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A pirate's life for writer Tim Powers

His fantasy book 'On Stranger Tides' will be the base for Part 4 of

October 09, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Last month, Johnny Depp walked onstage at the Anaheim Convention Center in his Jack Sparrow costume and delighted a surprised audience of Disney fans with his rummy buccaneer's trademark mutter. Within an hour, in San Bernardino, an award-winning fantasy author named Tim Powers found a flurry of e-mails from surprised friends and fans filling his in box.

The reason for the e-mail barrage: Depp's theatrical appearance at Disney's D23 Expo included the announcement that the fourth Sparrow film would be titled "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," which echoes the name of a 1987 fantasy novel by Powers about pirates and the Fountain of Youth. Everyone wanted to know whether Powers had hit the Hollywood jackpot -- or whether he needed to be in touch with his attorney.

Powers was in a tricky spot: He wanted to publicly celebrate a career windfall, but the folks at Disney had made it clear that he was supposed to keep everything under wraps. He was more surprised than anyone that the title had been trumpeted at Disney's new promotional convention.

"I was still, as far as I understood, not free to talk about it," the author said this week. "Then, about a week ago, my agent wrote and said, 'You're now able to say that in fact Disney did option the book.' That happened a while ago; it'll be three years in April."

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Setting sail in 2011

The novelist, with a dozen books to his credit, is still a bit dazed by the fact that a book he published during the Reagan administration will be setting sail in May 2011 as the new edition of a Disney franchise that has racked up $1.78 billion in worldwide box office since hoisting its flag in 2003. "Yes, I'm thrilled," Powers said, "I think it's great."

The 57-year-old is a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, taking the prize home for "Last Call" (a 1992 tale based in the gritty underbelly of Las Vegas that weaves in tales of ancient magic and wagers for the soul) and "Declare" (a 2001 novel that presents the secret supernatural history of Cold War spies and conspiracies). All his books, he says, have "some kind of supernatural stuff going on -- it's the only sort of stories I can think of."

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Historical fantasy

Powers is intrigued to see how Hollywood will bend his historical fantasy to its needs. In its original form, "On Stranger Tides" is the tale of "Jack Shandy" Chandagnac, the son of a British puppeteer who gave up the family marionette tradition after his father died destitute. He sets sail for Jamaica to find the nefarious uncle who stole his father's rightful inheritance, but en route is captured by pirates who practice sorcery -- they give him the choice of joining their ranks or execution. He reluctantly falls into service to Blackbeard, who is on a quest to locate the Fountain of Youth.

"I've watched all the movies several times, of course, and I think the clear thing they would use is the trip to the Fountain of Youth," Powers said.

"My main character doesn't overlap with Jack Sparrow at all [in personality or circumstance]; they're totally different characters. I suppose they might overlap the Geoffrey Rush character Barbossa and Blackbeard. The only thing I feel certain they will hold on to is the Fountain of Youth, since they telegraphed that at the end of the last movie."

Either way, Powers said he was not going to walk into the theater with too many expectations, other than hoping to have a good time as a filmgoer.

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'All the fun stuff'

"Some people said, 'Powers, are you worried that they're going to mess up your book?' and I always think of something James Cain, the author of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' said when people asked what he thought of the things Hollywood had done to his books; he pointed to the bookshelf and said, 'They haven't done anything to them, look.' That's my attitude. Just take all the fun stuff and, of course, any checks. . . . It strikes me as unrealistic to look at it in any other way."

Still, Powers has a bit of concern about the project as it moves forward, considering some recent reports.

On Sept. 18, after the D23 Expo, Depp spoke to The Times and said that the abrupt ouster of longtime Disney studio chief Dick Cook had dampened his interest in a fourth "Pirates" film.

"There's a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment," the star said, adding that he was "shocked and very sad" to see Cook walk the corporate plank after playing such a key role in the "Pirates" success story.

"Pirates" also would be moving forward without Gore Verbinski, the director of the opening trilogy.

This week, Powers sounded like a man who wished he could cast a voodoo spell on all the Hollywood players navigating the cinematic ship of the franchise: "Nobody talk to each other, everyone just stand and smile, don't do anything to mess this up, let's keep this going, OK?"

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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