News & Politics

Gay Books As Films

Despite the gay world's love of film, despite mystique around books adapted for the screen, not much gay-themed U.S. fiction or nonfiction has made it into the rolling credits. Homophobia still rules some of American society but the lack of gay representation is more complex than that.
For twenty-five years, people have asked me: "When is The Front Runner movie coming out?" "Wasn't Paul Newman going to star in it?" My 1974 novel about a gay athlete's effort to make the 1976 Olympic team has a checkered history in Hollywood. In turn, I've had the chance to study another checkered relationship: the one between gay books and gay movies. It's a subject of special interest to independent publishers, who now publish the vast majority of gay-themed books.

Despite the gay world's love of film, despite mystique around books adapted for the screen, not much gay-themed U.S. fiction or nonfiction has made it into the rolling credits. Some did, but the book list is short, compared to that long celluloid line of original gay-themed scripts that get produced.

While major U.S. releases with gay-male, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (glbt) themes are few -- homophobia still rules some of American society and fierce closetedness of some gay people in the film industry is partly to blame -- the problem is more complex than that.

Not until the late 1970s, when a few dissidents bucked the all-controlling studio system to produce subjects that studios wouldn't touch, did the independent-film movement spark the first real surge of glbt-themed films. The next indie wave was stars starting their own productions, so they could do parts that studios wouldn't let them touch. New financial resources flowered to bank these non-studio films. Today, glbt themes are grabbing a growing share of that artistic film market. We're also more visible on TV, especially as cable blurs the old line between Hollywood and television. At every level of the industry, glbt people are now firmly entrenched -- from agents to top executives and financiers -- and their attitudes and tastes are factors in what glbt projects get green-lighted.

In 1997, as my business partner Tyler St. Mark and I revived our effort to get The Front Runner into development, we began to notice the monopoly of "new" and "cutting edge" in gay films. If a new book doesn't sweep immediately into development it might be quickly forgotten. Many in gay Hollywood would rather write a sparkly new screenplay than take a book in print, even a classic or a best-seller, as a starting point.

One reason why so few glbt titles get filmed is that many are studies, theory, activism, health, pornography, or self-help books and inappropriate for the screen. Even a documentary has to tell a good story. Not for nothing does A&E advertise its expanded movie menu as "getting back to good stories." In mainstream film, countless nonfiction books have been made into gripping films, yet the list of gay-themed features based on nonfiction books is short indeed. To name a few: And the Band Played On, Breaking the Surface, Serving in Silence.

When it comes to fiction, often gltb books focus on style, issues, or inner angst, rather than taking the classic storytelling approach of portraying realistic people who live and struggle in a realistic world -- past or present -- created by the author. It is this classic realism that always made mainstream fiction an enduring resource for filmmakers. In our gay world though, there is a growing prejudice against gay fiction. The first time I heard a young gay director contemptuously dismiss fiction as "something that never happened," my jaw dropped. Many booksellers tell me that sales of gay fiction are down. Most glbt activist and service organizations actually exclude fiction from their reading lists.

So intense is this prejudice against anything "non-happening," especially with plots set in the recent past, that one gay director's question to Front Runner producer St. Mark was: "Why now?" This man wanted to know why any moviegoer would pay $8 to see a gay runner at the '76 Olympics. He suggested that we change it to the 2000 Olympics -- forgetting that a '90s setting would change all the social and personal dynamics of the original story. Films that update stories often don't work well for that very reason.

The old struggle over creative control also keeps books off the screen. In the publishing industry, "control" is largely negotiated between author and publisher. In a film, control is more complicated -- powerful people can exert pressures at any point -- and with gay-themed books it usually hinges on how sexual orientation will be handled. In 1990, Dave Pallone's autobiography, Behind the Mask, was put into development by an independent film company and Bruce Willis was interested in playing the lead. The project fell through (Pallone told me) when Willis' managers refused to let him do it. Ultimately, creative control is held by whoever owns the negative of the final cut. One heartbroken director told us how he lost control of a film that he'd developed and scripted. A contract loophole allowed the producer to nab the negative and do a new final cut, which removed most of the gay content.

To avoid interference from authors, some independent filmmakers go the do-it-yourself route. A person with a burning idea hammers out a script, then finances, produces, and directs it. Stacey Adair, a young gay director-to-be whom I know in LA, worked on his script for two years before he got into the Sundance Writers Workshop and moved towards development. This kind of film tends to be a personal statement, and such artistic monopolies tend to eliminate a book author, who might make noises about plot points or casting (as Ann Rice did with Interview with a Vampire). Using an original script also spares a filmmaker the cost of paying an author for film rights, and from giving that author a percentage of net profits. The piece of the pie that an author would ordinarily get can become a meaty morsel to offer an investor, in the form of points.

Another trend that bypasses books is the rush of hot glbt news stories direct into TV. Producers can cut a deal directly with the person whose life-story fascinates; then they do an original script. If a book does happen, it is usually an after-the-fact tie-in. Thus we have a rash of films about high-profile murders, including two on Brandon Teena. This omission is especially true of films with a gay-teen theme. Teens are the biggest U.S. movie audience, with power to put films like Titanic in orbit. There has been a rash of gay teen coming-out films, yet some popular, award-winning, classic or original youth books have been passed over (see sidebar). The same is true of adult books. Some classic titles became film properties many years ago, with fits and starts of development since then, but no wrap yet and the rights are gathering dust on studio shelves. There can be legal obstacles, or the author might be dead, with a homophobic family estate keeping control. Director Arthur Alan Seidelman told me about his abortive 1970s effort to film, Fire From Heaven, Mary Renault's novel about Alexander the Great. It was to be a TV mini-series but the network wanted to de-gay Alexander. Seidelman, who is gay, refused to cooperate. The rights are still tied up in this defunct project.

Other gay-themed books don't get filmed because they don't fit today's "formula" in the gay film biz. "Formula" has to do with what you spend on a film versus what you earn. Hollywood has gone from shunning gay content to segregating it into a growing limited-release category. (This is industry-speak for films that are too controversial or risky for general release.) This "specialty" road for a gay film is well worn: The small budget ($2 -- $3 million) film opens at a glbt film festival, where a boutique distributor picks it up. After a short run in limited-release theaters that cater to gay people, it goes into home video. Now and then a gay film makes it to limited international release. Increasingly there are cable re-runs (HBO has been a pioneer here), where a glbt film may reach a wider non-gay audience. Investors, producers and distributors are said to be making money on these budget films. One gay mogul made it clear to us that "formula" spells maximum net profit from minimum effort.

Some glbt stories can't be translated into film for just a few bucks, taking them immediately out of the above formula. Fire from Heaven, with its armies, chariots, period costumes, and need for big sets might have a shot in the U.K., where the BBC and other funders put money into expensive productions like Wilde, but not in the U.S., so long as budget rules. In a word, "specialty" is not only politically safe -- it is economically safe.

Vito Russo called my own novel, The Front Runner, "the most celebrated failure to produce a film from gay fiction." The book made Time and New York Times best-seller lists in 1974, when Hollywood was just beginning to grapple with the idea of portraying openly gay people. In 1975, Paul Newman took a year's option. He planned to direct -- and the script was the first hurdle. How would the two men's relationship be handled? The love scenes? Nudity? Two men kissing, or just touching? Today these are still big questions for actors, producers, directors, and studio executives but in 1975 the questions loomed even larger. Jeremy Larner was hired to write the script but when I finally read it, my heart sank. The Oscar-winning writer had backed away from depicting love between men. Evidently Newman was not happy with the script either, because he didn't pick up the option.

In 1977, I sold The Front Runner rights to director Frank Perry "in perpetuity" (without a time limit). I'd always assumed that, despite the fact that the film never got made, once you sell film rights in perpetuity, you can't get them back. But by the 1990s movie case law was changing and more authors were successfully attaching themselves to film projects, as Armistead Maupin did with Tales of the City. So, I had my legal counsel go to work and after four years of litigation, the rights came back to me in 1997. St. Mark and I decided to produce The Front Runner, independently, and Wildcat Entertainment, sister company of Wildcat Press, was formed. Barry Sandler (Making Love, Crimes of Passion) joined our team as my co-writer -- followed by Emmy-winning director Seidelman (Walking Across Egypt, Hill Street Blues).

These days I spend most of my spare time watching movies. Often I am amazed at how swiftly we as gay people stereotype ourselves in our own films, despite our bitter complaints that mainstream media typecasts us. How many cookie-cutter films about show biz, drag queens, hustlers, sugar daddies, coming out, tricking and AIDS will glbt moviedom be willing to absorb, before people clamor for more original, offbeat stories? It's great that specialty films get made, and make money. But tolerance is growing nationally, in spite of attempts at censorship and right-wing catfights over Queer as Folk.

The time is here for more general-release gay films that have the star power and scope of Philadelphia, but open and honest glbt content. In short, we need intelligent development of more movies from books. Film can mean not only a powerful infusion of new economic health into independent publishing, but also new creative motivation.

Option This!

A library's worth of popular, award-winning, classic and original books published by independent publishers have been passed over by filmmakers.

Among them:

Gay Teen Themes

Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley (Algonquin Books)

Reflections of a Rock Lobster by Aaron Fricke (Alyson Publications)

Emerald City Blues by Jean Stuart (Rising Tide Publishers)

Trying Hard to Hear You by Sandra Scoppettone (Alyson Publications)

Gay Adult Themes

With '40s revival and sounds of swing in the air, I'm wondering when somebody will rediscover The Catch Trap, Zimmer Bradley's vivid love story of two young male performers in a traveling circus. When gay filmmakers finally discover the Vietnam War, perhaps one will have the guts to film that searing novel about an eighteen-year-old Marine medic, The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up by Charles Nelson (Lyle Stuart). And where are the gay and lesbian detective and mystery films, with novelists like Katherine Forrest and Michael Craft so popular? For example, Name Games by Michael Craft (Minotaur Books) and Curious Wine by Katherine Forrest (Naiad Press).

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.