Some of you may recall this post from a few weeks ago, where Alan Trustman - the screenwriter of Bullitt and the original The Thomas Crown Affair, once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood - invited me to read one of the six screenplays he was offering for sale through Amazon.com. Looking through the list, I selected THE JUDAS CONTRACT, which was teased as "a good Dan Brown style movie."
Mr. Trustman had the book on my doorstep about 24 hours after I expressed my interest, and I promised I'd be fair in my critique. At the same time, it was hard to miss that there was certainly considerable enthusiasm from many readers about this. A private email to me called him "a legend," while another commenter said that he'd be interested even if Trustman "wrote a Paris Hilton movie." Still another called him "a national treasure." Thus, it's probably fair to say that many of you had high expectations for this script, and I'd be lying if I said that excitement didn't seep into my consciousness as well.
No reader relishes writing a bad review - particularly when the author in question has such a great reputation. Okay, there might be a few critics who enjoy tearing down those who've enjoyed success, either out of spite or jealousy. I don't ever approach from that angle for a simple reason - I want to be the guy who impresses my boss. I want to be the guy who "discovers" that diamond in the rough - the brilliant script that must be made and that all of Hollywood will be talking about.
So put yourself in my shoes - I've been handed an undiscovered possible gem from a screenwriter who left the business after writing two major films. I had visions of finishing the script, calling all the companies I read for and submitting it to them with high marks. I saw articles in the trades and Entertainment Weekly heralding the Second Coming of Alan Trustman, chock full of retrospectives on his work and - perhaps most importantly in my ego-driven mind - the fact that it was this blog that lead to his renaissance.
In short, I was looking for any excuse to trumpet this script.
And now I see I'm doing something that I've often complained about when Harry Knowles does it - I've written a multi-paragraph introduction to my review - so let's get on track.
The first thing I should mention about THE JUDAS PROPHECY is that it's a "novelized screenplay." That turns out to be exactly what it sounds like - it's written in novel format, but given the frequent back-and-forth dialogue in many scenes, it's clear that likely there was little rewriting beyond changing the format of the text and dialogue. I've noticed that when a writer accustomed to working in novels tries their hand at a screenplay, their work in the other medium is pretty obvious. Usually their description runs long and is prone to getting inside the heads of the characters - an absolute no-no in screenwriting, where everything must be visual.
THE JUDAS PROPHECY bears indications of the opposite, and that makes it somewhat less enjoyable as a novel-reading experience. Particularly early on, the visual description is sparse and direct. That's perfect for a screenplay, but somewhat unengaging for a novel. Most glaring of all is the fact that the story often is told entirely through the dialogue. In a screenplay, this makes total sense - exposition must be verbalized. Unless there's a way to explain something visually, the dialogue has to do all the talking. Without getting too much into the plot, there's a lot here that requires explanation and exposition, and Trustman always stages these moments as conversations between two or more characters. There are moments I think it might have been beneficial to let prose paragraphs shoulder that burden. Perhaps the conversations could be summarized, or the exposition laid out directly for the reader rather than forcing those words into the character's mouths.
So I don't want to belabor this point, but as a novel, this wasn't a particularly smooth read for me. I don't see this being a neat fit on a shelf with Dan Brown, Stephen King or John Grisham novels. It feels like it's in an intermediate state between novel and screenplay. I'd bet that a good editor could guide Trustman through a few rewrites that would help purge the "screenplay-isms" and sharpen this into more of a proper novel. For now, I can only evaluate what's in front of me.
An introduction informs us that the premise came from producer Roger Coman, a friend of Trustman's at the time. Trustman was excited by the opportunity to do a Dan Brown movie properly, but unfortunately Corman didn't share his enthusiasm for the resulting script. As he puts it, "Roger wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark. I wrote The Da Vinci Code."
The first 100 pages of the story are largely constructed around the murders of four pregnant women, with each murder happening in public in a different city. In each case, the woman is stalked by a mysterious man who approaches her from behind while in a crowd, then stabs her heart from behind by going through the third and fourth ribs. NYPD Detective Sarah Caruso catches one of the cases and with her superior (and former lover) Detective Lt. Vince Foster, soon discovers that all of the victims had undergone invitro-fertilization. Beyond that, it seems that their physicians performed a procedure developed by an Italian doctor - one that basically allowed for the alteration of the fetal DNA by using samples from another donor.
In other words, these women were essentially carrying clone babies, bred from a blood sample.
As the investigation shifts to Italy, Sarah workw with local police investigator Marco Salvi - who happens to be another former lover. (Yes, it seems Sarah has enjoyed an active sex life - AND has a particular type.) Aware of the church's opposition to in vitro fertilization, they question a Cardinal who's a liason to the Vatican. Though he tries to keep them off the scent, the investigators soon learn of the existence of a cult called the Zealots. Among other things, they've been responsible for the murders of Messanic pretenders.
Judas was a Zealot and the group deeply believed that there would be a second resurrection of Christ. Heading to Jerusalem, the investigators question Brother Anselem, who maintains the Zealot Museum, but claims that the order isn't active. Looking at one of their artifacts from the time of Christ, Sarah notices what could be blood on the artifact.
Soon, their investigation leads them to another doctor who performed the invitro procedure - on the four wives of a Saudi prince. He admits to altering the fetal DNA with DNA from a blood sample whose origin was unknown to him - but which Sarah believes to have come from Jesus Christ himself. Soon, the hunt is on, as Sarah and her partners must find the pregnant Saudi wives before the Zealots do. The Zealots will not allow the Second Coming of Christ to come to term and be raised as a Muslim.
CONCEPT/PREMISE - Fairly solid, I'd say. I might take issue with some of the execution, but I really like the hook of cloning bringing about the Second Coming. I can't speak at all to how accurate or plausible the Zealot backstory is, but they make for decent antagonists. Most of all the Saudi scheme to, well, hijack the Second Coming is a nifty idea. I can easily see this forming the foundation of a strong thriller.
STRUCTURE - Hard to get a sense of given the novel format. Basically, it feels to me like the first 100 pages is mostly about enacting the first four murders and raising a lot of questions about what connection is among all of these victims. The second 100 pages is dominated by exposition about the Order of the Zealots and the medical procedures. That would probably occupy most of the second act in the screenplay, and unfortunately, I felt like I was reading one of those screenplays where the second act isn't moving the plot forward so much as it's explaining the plot. There's a lot of exposition and stage-setting here, but little real momentum until we reach the revelation about the Saudi wives. That kicks the story into motion and intensifies the chase, but it might be too late. Fair at best.
CHARACTERS - Probably one of the weaker elements, as I didn't connect with any of the main characters. The novel doesn't make much effort to get inside the characters' heads, and Sarah doesn't really have much of an arc beyond a mostly perfunctory romance that doesn't pick up until well into the final third of the script. Even then, the chemistry doesn't quite leap off the page and the sex scene seems to be there mostly to give the female lead an opportunity to appear in a state of undress.
I didn't see a "star part" here. Instead, I saw characters being moved through a plot much like a player is moved through a video game and is tasked with consuming the proper information that allows the story to move forward. I'm not saying The Da Vinci Code is perfect by any means, but it did a better job of providing a lead role than THE JUDAS PROPHECY does.
RESOLUTION - I don't want to say too much about how the story wraps up, but I found the ending unsatisfying and anticlimactic. The main characters are put on the back burner for much of the final 40 pages, and really are denied the opportunity to be a part of the climax. It's not an ending that I can see working on film - particularly if the intent is to write a mass blockbuster.
If I was to evaluate the viability of this book as source material for a feature film, I'm sorry to say that I probably would give this a PASS. There's a good hook and a concept, but the story and the characters didn't grab me. I can't see giving this to many of my bosses and saying, "You have to read this! There's a hit in here."
I'm somewhat off the hook when it comes to evaluating Mr. Trustman's screenwriting prowess. And I admit, I wish I was reading the screenplay version of this so that I might have harvested some insight or screenwriting lessons from the submission. For all I know, it plays better as a screenplay, and perhaps Trustman handled the piles of exposition more deftly there.
I'll conclude by saying that even after just a few short emails, I know that I would probably find Mr. Trustman's memoirs immensely entertaining. Given his history with Steve McQueen and the details of his relationship with Roger Corman, alluded to in the book's introduction, I suspect I could listen to Alan tell stories for hours. When he left the comment on my earlier post, he said, "The fat lady has sung," which appears to be his way of saying he's written his last story. Should that prove to be inaccurate, I'd hope that everyone reading this blog would snap his memoirs up the instant they came off the presses.