The Sparrow — movie news

As you may know from an earlier post, I’ve written a screen adaptation of The Sparrow in partnership with Karen Hall. Director Scott Derrickson has been a fan of the novel for many years, but it wasn’t until the screen rights reverted to me this year that Karen and I were able to show him our screenplay. In his opinion:

“The screenplay is an outstanding adaptation of an exceptional book. Really. I was blown away. I’ve told you both that the book is one of my favorites in any genre, but what I secretly doubted was that the deep beauty and spiritual devastation of the novel could be fully captured in a film. I was wrong — the script is just fantastic. ”

That is the response we dreamed of, and Scott has begun to show the Russell-Hall screenplay to others. The early reaction has been strong and the word “brilliant” has come up with gratifying frequency. That’s the good news.

The bad news is exactly what you’d expect. “Jesuits in Space” is never an easy sell.

That’s why 31 literary agents turned the manuscript down back in the mid-1990s. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, warned me back in 1994, “It’s going to take a gutsy agency with great contacts to get a publisher for this story. But if you find one? The Sparrow is going to win a lot of awards.” Miriam Goderich and Jane Dystel were the right agents, Random House was the right publisher, and The Sparrow did indeed win a lot of awards.

At each stage in The Sparrow’s history, someone has fallen in love with it and taken it to the next level. So. Now we’ve got a director who’s in love, but Scott is only one piece of  a big, expensive, risky puzzle. In the current Hollywood climate, an SF drama (as opposed to a SF action-adventure spectacle) is a hard sell. An SF drama about Jesuits in space will be an even harder sell.

It’s going to take a gutsy producer, a great studio, and a brave star. We’ve had that combination before, but at the cost of what Scott called the novel’s “deep beauty.” The trick will be assembling a team that shares Scott’s drive to bring this story to the screen without losing The Sparrow’s heart and soul.

That will be very difficult, but if he can do it, I’ll make Stanley Schmidt’s prediction: The Sparrow is going to win a lot of awards.

28 thoughts on “The Sparrow — movie news”

  1. I hope it gets made, and made well! I absolutely love your work, and sell it at every chance I get. What about a movie of Thread of Grace??

  2. I’m so glad this project is moving forward. It will take some remarkable people to pull this off, but the project will affect people in a way and to a depth that many movies can’t and don’t. It’s, without a doubt, my favorite book. It will be a truly remarkable film. I hope and wait, Mary!

  3. Very exciting and interesting! Yes, it’s only one part of a very big project, but at least now you have a strong screenplay. So we just have to find Spielberg, Hanks or Lucas to back it. After all, no one had ever heard of a SF adventure like Star Wars, either.

  4. Thanks for the update, Mary! I will keep everything crossed that the novel makes it to the screen the way you intend it to, and I can’t wait to see it!

  5. I agree with Bob. The Sparrow will never be a formulaic Hollywood “adventure” that depends on a macho theme. I am very excited to hear your good news, Mary.

  6. Here’s my pitch!

    The Sparrow is the unprecedented conversion of two genres that rarely see the light of day together. One may question whether or not, like Superman and Clark Kent, the two can even co-exist. If you dig a little, however, you can find a few movies that succeed in bringing these two star-crossed lovers together. Solaris, Planet of the Apes, The Fountain, E.T. and The Quiet Earth. It is possible and while movies like Solaris didn’t do exceedingly well a the box office it makes sense that combining a deep, meaningful plot like Solaris with the uniqueness of characters like Planet of the Apes (it was ahead of its time as is the complexity of the alien races that Russell has created) would, in fact, be the catalyst for a blockbuster. Worries about the Jesuit/Sci-fi factor should be dismissed. As the Jesuits are very reminiscent of modern day Jedi, if there is any decade with multiple generations ripe for the acceptance of these characters, it’s this one. Everyone, from boomers to tweens know and understand the legacy of Obiwan Kenobi. In addition, people related very well with Mel Gibson’s character in Signs and Sandoz is reminiscent of Graham Hess. You also have the priests in the Fifth Element, Shepherd Book in Serenity and Paul Atreides in Dune. While none of these characters were specifically Jesuit, they do show that religious characters CAN thrive in Sci-Fi. Take one look at the culture of the Hipster movement (yes, it is a movement and not simply a fashion choice) and you will find millions of twenty somethings who are asking the exact same questions that Emilio Sandoz is in this script…and that is just one generation. In addition nearly every eye is on the Catholic church on some level these days. They just cannot seem to stay out of the news. This is a movie that has the potential of attracting and touching the hearts of a huge range of people. If filled with the right talent and fueled with the right kind of advertising placed in the right places this movie will be a huge success across multiple generations cultures and sub-cultures. To not be a part of it would be a huge loss for whomever fails to see the potential of The Sparrow.

  7. It would be so amazing if you could actually keep control of the making of this film. That is so rare. Keep the faith (or keep up the fight?). Your work is worth it.

  8. DITTO DITTO DITTO! Love Kimberly’s pitch. Too bad Joss Whedon isn’t available right now. On the other hand, he might feel he has already done it with Firefly/Serenity but wonderful as those works are, they aren’t these. Still, I would send it to him. Doesn’t he have a production company?????

  9. Oh! This is exciting news indeed! I’d love to see The Sparrow make it to the big screen. And now that you, yourself, have helped write the screen play, I don’t see how it could miss! Am anxiously awaiting the finished product — Good Luck to You!!

  10. Dear Ms. Russell, for years I have been biting my nails awaiting news on a film adaptation of The Sparrow. As a paintings conservator (at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) and photographer I fear my brain has developed predominantly visually, and after reading your book three times I have played the movie version in my mind, ever since. It is naturally very difficult material to turn into a successful movie, given the limitations of the film genre. Your book The Sparrow has a depth and richness I dare anyone to convey on the big screen, but a screen adaption by the author herself is a big step forward. I can understand that Brad Pitt’s production company had wanted the film rights, but I was doubtful he’d be the right person to tackle your material. As much as I would like to see a blockbuster movie version of your book, I think it might be better served with a film that features great character actors that don’t necessarily represent the Hollywood A-list-Johnny-Depp-Leading-Actor category (in my mind he is somewhat overrated and has played the same role over and over in the past few years, although he could certainly surprise me, and grow into the Emilio Sandoz character, but I doubt it). With a great cast and the right director the film could be a ‘great’ film, reaching blockbuster status by virtue of its quality, rather than having a big production company/big $/big marketing campaign behind it. By all means, if it gets on its feet as a blockbuster production, great, but I just don’t want to be disappointed, and have my ‘own mind’s movie’ erased by an unsuccessful attempt. There are many great books that have been somewhat unsuccessfully adapted for the screen, for example the elusive author Patrick Süskind’s (he and I share the same hometown, Munich) fantastic book Das Parfüm (Perfume). I always thought it’d be impossible to adapt for a film, and while the movie is not bad at all, it is just that: not bad. Anyway, I love your book, and I look forward to a great screen version!

  11. Am I the only fan who’s scared to see The Sparrow make it to the big screen? that something terrible, out of Mary’s control, will happen to the script, turning a much beloved novel into a cheesetastic flop of epic proportions? Not that I want that to happen, mind you. On the contrary, I want it to be a huge success! And not just so I can say, “See? I TOLD you that it was an amazing story. I TOLD YOU!” Although that does factor in just a tiny bit. 😉

    Wishing you the very best of luck, Mary, and thanks for the updates!

  12. Kimberly: my compliments on your excellent pitch. Another movie I’d like to bring up in this context is THE SIXTH SENSE, which like THE SPARROW contained a mystery whose solution/resolution (despite the clues throughout the story) most viewers/readers don’t see coming.

    Regarding your doubts about Joss Whedon: I’m a big fan, and believe me, when it comes to killing off individuals he’s made us care for deeply (and tearing our guts out in the process) he is The Master (The Buffy episode “The body” is the hardest hour of television I’ve ever watched, and possibly the best one too).

    Hence, I agree with Amanda: I think he might be perfect for a film adaptation of THE SPARROW. Among the many things that made the novel a page-turner for me was reading of Sandoz and his fellow explorers’ journey to Rakhat, all of those likeable souls so full of life and intelligence and good intentions…all the while knowing that something ghastly and horrible is going to happen to all of them. THAT aspect of the story is something Whedon would ace on the big screen, I think.

    There are of course many other things that made the book a page-turner for me, and which I would love to see in a movie version: but then, since I am A) a sci-fi nut who loves first contact stories, B) a linguist, and C) Jesuit-educated, I’m not exactly the typical fan/reader/viewer 🙂

  13. I have just finished reading THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD
    for the second time after a good many years and I am even more
    impressed by the remarkable life and truth of the books. I hope
    the movie for SPARROW will be available so that I can see it before
    my end, but I have asked my grandchildren to please see it for me
    just in case. Wishing the project great success. May many people find turtles on top of posts.

  14. I take the credit for suggesting Johnny Depp as Emilio. He plays characters from quirky to subtle to startling and has a great sense of what’s good for him. I hope they don’t select a he-man (Fabio) type!

    That said, The Sparrow is hands down the BEST book I’ve ever read in my life, and I’m a voracious reader. Many of my women friends have said that their husbands picked it up after they read it and are just as blown away. The language, the excitement, and yes, the grief. It brought me to my knees more than once.

    If ever a movie was to be made it’s this one. We’ve been sickened by all the cheesy, sex-ridden, no-talent screenplays long enough.

    Keep us posted, Mary! There are many more of us out there than post on this blog. Everyone I’ve loaned this book to or given as gifts has had the same response. And I’m not even Catholic.

  15. I just read The Sparrow for the first time this week. My wife had a copy. I also notice that you wrote the introduction (a faboo intro, btw) in the edition of A Canticle for Leibowitz that I own.

    As I read The Sparrow, I couldn’t help thinking “this would make a great movie”. Okay everybody probably wants to cast Emilio. But I’m more curious who would get cast as Sophia, or DW Yarbrough. I would have cast Pete Postlethwaite as Yarbrough, but as he is no longer with us, I have thought of someone even better; Terence Stamp. If you’ve seen him in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and The Limey, you’d know he has the range you’ll need.

    Yes, Jesuits in space. Hells yes. But it’s not just that. It’s a novel [movie], that melds theology, anthropology, humanity, morals, ethics, and Gedankenexperiment. It’s partly adventure, and partly horror story. It’s human, and warm, and yet more alien and strange, and yet, somehow credible, than a sci-fi novel about aliens, and jesuits in space, has any reasonable right to be.


  16. My mistake, Mary. I may have done a cut and paste and picked up someone’s name in error. I loved your book and gave copies as gifts to many friends. It would make a fabulous movie.
    Peace, Lex.

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