My Day of the Locust

How a book I wrote got turned into a movie, and why I ain't rich

On the 13th of next month, a movie based on a book I wrote will be released in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and about 16 other cities not including Dallas. The birthing of this movie, a five-year process, was a big deal for me.

Called Bully, the movie is directed by Larry Clark, a renowned still photographer who was the director of the controversial independent film Kids in 1995. The screenplay was written by David McKenna (Blow); the movie stars Brad Renfro (Apt Pupil). A month ago, after I watched a preliminary version on videotape, I thought about changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.

The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.
Tobin Yelland
The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.

Then I admitted to myself that much of the really rough sexual content and violence in the movie is there because I put it in my book. In fact, the movie is so uncannily faithful to the book that I find I have little moral wriggle room in which to deny responsibility. I can't exactly sigh and swoon over this, in other words.

I'm square about movies. I have passed the tape along to Dallas Observer/New Times movie critic Robert Wilonsky so he can tell us whether this is a good movie or a bad movie, moviewise.

I found the sexual content of the movie very tough to watch. I have to say, there is no inkling of an effort to make the sex arousing or titillating, as in a porn movie. Probably you could show this movie to kids as a way of turning them off from sex. The director uses sex as an especially devastating window on the vacuousness of the characters' lives, but you definitely do not want to look through this particular window on a first date.

Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers) produced the movie. Fernando Sulichin, the proprietor of a prominent studio in Paris, was the money. In the money, there is truth. Allow me to give you my amateur theory of Hollywood.

My literary agent, Janet Wilkens Manus in New York, is a genius at the marketing, re-marketing and re-re-marketing of literary properties. She sold options for the movie rights to my book, Bully (William Morrow, 1997), half a dozen times.

The money goes like this: For an option, I get small money. If they make a small independent movie, I get modest but OK money. If someone had made a major motion picture, instead of this column from me you would be reading a postcard with palm trees on it.

My book was an account of the true story of a bunch of ne'er-do-well white suburban teen-age slugs in Fort Lauderdale who savagely murdered one of their own in 1992. I chose to write a book about it for a number of reasons, many of which were crass.

At that point in my life, I was writing "true crime" books for a living. It was a period when true crime books, if well-published by major houses, were able to cross over into the mainstream book-reading market. A few authors--Ann Rule, Jack Olsen, the Observer's own Carlton Stowers--wrote books that both sold well and achieved critical acclaim. I got some good reviews.

Manus, my agent, was incredibly good at keeping her ear to the ground for exactly the story line that both Hollywood and the New York book world were shopping for during any given week. And it did change, week to week. She told me at one point, "Young suburban white kids involved in an inexplicably horrific crime."

The phenom of the week! The mysterious story of suburban white kids gone wrong!

That night I found the Fort Lauderdale story.

The next morning Manus sold it like a hot cake: instant book deal at Morrow, instant movie deal (option) at Touchstone, which is Disney.

In addition to making the first of many trips to Florida, I also embarked on a small reading project in criminology, trying to see what the experts said about why white middle-class kids would behave in such an unexpected way. They said not to unexpect it.

For at least the last 15 years, the answer in just about everybody's research (see Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime, Stanford University Press, 1990) had been coming back consistently the same: It's not about class, they found. It's not about ethnicity. It's not even about education. And it is not about physiology in any way anybody can prove beyond the level of ridiculous superstition.

The sociologists, who probably were all about my age and went to the University of Michigan and feared that people would think they had been kidnapped by the Christian Right if they used certain words, talked all around the one word that did answer the question. They talked about "lack of self-control," "lack of impulse control" and so on.

But the word here is moral. Crime flows from moral choice. Crime is an expression of evil. And whatever is wrong in this country, if there is something wrong, it operates at a level far deeper than class or ethnicity or geography. Ain't nobody got no morals worth bragging about, rich or poor.

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