EXCLUSIVE: Lawrence Wright’s pandemic novel The End of October is published today by Knopf, and Scott Free is tactfully in the slow process of setting up a movie or limited series that Ridley Scott will eye as a potential directing project with his Scott Free producing. After all, it was Scott’s suggestion to Wright about six years ago that unlocked the idea, after Scott read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and asked Wright if the societal breakdown in an apocalyptic event could actually happen. Luckily, the breakdown depicted in Wright’s novel is much worse, as is the fast-spreading virus.
The timing is coincidental, but the Wright book coming to the market as a film or limited TV series hasn’t contained this level of ripped-from-the-headlines element since The China Syndrome got released and then two weeks later came the meltdown of the second reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania in March, 1979. In any other time, a page turner expected to be a big bestseller like this one would already have been set already for the screen in a splashy deal. Here, sources tell me it’s about tact. One thing that was made clear to me: a sizeable donation to the front line workers battling this pandemic will be part of whatever deal gets made.
Wright is the Pulitzer-winning author and esteemed New Yorker writer whose books include The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. What he has written here is well-researched fiction, but the similarities to events that have actually happened this year are striking to say the least. The fictional virus – Kongoli Influenza – is far more deadly than coronavirus. But it originated from afar, with the first cases in Asia, and the suspicion is it could have come from a lab in China or Russia. It spreads like wildfire and quickly kills millions around the world, shutting down economies, schools, airports and creating massive unemployment. The fatalities include Supreme Court judges, Taylor Swift and Brad Pitt, according to today’s New York Times review.
And it features a slow-footed response by the U.S. government. While here, President Trump’s daily press briefings turned surreal when he mused about the possibility of the ingestion of household cleaning projects to eradicate the virus, Wright’s White House occupant has a more striking podium moment: as he appeals to the public to stay calm, a message undermined when he begins bleeding from his eyes (this is in the book’s reviews). A Mike Pence-like veep tries to pick up the slack, but the lack of preparedness is glaring. There is a shortage of essential medicine and medical equipment because it’s manufactured in India and China, and those supply lines are now disrupted. The race to find a vaccine before an expected second infection wave is a subplot, as are the marauding gangs of looters and criminals, many of them orphans whose parents have succumbed to the pandemic.
The central figure is an American microbiologist named Henry Parsons, who is dispatched by the WHO to investigate an initial outbreak in Indonesia in which the victims are starved of oxygen. The page turning narrative turns to a gathering of pilgrims in Mecca that fuels global disaster, and it becomes clear the virus is also being spread not only person to person , but also by airborne birds. While the NYT reviewer suggests a 40-year old Richard Dreyfuss or Bob Balaban for that protagonist, a movie or series ought to consider not killing off Pitt as Wright did. After all, Pitt just played Dr. Fauci on SNL and successfully used science and brawn to eradicate the zombie pandemic in WWZ. While Wright’s protagonist is somewhat delicate because of a childhood bout with rickets, Pitt in Oscar-winning Cliff Booth mode would be perfect here as the narrative fulcrum, staring down a pandemic while trying to get back to his family when society goes to hell.
The societal breakdown depicted by Wright is as scary as the virus. Looting and crime are rampant, and survivalists and conspiracy nuts take center stage and Fox News’s ratings soar and guns become more coveted than ventilator machines.
So, what to do with the movie? Scott has long been interested in the exploration of the pandemic. Remember, he was set in 1994 to direct Crisis in the Hot Zone, a terrifying non-fiction book by Richard Preston about an ebola-like outbreak in a primate lab near D.C. That film had Jodie Foster and Robert Redford set, but the film cratered when it was beaten to the start line by Outbreak, an inferior Dustin Hoffman film whose producer Arnold Kopelson was unsuccessful in getting the rights to Preston book. Scott was long gone by the time Crisis in the Hot Zone was turned into a miniseries that veered far from Preston’s nightmarish true story.
Word on the street is that Netflix is among studios considering The End of October. Nobody would comment for this story because of the delicacy of the issue. But we’ve seen how films like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion have become big titles right now. Also, it will take time to get a writer and develop the novel into a film or series. Scott has other projects he intends to direct: he was four and one-half into shooting in Ireland on The Last Duel – he shot an hour’s worth before production shut down on the Matt Damon-Adam Driver-Jodie Comer-Ben Affleck period drama; and he made an MGM deal on the Maurizio Gucci murder tale at MGM with Lady Gaga attached to play convicted murderess Patrizia Reggiani.
By the time The End of October is developed, the COVID-19 scourge hopefully will be in the rear view mirror. The book is drawing raves, and someone will turn it into a compelling, terrifying cautionary tale about global warming, the need to safeguard against future pandemics, and how polarizing politics can get in the way of a collective effort to eradicate a global threat. Stay tuned.