Berkshires and Hollywood connect: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn to star in Simon Winchester's 'The Professor and the Madman'

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Best-selling author and Sandisfield resident Simon Winchester was standing outside Rite Aid in Great Barrington on Tuesday, waiting for a prescription to be filled, when he saw the news on Twitter: his book, "The Professor and the Madman," was finally going to be made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson, almost two decades after he sold the film rights.

"No one told me about it," said Winchester, who was soon afterward getting bombarded by congratulatory messages from around the globe on Tuesday. "Hollywood is a complete mystery to me."

Gibson, who purchased the film rights in 1998 for a reported high-six figure sum, is set to star in the movie and is in negotiations with Sean Penn, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Sources close to the deal confirmed the report on Tuesday.

"It would be a joy to see my little book on the big screen," said Winchester, who said he loved the thought of Penn and Gibson as the stars. "It's such a visual story — it combines Oxford academia and Victorian architecture and an insane asylum. It's very much a costume drama."

Many 'serious offers'

The film would reportedly be financed by Voltage Pictures, which backed Oscar favorites "The Hurt Locker" and "Dallas Buyers Club." Gibson's production company, Icon Pictures, would produce, according to the report. "Apocalypto" writer Farhad Safinia is on board to write the screenplay and direct. Production is set to begin in September, the report said.

Gibson's production company bought the rights to the movie outright, and over the years Winchester has fielded scores of "serious offers from serious filmmakers" hoping to adapt his book for the big screen, he said. He's had to turn them all down because the actor held the film rights and didn't want to give them up.

"In a way I was upset because the movie just wasn't getting made," he said. "There were negotiations to buy it back at one point, but [Gibson] wasn't budging."

A defining tale

Winchester's best-selling book, which was published in 1998, tells the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

James Murray, its editor, put out a call across the country for amateur wordsmiths to help him assemble a formal dictionary of the English language. He received thousands of entries from one W.C. Minor, who lived in Crowthorne in Berkshire, England.

After years of inviting the prolific contributor to visit and being refused, Murray finally traveled to Minor's residence, only to find that Minor was the longest serving prisoner at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He'd been imprisoned there after murdering a brewery worker in a fit of insanity. The two struck up a friendship over their shared love of words.

Gibson is set to pay Murray, and Penn is in negotiations to play Minor.

In addition to "Madman," Winchester has written dozens of books, including "The Man Who Loved China," "Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories," and, most recently, "Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers."

A number of his books have been optioned for film over the years, including "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible," the rights to which were picked up just two weeks ago.

Winchester said he's considered at times writing the screenplays to his books himself, but quickly abandoned that thought after trying his hand at a few pages.

"I'm so happy writing books, I think I'll stick to that," he said.


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