A look inside Hollywood and the movies. : GREAT HARLOT’S GHOST! : 1,334 Pages Too Much? Mailer’s CIA Novel Is Coppola’s Movie by Milius

Share via

Francis Coppola thinks big. So it’s hardly a shock to hear that Hollywood’s high-wire film maker has bought the rights to Norman Mailer’s 1,334-page novel, “Harlot’s Ghost,” a complex, left-wing conspiracy spy thriller about the CIA. What does come as a surprise is that to write the screenplay adaptation, Coppola has chosen a bona fide right-wing conspiracy theorist--John Milius.

An avid gun collector and writer-director of “Red Dawn,” a film about a Soviet invasion of America, Milius hasn’t entirely muted his ideological views. “I’m all for wars of conquest and liberation,” he says. “I found Desert Storm exhilarating. It was time to kick some Arab ass.”

But he insists his politics are in sync with Mailer’s overall thesis. “I agree with the left on a lot of conspiracy theories,” he said with a chuckle. “I probably just articulate the theories better than they do. I always thought the Cold War was an extortion racket. I’d bet that if you opened up the missile silos in Russia, you’d probably find a bunch of wheat.”

Coppola associates said the director, in the midst of shooting his latest film, “Dracula,” was too busy to comment on plans for “Harlot’s Ghost.” But as a longtime Coppola pal (and screenwriter of “Apocalypse Now”), Milius says the director will be challenged by the book’s drama and scope.


“It’s a perfect film for Francis,” he said. “It deals with things he already knows--gangsters and war. It’s like a cross between ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ It’s about families and duplicity and danger, but this time provoked by the government.”

Though there was some competition for rights to the book, Coppola had an inside track, especially since his American Zoetrope production company had produced Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” which the author directed himself.

“We got to see the galleys very early on,” explained Zoetrope President Fred Fuchs. “Francis and Norman are good friends. In fact, they met to talk about the book while Norman was still writing it. I think Norman felt all along Francis was the right person to direct the film.”

Coppola took the book to Columbia Pictures, where Zoetrope has a first-look deal. The studio approved the idea and bought the rights (though no one would reveal a purchase price). According to Fuchs, Zoetrope hopes to have a completed draft of the script by the fall of 1992. Production could begin in 1993, though Fuchs cautioned “we never know how long these things will take.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the filmmakers will be to come up with an ending for the book, which blends an unfinished spy story and an unfinished memoir, concluding with the words “to be continued.”

It’s less clear how the filmmakers will handle the book’s portrayals of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Sam Giancana and a Mob moll loosely based on Judith Exner. “My guess is that we’re going to throw out a lot of the gossip stuff,” said Milius. “I think we’ll dump the Exner character, but I don’t know yet about Marilyn. If she stays, it probably won’t be in as much detail as Norman has.”


Milius is currently completing a script about the Texas Rangers, also for Columbia. Then he plans to tackle “Harlot’s Ghost.” Both Milius and Fuchs say Mailer will have considerable input into the script, including “brainstorming sessions” to be held at Coppola’s Napa Valley headquarters.

“I want to satisfy Francis, but I also want to satisfy Norman Mailer as well,” said Milius, who admits he “didn’t get all the way through” Mailer’s last epic, “Ancient Evenings.” “He’s the true creator of the story.

“It’s an ambitious book, which is what we like about it. You don’t get to make ambitious movies anymore. With the studios now, all they want is a story about two cops--and one of them’s a vampire. We’re aiming a little higher.”