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Tales from Development Hell: A Confederacy of Dunces

By Ryan Fleming



Can a work of fiction be cursed? If people, places or things can be cursed then why not a work of fiction too? Such legends have been attached to horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen or Poltergeist. These conflate various difficulties and/or tragedies that happened during or after production into a through line of bad luck. In those instances, one might conclude that these acted as an insidious form of marketing like that pioneered by William Castle and later lazily continued by “Inspired by True Events” plastered across the poster for every tuppeny-ha’penny modern horror film.


What about a film that’s not in the horror genre? And has nothing to be marketing because it’s never actually made it to production in the first place?


This brings us to A Confederacy of Dunces. Adaptations of this picaresque novel published in 1980 have been attempted on-and-off since publication. Yet not one second of footage has ever been shot, and the deaths of several connected with the attempts have led to such attempts being labelled as cursed even by filmmakers.


The troubled publication of the novel would set the tone to the difficult path in adapting it. Though first published in 1980, it was completed in the mid-1960s. John Kennedy Toole found difficulty in finding a publisher during that era, despite a long correspondence with editor Robert Gottlieb, who had previously helped an unknown Joseph Heller publish Catch-22. Depression from the rejections and both personal and professional struggled led to Toole taking his own life outside of Biloxi, Mississippi in March 1969. Toole’s mother, Thelma, sank into a depression of her own following his death, but after finding a carbon copy of the manuscript in her house put all her efforts into seeing it published, succeeding more than a decade after its author’s death. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.


A Hollywood film adaptation was in the works as early as 1982. Harold Ramis, writer of Animal House and Meatballs, as well as writer-director of Caddyshack was to make the first attempt. Several actors were discussed including Richard Pryor as Burma Jones and John Belushi, who had starred in Animal House, as the novel’s protagonist Ignatius Jacques Reilly. Much as Ramis was coming off the successful Caddyshack, so too was Belushi coming off the success of The Blues Brothers. However, Belushi died in March 1982 from a drug overdose. According to some accounts, he died the day before he was due to sign on as Reilly. His death put the production on indefinite hold, and eventually Ramis moved onto other projects.


The rights would be purchased in short order by oil magnate John Langdon who sought Canadian actor John Candy for the title role. Candy had actually acted opposite Belushi in both 1941 and The Blues Brothers, as well as opposite Ramis in Stripes and for him in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. He passed on the role of Reilly, but his death a decade later in 1994 has become part of the supposed curse on the film. Langdon struggled to find a lead actor, and after a short burst of activity under the auspices of director John Waters (who intended to have his Pink Flamingos star Divine as Reilly) the project fell dormant again. Langdon came to agree with Waters’s view that any film could never live up to the book. He surrendered the rights as the 1980s became the 1990s, and never broke into Hollywood.


The rights were picked up by producer Scott Kramer, who had actually purchased them the first time round for the original Ramis/Belushi attempt. Possibly as a result of the difficulties from the last time around, he brought aboard Scott Rudin to act as the actual producer. Rudin would have prolific success in Hollywood, even winning the Academy Award for best picture for No Country for Old Men. He also gained a reputation as “Hollywood’s biggest a-hole” per the New York Post and in 2021 was forced to step back from his many film, streaming, and theatrical commitments after a long history of abusive behaviour towards employees was broken in The Hollywood Reporter.


Rubin brought onboard English actor and comedian Stephen Fry to script the adaptation during the 1990s. Fry was a fan of the novel and at Rudin’s insistence even spent a week in New Orleans to soak up the atmosphere of the novel’s setting. This version seemed to be moving ahead with Chris Farley in the lead role. Like Belushi, Farley was an alumnus of the television sketch show Saturday Night Live. Sadly, also like Belushi, he died of a drug overdose at the age of 33. It’s here that the notion of a curse first begins to appear in some sensationalistic reporting. The similar deaths of Belushi and Farley, along with the otherwise dissimilar deaths of Candy and Divine, and the decade and a half the film had spent in production being all the evidence some needed.


But, in truth, what did for the 1990s attempt to film the novel was not the death of Farley. John Goodman had also been linked to the role (and is still alive as of March 2023) for this production. Fry had also suggested his friend, Scottish actor and comedian, Robbie Coltrane. Arguably, either of those two men might have been a better choice than Farley. What stopped the film from being adapted in the 1990s was disputes between producers, writer, and would-be director.


Steven Soderbergh was the first big name director to be attached to that production. After a brief attempt at collaboration, Stephen Fry was off the production and his script, which had taken on more of a meta quality, was torn up. Fry pointed out in an interview with The Sunday Times that were was also a question over rights ownership that further muddied the already opaque waters of the production. Kramer still owned the rights, technically, and he preferred Soderbergh’s version closely aligned to the novel. Rudin, on the other hand, preferred Fry’s less faithful treatment. Being Hollywood producers, naturally they got lawyers involved.


That legal dispute put the project on hold again for another couple years. Soderbergh left as director during that time. Kramer won out in the end, and still intended to move ahead with the filming of Soderbergh’s script, albeit with David Gordon Green directing. This time around, Kramer had secured Will Ferrell (another Saturday Night Live alumnus) for the lead role, who would perform in a fat-suit. It was scheduled to film in 2005, and even had a staged reading of the script at the Nantucket Film Festival in 2004. Joining Ferrell were Lily Tomlin as Reilly’s mother, Irene; Paul Rudd as his nemesis, Officer Mancuso; Natasha Lyonne as his most-definitely-not-love interest Myrna; and Mos Def as Burma Jones.


It was never filmed. Rights arguments consumed the film again, this time between studios Miramax and Paramount. The devastation wrought upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has also been cited as a reason for the production being put on indefinite hold… again.


Rumours and rumours of rumours have continued about Hollywood’s adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. Most recently in 2012 with Zach Galifianakis slated to star and James Bobin set to direct. Despite more than four decades of effort and more heavyset actors than a department store Santa training room the absolute closest the novel has come to adaptation has been a 2015 theatrical production in 2015 with Nick Offerman in the role of Ignatius J. Reilly.


What if it had been successfully filmed? What if Hollywood had succeeded in bringing A Confederacy of Dunces to the big screen? Well, that all depends on the when and the who of the adaptation. Perhaps the easiest way is if the first attempt had gotten underway. It seemed poised for efforts to begin, but unlike the attempts in the 1990s and 2000s it does not also have to contend with rights disputes.


John Belushi at the 32nd Annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner

For that to happen, we need John Belushi alive and able to complete production. The former is not in itself difficult. He just has to avoid the fatal speedball shot on March 5, 1982. Any number of things might have happened that things go differently for him on that date. The latter however, may prove just as troubled to the production. Belushi had actually abstained from drug use during production of Continental Divide, but production of Neighbors, an already fraught environment, he relapsed. Tragedy might strike on the set of A Confederacy of Dunces rather than at the Chateau Marmont hotel unless Belushi can abstain from drugs again. Belushi living past 1982 itself has wider implications than getting A Confederacy of Dunces filmed, but more on that later.


Another possibility might be Ramis sticking around on production and immediately trying to find a new lead actor. One wonders if John Candy had been considered before the rights changed and he was first approached by John Langdon. Perhaps Ramis, who was already familiar with Candy from Stripes and a proven Hollywood commodity, might have been able to persuade Candy to take the role where the untested Langdon failed. However, Candy was not as known an actor as he would later become, and without the star power of Belushi the film might not do as well as it could have at the box office.


Whether Belushi or Candy, chances are they would have succeeded in the role. A Confederacy of Dunces might have stood as an oddity amongst that era of comedy films from American and Canadian filmmakers, but part of the canon it would have been. It’s relative commercial and critical reception, both upon its release and in the present day, can only be speculated upon in the broadest terms. However, what we can say is films that we might not get as a result of A Confederacy of Dunces being filmed.


Historically, after Belushi’s death Ramis moved onto a different production. It was an adaptation of a short story called “Vacation ’58” that had appeared in September 1979 from writer John Hughes. Ramis and the film’s star, Chevy Chase, rewrote the screenplay that Hughes turned in and the result was National Lampoon’s Vacation. It was a commercial success, making over $60 million from a $15 million budget. It spawned three sequels and remake and earned Hughes a three-film deal with Universal Pictures. Those were Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. Hughes would also later direct Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home Alone. The first Vacation film, along with Mr. Mom, made Hughes’s career following the failure of National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, the second disastrous attempt at a sequel to Animal House. His career trajectory would be on a different path without it.


Similarly, at the time of his death, Belushi’s friend, and co-star on Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers, and Neighbors, Dan Aykroyd, was working on a script where the two of them would star alongside Eddie Murphy. That script was Ghostbusters, which would eventually be made and released in 1984 but with Bill Murray stepping into the role intended for Belushi, with both Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson filling out the other lead roles of the title characters. Again, this would be a very different film if Belushi had lived long enough to star. Considering that the franchise’s neon green mascot, Slimer, has been said by Aykroyd tongue-in-cheek to be the ghost of Belushi, the film would also be without its biggest merchandising mascot and might not spawn a franchise the way it did.


Filmmaking is a very closed world, and Hollywood filmmaking doubly so. With that in mind, if you change things so that a film that was never made is actually made, even if you cannot say with any measure of confidence how it would be received, you can speculate on what might not be happening if certain filmmakers are now busy on a different production. It is the way for A Confederacy of Dunces being successfully adapted when it was originally meant to be in 1982. Fans of John Belushi and John Candy get another undoubtedly memorable performance from good actors, but beyond that we can more accurately predict what doesn’t happen than what does.


Is A Confederacy of Dunces cursed? No more than the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb or Mick Jagger openly supporting a football team. The alleged deaths arising from being connected to the role of Ignatius J. Reilly come more from substance abuse and other aspects of an unhealthy lifestyle. That overweight actors were largely sought for an overweight character created a loop of false positives. There might be a curse, in so much as Hollywood filmmakers are, like the criminals of Gotham City, a superstitious and cowardly lot. Steven Soderbergh went so far as to say it was cursed in 2013, remarking “I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”


Sounds like superstition. With that in mind, perhaps it is impossible for the film to be made as soon as the curse notion begins doing the rounds. Despite the quixotic efforts of producer Scott Kramer who, aside from a brief substitution by John Langdon in the 1980s, tried to make the film for more than two decades. Per one studio executive who purchased the rights option all the way back in 1981: “I think the movie to make now is Scott Kramer trying to get this movie made.”


Perhaps An Industry of Dunces might make it to theatres more easily than A Confederacy of Dunces.

 
 

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP

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