Script Gods Must Die: Adaptation, Never Come Morning

Some time ago I worked on a project, Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren’s second novel about Polish youths gangs in 1940’s Chicago. Some history:

I adapted the book into a play. This had a five-month run with Prop Theater, Chicago. It won awards.

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Never Come Morning was the complete package. World—story—characters, all were intact. No need to screw with them. And the dialogue? Please….

BRUNO: “He was walking once, and saw a wolf’s head in a Milwaukee Avenue window. Above a bare floor. Nothing round but a couple chairs and an empty paint can.  And he thought about himself, and the wolf’s head, and he thought: I been hungry my whole life. All the time. I’ll never get my teeth into anything all my own.”

CAPTAIN TENCZARA: (running the Precinct police lineup) “Step into the light. (Bruno steps into spotlight) Turn once. (Bruno hesitates) Move Lefty. All the way. These people want a look at you. (Bruno turns) Faster. There you go. Now take off the cap. (Bruno pauses) Take off the cap, gorilla! (Bruno does so) That’s how he looks without the cap, folks. Put it back on. That’s how he looks with it on, folks. Walk around, Daffodil. We want to see how you look when you walk. (Bruno paces) That’s how he looks when he’s walking away with your money, folks. Stand still. (Bruno does so) Bruno “Lefty” Bicek. Twenty years old. Fights under the name Bruno Biceps. Take special note of the sponge ball, folks. Bruno here is ace southpaw of the 26th Ward Warriors. Spends his Sunday mornings at mass at St. Bonificious. The rest of his spare time is spent cultivating his other hobbies. Assault. Armed robbery. Bruno is a petty thief working his way up the felony hit parade. Look him over good. Look him over and remember that face. You might want to recognize it down some dark alley, some dark night. You can go, cupcake. NEXT!”

Nelson Algren and the "City on the make," 1950s

This was a novel so the internal narration would have to be strongly pared back. I wasn’t going to lose all of it, but it would have to be converted to dialogue if it was to stay and I didn’t want to over-burden the audience. As usual, the decisions involving inclusion and exclusion would be critical.

The budget on this play would be $30,000, plenty to allow for the dramatization of the boxing sequences. I wrote in the vivid descriptions provided by the novel. I added some descriptions of classic boxing matches I found from 1920 newspaper accounts (public domain) and relied on the fight choreographer to pull off the action. While it’s all well and good to write in devastating action, if you don’t have the budget to afford a killer fight coordinator, you might want to consider your options.

The play would unfold in the same linear fashion Nelson Algren had intended. No need to screw with structure. Just let the words work their spell. As an adapter, sometimes all you need do is trust the material. The Chicago Sun-Times said “Peditto sculpts Algren’s world with visual poetry conceived in the gritty Chicago school of realism”—Translation: Peditto got the hell out of the way. The story is timeless, and will be around 100 years from now. You can read some of the book here.

Later I was asked to do the film adaptation. Nelson Algren had two previous novels adapted: Man With The Golden Arm, nominated for three Academy Awards. Also Walk On The Wild Side, Jane Fonda’s first major role, and Lawrence Harvey’s last movie. One would think Algren would have considered these cinematic forays successes.

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Anything but…

Story goes that Otto Preminger virtually stole the rights to Man With The Golden Arm by getting Nelson drunk and signing away rights after a disastrous all-night poker game. Algren had no love for the movie and would often resist talking about it.

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Flash forward, 20 years: With this history in mind, Prop Theater producers and I fought to “be true” to the original. We brought in producer Steve Jones (Mad Dog and Glory, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) to direct. For that privilege he would open his Rolodex and bring leverage to bear. We would shop it around locally and in LA but keep close to the original material. Nelson Algren would not be screwed again.

The waiting began. The rejections came. Too dark, too dated. There was local interest, some nibbles, but they wanted us to toss out the novel’s gritty, brutal ending. The project was dismissed as “Rocky with a bummer ending.” Couldn’t we make it a bit more upbeat? No, we could not. Nelson Algren would not be screwed again!

Two years went by, ultimately there were no takers. The option came due and no one stepped up to plunk down $10,000 dollars. The option expired. Fade out.

Flash forward, five years. Steve Jones never lost interest in the property. Because rights were available, he took the project to Steve Conrad (The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Weatherman). Conrad, recognizing a good thing, ponied up the option money and became the owner of the rights. Jones called me: “Sorry Paul, what can I do? No hard feelings.”

I had become the ex-writer.

Flash forward, one year. Conrad wrote his draft. Steve Jones called again: “Steve’s not happy with the draft. We want to use elements of your script. You’re back in”.

Back in!  Yes! But back in to what? There still wasn’t dollar or star one attached.

Flash forward, one year: No bites. Nothing substantial. Conrad doesn’t pick up the option. It expires again.

Ten years later, the project is at square one.

This is the way it goes and goes. I have no doubt, one day, someone will make Never Come Morning (may you be cursed by hungry sand fleas if, after seeing this post, you option it and don’t seek me out to write the adaptation!)

What if they make Never Come Morning without me? Will I end up in a West Side crack house hallucinating about pool parties with Paul Schrader and Lindsay Lohan that I should have had and never did?

Nah. It’s just business. Go with the flow, ride it out, try not to get too high or too low. Like Tom Waits sang: “That’s life. That’s what all the people say. You’re riding high in April. Seriously shot down in May.”

Good Reader, if there’s a takeaway for you from Never Come Morning concerning your own adaptation, it’s this: Sometimes faithful is the way to go. Sometimes you needn’t impose yourself at all.

Stay clear. Trust the story.

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One thought on “Script Gods Must Die: Adaptation, Never Come Morning

  1. Christopher Phillips

    Thanks for writing this up, Paul. Really gets to the heartbeat of slogging it out in the writing trenches.

    This book story sounds totally intriguing, and that ending sounds like it would have Oscar written all over it with the right actors. I’m surprised they couldn’t get some Indie darlings to step up to the plate.

    Too bad the option has run out… Hopefully, this will live to fight again in the future. It might make for an interesting paid cable series pitch…

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