Oscar-winning screenwriter, producer and director Akiva Goldsman fell in love with Mark Helprin's 1983 novel "Winter's Tale" decades ago. And despite the book's themes, texture, density and sheer bulk -- it is 740 pages long -- he could never quite give up the idea that it should be a movie.
"It's a fairy tale for grownups," says Goldsman, who won an Oscar for adapting "A Beautiful Mind," and counts "The Da Vinci Code," "Cinderella Man" and "A Time to Kill" among his screenplay credits. "The most appealing thing about the book is also the most tricky. It's a hybridized genre -- magical realism. It's not something Americans have embraced in books or in movies, because it's neither fantasy nor fact -- bricks and mortar reality right alongside high fantasy."
In "Winter's Tale," in turn-of-the-20th century America, an immigrant baby is set adrift in a model ship by parents denied entrance to America so that he might grow up to have the opportunities denied him. "Peter Lake" grows up to become a thief, only to fall for Beverly, a spirited but sickly, doomed beauty, the daughter of a newspaper editor. Can he somehow save her with his "gift"?
Peter is pursued by a gang led by his former mentor, the murderous Pearly. And he is saved, time and again, by a magical, winged white horse, which makes it easier to accept Peter's sudden arrival 100 years in the future where his fate and his past actions meet their destiny.
The New York Times Book Review was among those publications praising this "large souled" book as one of the best American novels of its era. But that alone wasn't enough to keep Goldsman, one of Hollywood's most in-demand screenwriters, interested.
"It's about redefining hope and triumph in the search for meaning after we've lost someone," he says.
He took versions of a script to studios six times over the years. "And I was right in the middle of that sixth try when my wife suddenly died."
Rebecca Goldsman had a heart attack in July 2010. She was only 42. Goldsman stayed with his labor-of-love project "as a way of surviving that."
"In a funny way, I made it for people like me, who have gone through that, losing someone who was too young," Goldsman says. "Finally, everybody becomes like me. We all face the death of loved ones."
Hollywood is full of determined writer-directors pushing scripts they describe as "a labor of love." Goldsman's track record meant that he'd be given seriously consideration -- with strings attached.
"Warner Bros. graciously said ‘Yes.' We budgeted the movie at $80 (million), and they gave us $40."
Goldsman could get around that shortfall in ways available to a screenwriter who has an Oscar, a best picture win, a lot of hits under his belt and loyal actor friends he's made over the course of a 30-year film career.
Basically, Goldsman says, "The movie's an accumulation of 20 years of Hollywood favors."
"Akiva calls, of course I'm doing the movie," says Jennifer Connelly, who won her best supporting actress Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind." Connelly would play Virginia, a modern-day reporter who becomes entangled in Peter Lake's story.
Russell Crowe, her "Beautiful Mind" co-star, took the role of the demonic villain Pearly. Will Smith, who starred in films based on Goldsman's scripts for "I Am Legend" and "I, Robot," plays Pearly's boss, Lucifer himself.
Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake and Jessica Brown Findlay is Beverly.
An old hand at converting popular books into movies, Goldsman took liberties with this "Tale," and he wishes fans of the book will let him get away with it.
"You hope that you're consolidating those salient elements that are meaningful to the novel, and that other people will agree those are the main points.
"We all like things for different reasons, so it's a real game of roulette, in terms of popular acceptance."