know that it would be foolish to think that all one has to do is pull up the rod and try to set the hook as soon as the float does a small bob in the water.
On the other hand, the climate may be especially congenial now for a film about The Black Russian. On June 2, when I was at JFK waiting for a flight to London (where I went in part for the publication of the UK edition of my book), I read a front-page article in the New York Times entitled “Coming Soon: A Breakout Year for Black Films.” It described how an “extraordinary cluster” of at least ten films about black Americans was about to be released during the second half of 2013, something that has never been seen before: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/movies/coming-soon-a-breakout-for-black-filmmakers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0