A Conspiracy of Dunces

Will John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece ever reach the big screen?

In January of 1980, Scott Kramer, a young executive at 20th Century Fox, received the galleys of an oddly titled novel. The publisher, the Louisiana State University Press, had no presence whatsoever in Hollywood, but Kramer had contacted them a year earlier, using studio letterhead to obtain an arcane guide to the flora of Louisiana, which he gave to his mother, an amateur botanist, for her birthday. In the process, he unwittingly became the press’s only contact in the movie business. When the book arrived, Kramer had no desire to read it, but making some effort, he rationalized, would give him a clear conscience when he passed on the project. As it turned out, the manuscript changed his life. Kramer became one of the first of many readers to be seduced by the comic charms of A Confederacy of Dunces. The producer has spent 26 years trying to make the book into a movie, and his odyssey underlines a perennial Hollywood question: Can you adapt a satire without losing your shirt and your mind?

According to some sources, a film version of Dunces is slated for release in 2007, with a meticulously faithful script by Kramer and Steven Soderbergh. To direct, Kramer has attached David Gordon Green, who, though relatively unknown, has a Southern Gothic style that matches the tone of the book. The all-star cast includes Lily Tomlin, Drew Barrymore, Mos Def, Olympia Dukakis, and Will Ferrell in a fat suit, as the philosophical and portly Ignatius J. Reilly. There’s just one problem: Not a scene has been captured on film yet.

Ostensibly, this is because Paramount, which currently owns the rights to the book, has reached something of a creative lull on Dunces, and the project appears orphaned by the regime change that resulted in producer Scott Rudin’s exodus to Disney (e-mails to Paramount went unreturned). But at a grander level, this is the latest hitch in a litany of woe that has conspired to keep the film from being made. Even Kramer, its most tireless advocate, has begun to doubt whether the project will ever get out of development hell.

Dunces, of course, has always been shrouded in heartbreak. Its publication came 11 years after author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, and it reached print only because of the singular persistence of his mother, who harassed novelist Walker Percy so intently that he finally agreed to read the lone ink-smudged manuscript in her possession. Duly impressed, Percy handed the pages over to the LSU Press, insisting that they publish the book. The first run was a measly 800 copies. Nearly half of those were sent to Kramer, who pitched these now-rare first editions around Hollywood, most of which probably ended up in trash bins. A year later, Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Today, it stands as one of the most revered comic works in the modern canon.

The book explores the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a 300-pound antihero who resides with his mother and is given to leisurely strolls around his native New Orleans, during which he levies his incisive judgments on everything he encounters. As described by Percy in the book’s foreword, Ignatius is a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” And for all of the novel’s literary qualities—the sensory-specific perfection of Toole’s descriptions of New Orleans, the loopy gracefulness of his prose, and his gift for black comedy—it is the creation of Ignatius that stands as its signature achievement.

Yet, despite the book’s comic prowess and cultish street cred, nobody has succeeded in bringing it to the big screen. It may be too good for its own good. Bubblegum genre pieces and formulaic spy thrillers tend to do best in Hollywood, sometimes resulting in movies that exceed their progenitors (e.g., the Bourne series). Conversely, richly crafted novels with complex storylines often die painful deaths, losing too much in the translation (take your pick). This is especially true of comedic works. Any fan of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 would be hard pressed not to throw a brick at the television anytime the 1970 film by Mike Nichols is aired, which says less about Nichols’ talent than it does the challenge he faced.

As with Catch-22, part of what makes Dunces so hilarious is the specificity of its language and tone. Much of this transpires in the peculiar inner-space of Ignatius’ green-hunting-capped skull, coming forth in letters, monologues against all things modern, and a rambling manifesto, which he scribbles onto Big Chief writing tablets. But while these devices work artfully on the page, giving them cinematic life has stymied humorists as prolific as Buck Henry (who, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for Catch-22), Harold Ramis (who wanted to set the movie in the present), and Stephen Fry (who added wholly invented scenes).

Throughout Dunces’ history, studio chiefs have been reluctant to bet on a colloquial story involving an overweight intellectual who avoids sex and is fond of alluding to Roman philosophers. In many cases, the suits simply didn’t get the book. For a version considered in the early ‘80s, Orion Pictures founder Mike Medavoy suggested that Ignatius be made thin, so that aerobics-crazy audiences would take to him, which is like suggesting that Captain Ahab be made kinder to ocean mammals so Moby Dick appeals to environmentalists. Yet these same executives are often attracted to the book’s status as an “important” work. And therein lies the tension that keeps a Dunces adaptation forever on life support. As Will Ferrell has said, “It’s the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make but doesn’t want to finance.”

Most curiously, there is the matter of what many, including Steven Soderbergh, believe to be a “curse” that surrounds the book. In addition to the tragic suicide of Toole, a series of misfortunes have affected efforts to make the film. In 1982, John Belushi became the first actor cast in the role of Ignatius (Richard Pryor was also attached to this version, in the role of the visionary vagrant Burma Jones). Belushi was an inspired choice, possessing both the artistic range and the physical largesse to nail the character. All the lights seemed to be turning green for Kramer, who was then only 23 years old. But a day or so before Belushi was supposed to meet with executives at Universal to finalize his involvement, he died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont. Five months later, the woman who led the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered by her husband, which brought the efforts to shoot the film in New Orleans—and the production itself—to a halt. Other deaths tangentially linked to the project include those of actors John Candy and Chris Farley, both of whom were considered for the lead role before they died. And, for those so predisposed, the recent devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans provides further amplification.

Will Dunces ever get made? Should it even be attempted? The cast and director seem to think so, and they are standing by, ready to take salary cuts, though the project does need a new champion at Paramount before anything can happen. Once again, Hollywood fumbling seems to have doomed the endeavor. At this point, if a film ever does get made, it will more likely tell the meta-story of Kramer’s attempts to make the movie, interspersed with bits of the book and author Toole’s real-life saga—similar to the way Charlie Kaufman dealt with The Orchid Thief. If this does happen, Kramer’s struggles may yet pay off, for hardship always makes for good storytelling. As the movie-loving Ignatius himself once said, “My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.”