x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

JJ Abrams' literary project has created quite a buzz

JJ Abrams, of Lost and Cloverfield, has a new book project that looks set to shake up the publishing world.

The director JJ Abrams is most famous for the long-running television series Lost.
The director JJ Abrams is most famous for the long-running television series Lost.

From the monster movie Cloverfield to the maddening television series Lost, a JJ Abrams project always possesses that most valuable of cultural currencies: buzz.

Super 8, his next big zombie movie, has caused such excitement it even had a promotional campaign for the trailer - premiered during the biggest sporting event in the American calendar, the Super Bowl. So when it was announced this month that Abrams was now turning his hand to novels, it was inevitable that we'd get something more than a dry press release.

Typically, the excitement began before a book had been even been printed. Major publishers were each sent unique proofs and informed that "a package should be dropping through your door right now". Each one was slightly different in order to guard against leaks, so we know next to nothing about the actual story. And at the London Book Fair, Canongate was so impressed that it acquired the UK and Commonwealth rights - but even it seemed sucked in by the hype.

Jamie Byng, Canongate's managing director, not usually prone to such hyperbole, said at the announcement that "this book looks set to be one of the most ground-breaking, bold and innovative pieces of storytelling ever." Yes, ever.

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Although you wouldn't put it past Abrams to shake up the publishing world in some way. Byng was right when he said that the book "is going to be a major international event." That's how all Abrams projects start out - he is a master of building anticipation and buzz, sometimes to the detriment of the finished product. Lost was admittedly fantastic television, but did it really need six series to tell us what actually happened onboard the fated Oceanic 815 flight?

The reason it lasted so long is that Abrams and his cohorts cleverly built intrigue and a sense of fan-ownership into the online campaign. It was a trick they repeated with Cloverfield, the trailer of which was a viral hit despite the title of the film being wholly absent. The film itself? A perfectly enjoyable monster movie with some interesting camera work, but not a lasting classic.

But Abrams is clever. Like Lost (co-created by Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof) and Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves), he's not about to sit down and fashion this book all by himself. It will be "based on an idea" by Abrams - the actual writing will be undertaken by Doug Dorst, most famous for his award-winning fantasy novel Alive In Necropolis.

Lost, though, did have characters named after the most literary of philosophers (Locke, Rousseau, Hume) and there was even a tie-in novel, Bad Twin, supposedly written by one of the passengers on board the doomed flight, Gary Troup. So, even if Abrams doesn't actually write this eagerly awaited novel, he does at least have some literary background.

One hopes it will be useful, because filmmaker-to-novelist is not exactly a well-worn career path. The Hollywood legend and multi-Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, most famous for 1955's imperious On the Waterfront, decided in 1963 that "the novel is the greatest art form". Sales of his books, at the time, suggested that such a move had been a good idea. But his four novels have hardly stood the test of time - unsurprisingly, since Acts Of Love was essentially a rather grubby tale of a Greek tyrant's desire for his beautiful daughter-in-law.

The suspicion that the literary efforts of filmmakers might be just a little throw-away is confirmed by the risible Fan-Tan. Written in 1984 by Donald Cammell, the cult director of Performance, it came with "editorial advice" from Marlon Brando. Since Cammell also wrote Performance, one of the classics of 1960s cinema, big things were expected. But it was an innuendo-laden, cliché-ridden adventure on the high seas, which, unsurprisingly, didn't get a proper release until both parties were, er, dead.

Perhaps Abrams would be wise to tailor his stories to children. The most spectacularly successful director-turned-writer is without question Luc Besson. Yes, it was perhaps a surprise that the man responsible for the fantastical The Fifth Element or the ultra-violent Leon didn't write science fiction or a thriller, but his series of books featuring the adventures of 10-year-old Arthur have been a spectacular, best-selling success across the world.

In Besson's case, he was so bored waiting for his production company to film his initial idea that he just wrote the books. It did actually end up as a movie - 2006's Arthur and the Invisibles - but the fact that it's also a video game and a theme-park ride certainly confirms that Besson's writing captured the imagination.

As for Abrams, all we know about the forthcoming book is that it will be published next year, that there might be a love story taking place in the actual margin of the book, and that it might also contain a novel within a novel. We'll probably be drip-fed snippets of information over the next 12 months, but nothing more. Which is, after all, just the way Abrams likes it.