Scholars Talk Writing: Eric Jager

Full vitae eric jager

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The writers I know who live in Los Angeles have all had some kind of brush with the entertainment-industrial complex. Usually what happens: They hear lots of talk and enthusiasm for turning their work into a movie or a television series, and then … nothing.

Eric Jager, a professor of medieval literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, may soon be the exception. After several years of being teased, lured, and paid (!) for the film rights to his 2004 bookThe Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, he is actually going to see it up on the big screen. An adaptation — starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and directed by Ridley Scott — is now being filmed in France.

Academe and Hollywood do cross paths, at times (and not just in the admissions office). Some professors get hired as science, history, legal, or technical consultants for TV and film. Others, like Jager, have their books optioned. Neither of those things is very common, yet plenty of academic writers would be happy to be the focus of such attentions.

In the following interview for the Scholars Talk Writing series, Jager shared his experiences with Hollywood. It’s the sort of information that, while not immediately useful to most academics, is good to know before you need to know it. (For those of you who are content to keep your work obscure, read on purely to dish about the movies.)

Going from writing scholarly books to trade books to getting a film deal, what did you have to learn?

Jager: My first two books were scholarly arguments. But my first trade book, The Last Duel (2004), was a historical narrative requiring a dramatic plot, vivid characters, and colorful settings. I had to send the reader back in time some six centuries to imagine — to feel — the lives of two men and a woman caught in a fatal triangle, and a brutal legal system in which a rape case could be resolved through trial by combat.

The first casualty of this project was academic jargon. There simply was no room for abstractions or convolutions. With every sentence I strove for transparent prose — language that puts the reader at the scene and gets the writer out of the way.

Literary analysis requires a critical approach to the text, a certain distance whose attitude or tone — one of skepticism, resistance, or opposition — seeps into the prose and takes shape as abstraction rather than image, idea rather than event. But historical narrative — which moves through time to delineate plot, illustrate characters, and sketch out scenes — demands different things. It trades distance for immediacy, skepticism for trust, the abstract for the concrete.

Can you give a brief history of the Hollywood experience?

Jager: Film interest in The Last Duel began quite early. My agent sold three successive options: first to Paramount for Martin Scorsese in 2006; then to Studio 8 for the The Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence in 2014; and, most recently, to Fox/Disney for Ridley Scott in 2019. All three options resulted in a script, but the first two lapsed before shooting began. The third option is still active and may actually result in a film, since shooting began in February.

Publishers tend to keep movie rights, unless an agent asks for them, and most agents ask for them because they have connections with agents who work in Hollywood.

Jager: Yes, with trade books, agents usually retain film rights for their authors. But academic presses often expect to keep those rights, as I know from personal experience and also from colleagues who were slapped down or sidelined by their scholarly presses when Hollywood called.

Academic books do get optioned and even turned into films, though it’s rare. But unless you as the author hold the copyright, or the contract expressly grants you the film rights, you won’t have much say.

OK, let’s talk about how options work.

Jager: Imagine that your house is for sale, and you have a buyer, and both of you even agree on the price, but they’re not ready to pay it yet. For a fraction of that price (as little as 2 percent), you sell the buyer the exclusive right to buy the house at that price, within a set period of time (typically 12 or 18 months). That’s an option.

An option contract prevents the seller from raising the price of the (literary) property at the last minute, or the buyer from lowering it, so it works to the advantage of both.

So as an author you get money for work you’ve already done. How much?

Jager: An option can be anywhere from zero to a healthy five figures — or maybe even more. Some producers want to "option" your material for free and shop it around. Bad idea. They can damage the goods and pre-empt your chance of future deals.

After a book is optioned it goes into "development." Describe that process.

Jager: We really love your book! We’ve attached a famous director! We’ve hired a talented writer! The script is underway. The script is almost done. Act I is proving troublesome. Can we get your notes? We’re doing a new draft. The director really loves it. He just has a few questions. A writers’ strike looms. Your payment will be delayed. The strike is over now. We’re back in business again. Can we get your notes once more? The producer has left the lot. The director has another project. Your option won’t be renewed. Thank you very much.

Are there things writers can do if they think their book has movie or TV potential?

Jager: Every author is obsessed with their own book. And their friends are always saying, "This would make a great movie!" But none of this matters unless an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, or talent agent stumbles across it and is infected by the same feelings. How to make this happen? If you have a literary agent, urge them to shop your book widely. If you don’t, contacts in the industry or adjacent to it can also be useful.

A couple of years ago, I got an acquaintance to set up a meeting for me with a Game of Thrones producer. And, more recently, using contact information gleaned from IMDb.Pro, I wrote to a writer/producer who I thought would be perfect for my book Blood Royal, the story of one of history’s first detectives, and he wrote back saying he was interested and offering to talk.

It can happen. But it won’t if you just randomly throw your work against the wall. Be imaginative but also strategic, and be persistent.

Well, it probably helps that you’re in Los Angeles, right?

Jager: It doesn’t hurt. Soon after The Last Duel was sold, amid some early film interest, I got in touch with Margaret Rosenthal, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Honest Courtesan (which became the film Dangerous Beauty), and she gave me some very useful advice about the film industry. She told me that filmmakers don’t want our advice on how to make the film. They want our expertise as scholars, as specialists with knowledge about the subject that they don’t have and that may not even be in the book. My UCLA colleagues in creative writing also have been very helpful. For example, the late Carolyn See, an acclaimed novelist and longtime book reviewer, generously introduced me to a very good literary agent whom she knew.

A former student, too — now a lawyer and a screenwriter — has been helpful over the years, including an early suggestion that I protect my IP by registering it with the Writers Guild of America.

Why was that important?

Jager: Idea theft is apparently rampant in Hollywood, which is why the WGA has a registry: to protect the IP of writers. And idea theft has been known to occur in academe as well. For a modest fee, the WGA will assign your book manuscript or screenplay a unique number, record the date, lock the material in a vault (today a digital one), and provide you with an official certificate. That way, if a question of ownership arises, you can prove that the material is yours.

The registry won’t prevent plagiarism; anyone can copy your work. But a registered book manuscript is evidence that you had fixed certain ideas in tangible form by a certain date. So someone can’t just copy it and claim that they created it before you did — unless they actually registered the same material earlier.

What has surprised you about working with Hollywood?

Jager: It’s always mystified me that filmmakers want to meet with the author, either before or even after a deal had been struck. When it’s before the deal, I suspect they want to sprinkle stardust in your eyes and get you to ally with them against your agent, and against your own interests.

But after the deal? When they already have the rights? Perhaps you have further information that they need, stuff that isn’t in the book. Or maybe they want to make sure you’re truly on board as a team player. That you won’t, like some authors, badmouth the film based on your own book.

Hemingway may have offered the best advice: "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came." I once chatted with an author whose books have sold millions of copies, and he told me that when Hollywood calls, he always tells them that he has just one condition: "I don’t want to be involved." The relief at the other end of the line, he says, is palpable.

What about scholarly/historical accuracy?

Jager: I’ve had the opportunity to read scripts for two different film projects based on The Last Duel, and to provide what the industry calls "notes." Based on that experience and also on watching lots of historical films, I think the best Hollywood productions really try to nail the visual culture — from costumes to architecture.

But I also think that Hollywood is a lot less attentive to language — to dialogue in its historic dimension. That’s why we have Mel Gibson, in Braveheart, shouting, "Take out their archers!" Yeah, right!

So in reading the scripts, I’ve tried to nudge the filmmakers toward an idiom that’s a little more authentic without being off-puttingly archaic — avoiding the "Quoth he, quaffing ale" school of medieval parlance.

You mentioned to me that you’d been ditched by your first agent. What happened?

Jager: Well, that episode unfolded years ago when a friend put me in touch with a young literary agent. There was talk of selling my book to both publishers and filmmakers in one fell swoop. Eventually, despite good intentions on both sides, an economic downturn and some corporate restructuring caused my agent to leave the firm.

The most valuable lesson I learned was simply to keep working on my book. And after lots of trial and error, mostly error, I found another agent who really believed in the book and saw its potential.

Any advice to grad students (or academic authors) about writing for a trade audience?

Jager: Three things are critical: voice, narrative, and imagery.

First, you’re an expert in your field, but the reader will already know that from the author bio, blurbs, and other book packaging. So inside the book you can use a more relaxed, informal voice that isn’t always trying to prove your authority via notes, literature reviews, and other academic tics. A literary agent once told a friend of mine, "Mind the difference between telling readers what you know and telling them that you know." Readers appreciate the former, but the latter — not so much.

Narrative, or storytelling, is also key and can take various forms. Histories and biographies have a long story arc, supported by chapters that are almost like the separate arches of a bridge. Other books offer an argument, or maybe a series of arguments, that need illustration in the form of shorter narratives — anecdotes or examples that flesh out the ideas and also give the reader a break from unrelenting reason.

Finally, try to appeal to the reader’s imagination by picturing the world of your biographical subject, or of the birth of an earth-shaking idea, or the invisible, subatomic realm where particles collide — a case where metaphor may be your best friend. Photos and images often help, of course, but your publisher may not allow you to embed lively videos in your ebook.

So you still have to provide most of the pictures in the old-fashioned way: through words.

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