One day in the mid-'90s, the lanky and sometimes manic James Ellroy walked into the brownstone New York office of his publisher, Otto Penzler -- the two were going to a fight that night -- and broke the news: He had just sold the film rights to his novel "L.A. Confidential."
"We were laughing so hard we were crying," recalls Penzler, who had published Ellroy on his Mysterious Press. "I was incredulous -- we both agreed it was unfilmable."
They were right, of course. And they were also wrong. The 1997 Curtis Hanson film of "L.A. Confidential" became an enormous critical hit (if only a moderate success at the box office). It also won two Oscars; one for Kim Basinger for supporting actress and another for Hanson and Brian Helgeland for adapted screenplay.
Only the most die-hard Ellroy fan resented that the film resembled his labyrinthine novel -- with its dozens of characters, thick historical context and overlapping subplots -- only slightly. It's considered one of the finest films of the '90s and one of the greatest film noirs since the genre's 1950s heyday.
But since then, when it comes to movies, it's been more crying than laughing for Ellroy fans.
Friday marks the arrival of Ellroy's first produced screenplay: "Street Kings," a racially charged tale of police corruption and conspiracy starring Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. While the film, set in contemporary Los Angeles, lacks the sweep of "L.A. Confidential" and is unlikely to make the same impact, its language, characters, sardonic morality and fast-reversing plot feel like an Ellroy novel.
Ellroy himself, who was once quite critical of the films made of his novels, refused to discuss "Street Kings." But when the novelist -- on a 2006 press tour for director Brian De Palma's cinematic version of his "The Black Dahlia" -- was pressed by a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter about that film, he replied with, "Look, you're not going to get me to say anything negative about the movie, so you might as well give up."
Hardly a vote of confidence for either film. It makes you wonder: Why can't Hollywood and the most celebrated crime writer of our time get along?
While most remember only "L.A. Confidential" and "Black Dahlia," Ellroy's writings have provided material for movies for 20 years, including "Cop," a 1988 James Woods-starring version of "Fire on the Moon," which Penzler called "unbelievably awful"; the 1998 bomb "Brown's Requiem"; and 2002's box-office disappointment "Dark Blue," which starred Kurt Russell.
And then there were the what-might-have-beens, such as the long-brewing, never-realized David Fincher-directed "Black Dahlia" or Universal's George Clooney-starring "White Jazz," a movie based on the well-regarded conclusion to Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet" of novels that stalled after the actor dropped out of the project over scheduling conflicts. .
"Street Kings" itself moved through several major directors -- Spike Lee, Oliver Stone -- before writer-director David Ayer, who wrote the script for 2001's "Training Day," took over its direction.
Nevertheless, the word "unfilmable" comes up a lot when people talk about Ellroy's work.
Penzler, who edited and published six of the first eight Ellroy novels, loves the books but thinks their density makes most impossible fits for the screen. "They're much too complex, with multiple plots that are interwoven," he said. Some of the books are "more like 'War and Peace' than a typical crime novel. And there are layers and layers of these guys' personalities."
L.A.'s deep background
The other great aspect of Ellroy's writing, he said, is his attempt, especially with the "L.A. Quartet" (which includes "Black Dahlia," "The Big Nowhere" and "L.A. Confidential"), to capture the city's historical background, racial fissures, and tension within and between the Los Angeles Police Department and City Hall: "How do you put that into a movie without it being all about that?" Penzler asked.
Joe Carnahan, the director who is seeking a new home for his "White Jazz" adaptation, thinks Ellroy's books are too "out there" for mainstream Hollywood -- too violent and sadistic, too obsessed with seediness and corruption, and not nostalgic like most films set in the past.
"They're subversive," he said. "And James deals with really overt sexual perversion -- these things are taboo for a reason."
Penzler contrasts Ellroy's difficulties with Elmore Leonard, who has seen popular success with "Get Shorty," critical success with "Out of Sight," and several other winning adaptations such as "Jackie Brown" and "3:10 to Yuma."
The writers' styles, of course, could not be more different. Leonard, Penzler said, is "lean, lean, lean," with pithy dialogue and straightforward plots that transfer right to the screen, "while Ellroy is big and robust" and almost unfathomably layered.