Saying “No” to Hollywood

The Sparrow remains unfilmed, after 15 years of sustained effort by people passionate about getting a movie adaptation produced. What’s the problem?

Here’s the conventional wisdom. There’s a big market for science fiction action movies, but despite the success of films like “Moon” and “Inception,” there’s no market for science fiction drama. As one insider told me, “Not even George Clooney could get anybody to go see  ‘Solaris.’”

Since 1996, when The Sparrow was published, there have been three screen adaptations of the novel. Two of them were commissioned by major studios for huge stars: Universal Pictures (Antonio Banderas) and Warner Brothers (Brad Pitt).  My friend  Karen Hall and I wrote a third screenplay, on spec. Our version was a close adaptation of the novel, and that is currently the only version on the market.

A few days ago, I heard from Michael Seitzman, who wrote the adaptation meant for Brad Pitt. When WB took a pass, the rights to his screenplay eventually reverted to Michael. He sent me a link to the asteroid mining venture that’s been in the news lately, and took that opportunity to ask what was happening with the Sparrow adaptation that Karen and I wrote.

My answer was, “Not a damn thing.” We still hope that director Scott Derrickson will find a way to make the movie, but as Karen’s agent said, “I love the story and the characters and the world and the philosophy and religion. However, I believe that Hollywood’s version of this would eliminate almost all of that.”

When Michael asked if I was willing to discuss permission to bring his adaptation to market again, I thought hard about what that might mean. In many ways, the Seitzman screenplay is clever and well-thought out. In the present market, his version of The Sparrow has a far better chance of getting produced than the Russell-Hall screenplay because his story skews toward action-adventure without totally losing what made the book work.

If I said yes to Michael, if he managed to sell his screenplay, and if a studio decided to make the movie [insert many additional ifs here] hundreds of jobs would be created. My own son is a film and digital media editor in Hollywood, so I know how important each new TV show or movie is to people in the industry. Hollywood productions are America’s most popular exports, and that’s not to be sneered at in today’s economy. Plus: the mere announcement of a movie option results in a flurry of publicity – that’s just about the only kind of advertising that a book can get these days.

So I did not simply cry, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”

What I kept circling back to was this: every few days, I hear from a new reader who has been profoundly moved by The Sparrow, or from someone who rereads it yearly. Many people have told me that The Sparrow is their all-time favorite book. No one is more surprised than I, but no amount of self-deprecating humor can change the fact that readers around the world have an intimate and important connection to a novel I wrote 20 years ago.

So I have turned Michael’s request down. I did not consult with anyone before I did so. I didn’t tell my agents, or ask my son, or talk to my husband. This was a personal decision, made from the heart.

Michael’s adaptation made sense in the context of what Hollywood is likely to buy and/or produce, but it changed too much of the story for it to be satisfying to the many readers who genuinely love that novel. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life apologizing to people who would feel betrayed by a screen adaptation that didn’t face up to the central issues of the story.

42 thoughts on “Saying “No” to Hollywood”

  1. Thank you, Mary. You are my favorite author, and I recommend your books at every opportunity.

    When a book I love is made into a movie, I am ambivalent about seeing it. I know it will never be perfectly faithful, but if it captures the spirit and the meaning of the book I can usually like it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually happen. Usually it is a sell-out, or completely watered down version that makes it to the screen, and the disappointment is hard.

    One day Hollywood will realize that people over the age of 16 go to movies, and want to see something that involves thought and has meaning. Don’t let them corrupt your masterpiece.

    You might try an adaptation of Thread of Grace. It would be easier to keep the script pure, and WWII movies usually do well.

  2. Bless you for making this choice, Mary. I am one of those folks who considers The Sparrow my favorite book in all the world. I would be heartbroken to see it plundered to make it more palatable for Hollywood. I hope to see the characters I love so deeply someday on the big screen, but as you imagined them, not watered down. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. What a hard choice, but I’m glad that it’s one that you made. I think of the beauty and elegance of LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the travesty of the movies (granted, they were cheesy tv movies) — they’re not even the same thing. I think it would be VERY hard to turn down a project that would be ‘close’ and it might always feel like ‘the one that got away’.

    If you only get one chance, I hope it’s a great one. You and THE SPARROW deserve it.

  4. May I add my thanks ….. I am one who says to any and all who will listen that
    The Sparrow is my favorite book of all time. I read a lot. I love that book. It
    must have been hard to turn that down, but I am glad that you did. Another one
    of my favorites over the years was Mists of Avalon, and what they did with that when
    they made the movie was a travesty. Your book is too good to ruin.

    If they would make it and make it true to the book, many of us would be happy.
    I am glad you cared enough to say no. I am sad that you had to, though.

  5. The Sparrow has been and continues to be my favorite book of all time. Thanks for such a great piece of literature and thanks for not selling out Mary…you are exceptional.

  6. Maybe you need to do what the producers of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged did and just do it yourself with a cast of relatively unknowns. I know it is risky but ultimately its you (and secondarily, the fans) that are what you need to create for and the movie would be the visual extension of that. In that regard, you would need to be afraid of creating a longer, more perfect script that is most true to the message and meaning that you want to convey. Hollywood gives you 2 hours if your are lucky and maybe you just need more time …

    I’m glad you didn’t sell out to the big hollywood machine that has a bad reputation for buying a script, tearing it apart through re-writes and then having it turn out nothing like the author intended – just ask Steven King about the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining (amongst other authors and stories).

  7. We all know of movies made from books, where it appeared that the movie producers, screenwriters and actors were working with another entity entirely. Usually the results are, at best, forgettable; and at worst, heartbreaking for fans of the books.

    Still: brilliant and faithful adaptations have been made, especially now as TV miniseries. The Sparrow‘s time may come.

    I’m glad to see you have the sense to realize that this is not that time.

  8. Let me add a thank you to those above.

    Nothing worse than seeing your favorite novel ruined by the movie. And you know how much I love The Sparrow (and Emilo!)

  9. Another opportunity for me to affirm The Sparrow and its author. It is also one of my all-time favorites. When I think about it still, I just remember how it was one of those “moments” in my reading life. I give it as gifts with a note that says, “I can’t explain it in advance, you’ll just have to experience it.” Not enough people know about Mary Doria Russell, but I am trying to remedy that. Well done, as is your way.

  10. I’m impressed, Mary. That could not have been an easy decision. (I’m wondering whether HBO’s plans for Doc helped you decide on what’s clear right for you, not to mention your fans.)

    I cannot imagine Sparrow as an Action SciFi movie! When I think back on it, I truly don’t remember action at all, though there is some. Studies of discovery, wonder, relationship, possibilities, disappointment and all the rest are so foreign to Action movies, though they often make a nod in those directions to falsely lay claim to a higher purpose.

  11. I was at another author event and many readers asked the author for updates about making the book into a movie and when it was going to happen. He finally looked at them and said, “But it’s already been made into a novel.” I am getting more and more disappointed by how much hype a movie will get as if it’s some pinnacle of art. As if only the very best of books turned into movies when we know that is very far from true.

    I could see The Sparrow and Children of God as a terrific mini-series anyway. 😉

  12. Thank you, Mary. Thank you for acting from your heart. Thank you for sharing this information. Thank you for writing the book in the first place. I’m one of those people who can re-read The Sparrow and Children of God over and over. I’ve given away more copies of these books than I can keep track of. Would I love to see a movie adaptation? Yes……..but……..not if it tore the heart out of the story. You did the right thing. And you never know. It could still happen the right way, with your screenplay. Someday. Somehow.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you! for protecting The Sparrow from what Hollywood might do to it. Were your screenplay to be filmed, I’m sure it would be amazing… but to see this precious book, and those wonderful characters in the wrong hands would be sad. Maybe one day HBO or Showtime will agree to work with you on a limited series and you won’t have to worry about appealing to the cineplex crowd. I’m still always on the lookout for a good Emilio (Johnny Depp is getting kinda old…) and I’ll always be happy that it didn’t get made with Brad.

  14. Mary:
    I loved “The Sparrow”, too…your work of “classy” science fiction.

    I appreciate your integrity – thank you!

  15. I admire you for your decision. Based on my military and civilian aviation experience, I have seen far too many examples of what the movie factories can do to movies that involve science or engineering in the name of “action.” Best regards. Tom

  16. Mary, thank you for not “selling out.”. The Sparrow (and Children of God) are my all-time favorite books. They are, in fact, the only books I’ve ever re-read (just so many books out there that it’s just not something I normally do.). I would love to see a faithful movie version, but not a Sparrow-ish adaptation. Best from Brooklyn, Mike

  17. Thank you, Mary! I believe you made the right decision. Guard the purity of your story line and characters. Don’t let a potential screenplay become an adulterated version of your wonderful book! Greetings from a former (Euclid) neighbor, now in Willoughby Hills! ~Ann

  18. Mary, I am usually forgiving toward movies adapted from books… but the idea of putting The Sparrow to screen in any form elicits some sort of strange intestinal ‘Please, no!’.

    I can only guess the reason has something to do with your novel’s profound impact on my life. It still feels sacred in many ways.

    A few months ago I emailed you about meeting in Boone, NC, and your novels’ influence on my confirmation process; in September I am planning on hiking the Camino de Santiago specifically to ask God whether a Jesuit vocation is right for me.

    I’ll take a bit of Sandoz with me… and as I understand it, if the answer is yes, will you qualify for a toaster?

  19. Brava! I don’t think the current Hollywood system will last forever. Kickstarter ( has already started to change the balance of power with crowd-sourced funding of creative projects in the USA. [Full disclosure: I have absolutely no relationship with Kickstarter; I just think it’s a neat idea whose time has come, exactly for projects like this.]

  20. I applaud you. In fact, here’s a little gold statue for your mantle. I have hope that someday someone in Hollywood will be able to depict The Sparrow in a filmic way without skewering its heart. I know it can happen. If I had my hands on it (I work in the industry as well, but not at THAT level–Brad Pitt, hello) I would get HBO to turn it into a mini-series (or two three-hour films like they did with Mildred Pierce; that way Children of God could be included) and give it the royal treatment it so deserves. I would also have to play a role in it! 😉

  21. Mary, You must follow your heart and intuition. Thank you for creating such wonderful thought and emotional provoking fiction. I am still hoping to have that cup of coffee with you! My vote goes to Gael Garcia Bernal for Emilio if that is worth anything (just a fantasy of mine 🙂 !

  22. mary, this is a beautiful post as to why you had to say no to hollywood. i really appreciated all the reasons you listed as to why it could be great to say yes, esp. the part about creating jobs. i tend to think of the glamor, the fame, the ticket sales, the opening night, etc. of a big movie. but there’s also the plain fact that it would be a project that would create new jobs.

    i’m glad you said no. i will never forget how reading the sparrow cracked me open so widely, how it left me staggering around, grasping for breath, excited and horrified and so completely MOVED by your gorgeous writing. i wouldn’t want to contemplate sitting in a movie theater watching a sanitized, souped-up and philosophically void rendition of the sparrow. i think i’d rather have dental work without anesthesia. and that’s saying something…

  23. I understand “why” because there have been so many times that I’ve seen an abysmal adaptation and wondered why the writer sold the book in the first place.


    I think there are two things to consider:

    HBO seems to be turning difficult books into amazing television.

    There’s a young actor named Oscar Isaac who looks like he’d be an astonishing Emilio.

    If anyone from HBO comes your way, I hope you’ll consider talking to them.

  24. Thank you, Mary. Weirdly enough, my dental hygienist recommended The Sparrow to me, and it’s my favorite book. I felt profoundly moved by it. You’re a spectacular author and person and I have an immense amount of respect for you.

  25. Hi, Mary!
    Ditto to all of the above. We will not give up – but it MUST be true to the book or I will NOT go and see it! A miniseries sounds like the best bet for this wondrous work (and to be able to include Children of God – the only way to end it!). In the meantime, I am going to get out my copy and read it again, while I await your newest masterpiece!!!
    God bless you!

  26. Much as I would love to see that beautiful world in full color and stunning visuals, I realize that it is more alive in my mind than it would ever be on the screen. Your writing weaves the magic.

  27. I think you’re absolutely right about Hollywood. I always thought a truly faithful adaptation could only be produced as an independent film. Some day…

  28. I first read “The Sparrow” in 1996 – a library copy. After reading it I purchased a hardcover copy to re-read, which I’ve done several times. I’ve recommended it to book clubs, to friends, purchased it as gifts. Your other books (all in hardcover) grace my shelves. Why? Because it was a wholly original story, brilliantly written. Billy Wilder wrote great stories, then made certain that he filmed them the way they were written. Good for you, Mary. I don’t want to see a movie of the “Sparrow” unless it’s the story you intended to tell. That goes for all your other novels also.

  29. Thank you Mary.
    I’ve told you before, I love this book and I read it every couple of summers. I find different meaning in it everytime,… as much as I’d love it to be a movie, and I believe someday it will be, my opinion is that it HAS to be done right.
    Business is business, I’d support your decision 100% either way, but thank you for protecting those wonderful characters!

  30. I have to admit that when I first heard that the movie might be made with Brad Pitt my heart sunk a little. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brad Pitt, but that just didn’t seem like the right choice and also indicated that this would be a Big Hollywood Film, stripped down to nothing and having very little to do with the actual book itself. I would love to see this movie done well, but I just can’t imagine that it would be. My head filled with sad images of me saying things like, “I think my all-time favorite book has got to be The Sparrow,” and having someone respond, “Oh, yeah, didn’t they make a movie out of that? Wasn’t Brad Pitt like a space monk who could talk to aliens or something? I heard the special effects in that were AWESOME!…Why are you crying?”

    I’m glad you went with your heart, and maybe someday it will be made into The Best Movie Ever, but until you know that it can be made true to the book and true to your heart, I think you’re doing the right thing by keeping it off the big screen. It’s amazing the way it is;I’d hate to see it become anything less.

  31. This book and the sequel (I agree with others who’ve posited that it reads more as a single novel in two parts) Children of God were life-changing for me, and I truly love them as they are.

    While now I’ve shared far more of Emilio’s experiences of suffering than I ever expected to, and my perspective has changed, I feel that anything that highlights these books again, so they might be better known to the world, is only a good thing. Looking at The Notebook, Julia & Julie, Eat Pray Love (none of them films particularly worthy in and of themselves in my own opinion), and the phenomenon occasionally known as the ‘Hollywood Bounce’, it’d be great to see a Hollywood film of The Sparrow. The main thing would be a push by the publisher to tie-in the book and to send the book to all major reviewers who might be reviewing the film, because as you say, it’s the book that is important.

    I’d love to see a two-part film that covers everything in The Sparrow and Children of God, especially if it could be done separately as a mini-series in the future. However, even Buffy The Vampire Slayer shows that things made into TV first don’t do so well on the big screen.

    I know it can be validly argued that no film will do justice to the book. I feel the same way. The David Colacci reading of The Sparrow comes to nearly 16 hours, and even an epic Apocalypse Now length treatment of The Sparrow wouldn’t make me feel the story to be lagging visually. Unfortunately, alien worlds convincingly are an expensive option (see Avatar), which may contribute to an explanation of why films don’t usually do well that cover shooting being done well using both ‘space’ and ‘terra firma’. You can argue that the balance of characters require’s more strong leads (and a commitment to both films) than is usually available on-budget, and I’m personally horrified by the idea of Brad Pitt as Emilio.

    While the literary purist in me wants to protect your writing from the worst excesses of hollywood, and even the least of the issues brought up by such an adaptation, I want to plead with you to reconsider. I’ve been avoiding the awkward truth for a while – like Emilio does when he gets back.

    If even one extra copy of The Sparrow goes off the bookshelves and into the hand of a lost soul, trying to find God, won’t that be a bigger win than anything else?

    If they’re taking the celibacy, the mutilation, the rape, the unintended killing of Askama, and Anne’s story out, then, even then, someone on the internet might read the book and learn a little more about what it is to choose good over evil – and I can’t see any way a screenplay you’ve ever approved could be so bad that it’d damage the chances of this being a worthy thing to do.

    (If you’re wondering, I didn’t find faith through your works, but I did find faith your works, and they gave me the understanding of how we should approach suffering that I needed in order to get past awful things. If people aren’t at the point where they can understand the response their maker is asking for, then your books may at least give them the solace that they’re not alone in their pain.

  32. Mary,

    Maybe I’m the shallow one of the bunch…. but, why not? Am I the only reader/follower/fan that finds this decision absurd?

    The Sparrow is a Top-3 book for me — my mother gave me a copy on my 16th birthday, and I’ve probably read it a dozen times since then (likewise COG). Having read some of your other works as well, I maintain the highest respect for you as an author and a literary surgeon, and frankly, that isn’t something that could be diminished by a foul/failed “Hollywood Adaptation” of a SciFi your wrote 20 years ago.

    I’m not a writer, nor a published artist of any particular sort, so perhaps I’m just missing some of the greater substance behind having one’s work butchered/abridged/bastardized… but is there any way you could give more reasoning behind this?

    Truly, no intentions of picking a fight or calling you out, but I was only able to think of a few reasons why one would say, “No” to such an offer:

    + Author concerned that a poor adaptation would reflect poorly on self/career/future, not to mention: decision making skills.

    + Author could be seen as a “Sell-Out” to the loyal readers. (but the rights were previously sold, so I think we’re past that).

    + Author has potential control/vanity/possession/perfection issues that would be imposed upon.

    + Some kind of Writer’s Block-thing… where, having a piece of crap with author’s name attached (despite a catalogue of success and praise), equates to an inability to focus on the next project.

    As a suggestion, might you post the abstract that Seitzman gave you? –Perhaps, conduct a social experiment to see how your loyalists react??

    Be told, Yes, I would LOVE to see this made into a film…. even a crappy film. Yes, I would love this to be a $100m budget, hollywood blockbuster. But, I also know that the SciFi genre is completely hit-or-miss with winners — the latter being few and far between — and The Sparrow is, quite simply, too controversial to be a SciFi box office smash. But… please, let us have another shot at the movie representation of this book… it’s so wonderful.

    Your comments about the thoughts/information/accusations above are appreciated.

    Thanks, Mary.


  33. The Sparrow and The Children of God are two of my all time favorite books. I recomment them to everyone I know reread one or the other several times a year. I’ve wished for years it would come to the big screen but when I heard that the Brad Pitt version would be about a war, I was appalled. Wish some Indie producer would decide to make it. For years now, I’ve thought Tommy Lee Jones would make a fabulous D.W. I’ve never been able to think who would be a good Emilio. Suppose that’s insulting to an actor to think in terms of physical attributes instead of talent but it’s a tough call with a best loved book.

  34. Another person giving deepest thanks for not going with that adaptation of “The Sparrow.” It has all been said here but I wanted to be one more voice counted as a passionate lover of this story who would be bitterly disappointed by a film version not completely true to your voice. Thank you so much!!

  35. Dear Mary Russel,
    I do love the novel – as all your books. And, please, give the movie a chance. A book is a book and a film is a film, no need for false competition. In my view Hollywood did a good number of very spiritual movies (i.e. Moon, Solaris, A.I., …) Yes, it is a risk, but it is worth it.
    (Excuse my English – a huge fan from Germany)

  36. Mary, love your novel but you need to relax. A book is a book and a movie is a movie. They have different requirements to be fulfilling. Movies are plot driven, it is what it is. Anyway, a film adaptation of the sparrow would draw more readers to the book. You made a mistake.

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