Limitless: its journey from novel to movie

Author Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields, has been adapted into the movie Limitless. Here, Alan talks openly about his book’s bumpy journey to the big screen…


A week is a long time in politics. In the movie business, not so much. In the movie business ten years isn’t necessarily a long time. In real life it’s probably somewhere in between.

When I first sold the film rights to my novel, The Dark Fields, in 2001, I was warned not to expect anything to happen quickly. That is, if anything was going to happen at all. So, I figured, what, two, three years? Tops? But if someone had told me it was going to take a full ten years to get a movie made, and that that would be good going, I’d have laughed, or cried, or both.

Back then, everyone was still getting used to how preposterous it seemed that George W. Bush was actually the president. Back then, my PowerBook G3 had a 2-gigabyte hard drive. Back then, I didn’t have any children.   But back then, I was very happy to sell the rights. The Dark Fields was my first novel to be published and before it even hit the shelves it was being sent out to various film companies. This was exciting stuff, and it wasn’t long before it got even more so, because names started being mentioned.

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Weirdly enough, one of the first was Robert De Niro’s. Word filtered through that someone at Tribeca, De Niro’s production company, had read the book and was “interested”. Then it transpired that Scott Rudin was “interested”. Then it was others.

Then it was Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who ended up being so “interested” that he actually took out an eighteen-month option on the book. Which, at the time, of course, seemed like an eternity to me. Because how could they not get it all together in that space of time? What were these people, complete slackers? 

I think it was at the second or third renewal of the option that I began to experience something I would subsequently become very familiar with: excitement fatigue. The fact that they were renewing was surely a good sign, and it also provided a much needed revenue stream, but was anything ever going to happen? 

It was at around this time Leslie Dixon appeared on the scene. A professional Hollywood screenwriter with a slew of major credits under her belt, Leslie came across the book in a store in her native San Francisco and immediately decided that she wanted a shot at it. She wrote Harvey Weinstein a letter saying as much, and in language that Harvey would understand. Before long, Leslie had written a brilliant script that was very faithful to the book (even using considerable chunks of dialogue from it). But a script that was also very much its own beast, a smart, expertly constructed, tightly paced thriller that just screamed out to be produced. This was good news and a major step forward. It was also 2003.   During the initial Miramax period, information about developments was hard to come by. I would bug my agent for news when I knew very well that there was nothing to report. It was extremely frustrating, but also, I was told, quite normal.

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With Leslie’s company taking over the option, however, all of that was to change. Being a writer herself, Leslie understood my anxieties and has made it almost a point of principle ever since to keep me informed and up to speed on what’s been happening. Consequently, over the next seven years we would exchange upwards of a thousand emails. Often, like a crack addict, I would bug her the way I had previously bugged my agent. “Any news? Any news? Come on, man, there must be something, a taste, anything.” And to her eternal credit, she always had something, always kept me supplied.   It can’t have been easy for her. I was in Dublin, writing another novel and changing nappies, and she was over in Hollywood doing all of the heavy lifting, taking the meetings, negotiating deal points over this or that, schmoozing the moneymen and the studio alpha dogs. Her perseverance and dedication to the project have been epic and without her the film simply would not have come together.   But come together it did.   After many false starts. And various names at various times being “attached” (it’s hard not to use air quotes when talking about this stuff), names such as Cusack, Wahlberg, Sturgess and Ledger. After each of these peaks, there’d be a trough, hence the excitement fatigue.

Then suddenly, Shia LaBeouf was “attached” and everything seemed to fall into place. He “signed”. Neil Burger was to direct. Universal Studios were providing the moolah. Hooray for Hollywood, that screwy, ballyhooey.

  Then I spotted a news item online one morning, Shia LaBeouf, to whom I had become quite “attached”, had had a minor traffic accident and hurt his hand. I smiled, almost indulgently. Someone oughta rein this kid in, I thought, little knowing that this peak would be followed by a year-long trough, and near despair all round.   Then Bradley Cooper signed on, and it all fell into place again. Neil directing: Relativity Media, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel. Shooting in New York. And almost as an afterthought, in an email like so many others, mention was made of Robert De Niro maybe being “interested” in the part of Carl Van Loon. But don’t get excited, I was warned. And I actually didn’t.   Then De Niro “signed”.   When I was fourteen, I went on my own one day to see Mean Streets. I had to scam my way in because it was rated ‘over 18s’. But that little act of transgression was nothing compared to what I soon found myself gaping at on the screen, De Niro’s performance as Johnny Boy, the most dangerous thing I had ever seen, and have possibly ever seen. Now, thirty-six years later, here was De Niro.   That was a high point, obviously. And the De Niro effect was phenomenal. It was like a massive adrenaline shot to the heart. Everybody I knew was “excited” about the movie anyway, but when you mentioned De Niro, the air quotes fell away and jaws dropped to the floor.   The other high point for me, and a good bookend, came when I visited the set in New York last April. There’s a scene in the novel where the main character finds himself one morning staggering in an MDT-fuelled haze across Brooklyn Bridge. I remember writing the scene very clearly, because I was drawing on my own experience, ten years earlier, of having to stagger (in a very different kind of haze) across the bridge every morning to work. But now, in 2010, here I was one glorious Tuesday, at 6 a.m., watching a busy film crew, watching a director and a movie star, meticulously recreating that scene. For a writer who spends most of his time alone in a small room, that was a pretty amazing experience.

  And then, all at what felt like a rush, the film was made and in the can. The post-production phase has been quite long, my only brush with it coming when the marketing folks decided to change the title from The Dark Fields to Limitless. I didn’t have any say in the matter, but threw a hissy fit anyway. The original title, which comes from the last page of The Great Gatsby, speaks to certain themes in the book, and Limitless could have meant anything. But in that way names have of accruing associations and energies around them, Limitless took hold and has grown on me.   I haven’t seen the film yet. I know it has morphed quite a bit from the original script, and that there has been considerable “input” from the studio (which is inevitable, apparently, when budgets hit a certain level), but if the trailer is anything to go by – the look and feel of it, the pacing, the narrative setup – then they’ve certainly done a terrific job of remaining true to the spirit of the book.   Over the last ten years then, Dubya has come and gone, my hard drive has increased from two gigabytes to two terabytes, I’ve written three novels and had two kids. They’re now making fart jokes and taking guitar lessons. So, you know what? It is a long time.     But such is the nature and draw of the movie business that if any of my other novels were to be optioned in the morning, I’d be onboard like a shot, doubtless succumbing once again to the naïve delusion that it could all be done, this time, in eighteen months.

Limitless will be released in cinemas on Wed 23 March.

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