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‘A Confederacy of Dunces': A History of Hollywood’s ‘Cursed’ Adaptation (Guest Blog)

John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley were all considered to play the lead in the film version of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

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On March 26 1969, on a quiet country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi, John Kennedy Toole took his own life. Aged just 31, the literary professor and author left behind two unpublished novels. Over the course of the next decade, Toole’s grieving mother Thelma dedicated her life to ensuring the second of these, “A Confederacy Of Dunces,” found publication. Eventually, she succeeded, and the New Orleans-set picaresque tale of slovenly philosopher and medievalist Ignatius J. Reilly went on to sell over two million copies and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, making Toole one of only three writers to win the prize posthumously.

Almost as much as the book itself, readers were intrigued by the unique journey the novel took to publication, with a flamboyant yet grief-stricken mother dedicating what remained of her life to ensuring her son’s genius was recognized by the world.

Inevitably, with such a successful novel and such a compelling lead character, it wasn’t long before Hollywood showed an interest, and over the next 30 years, it seemed as though every talented, heavyset actor in Hollywood would be linked with the role.

The first attempted adaptation came as early as 1982. Director, writer and actor Harold Ramis, then several years away from his “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day” heyday, and best known for writing frat comedy “Animal House,” planned to direct a script by Buck Henry with his “Animal House” star John Belushi, then at the peak of his post-“Blues Brothers” fame, in line to play Ignatius, and Richard Pryor in talks to play Burma Jones. It’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to the role of Ignatius than Belushi, but any hopes of seeing him mastering the New Orleans accent and embodying the lead character’s gargantuan girth died along with Belushi after he overdosed as the Chateau Marmont, just days before he was due to officially sign on.

John Belushi and Harold Ramis made the first and arguably best attempt to adapt the book. Unfortunately, Belushi died of a drug overdose before he could sign. (Photo: Getty Images)

The next actor to be considered was John Candy. With Ramis having left the project after Belushi’s death, it was not a director or producer that approached Candy. It was brought to him by, of all people, an oil magnate. John Langdon had acquired the rights to the book shortly after Belushi’s death and tasked writer Maidee Walker with adapting the novel in 1984. Candy eventually passed on the role, leading to Walker having, in her words, “lunch with every fat actor in Hollywood.”

Whoever these actors were, none ever signed on, leaving Longdon to make the desperate-seeming suggestion of comedian Jonathan Winters, who was in his late fifties at the time, almost twice the age of the 30-year-old character. Josh Mostel, son of legendary Zero Mostel, was a more sensible suggestion, but this project eventually petered out, though not before a late ’80s attempt by John Waters to bring the project to life. The so-called “Pope of Trash” planned to cast his “Pink Flamingos” star Devine as Ignatius. This, perhaps thankfully, never got off the ground. “It’ll never happen,” Waters said soon after. “How can a movie ever live up to that book?”

Langdon eventually came to agree with Waters and surrendered the rights to the book shortly after.

Scott Kramer, the producer who had overseen the Ramis/Belushi project, once again took possession of the rights. Having struggled the first time around, he brought in producer Scott Rudin. Rudin, who would go on to become a prolific and hugely successful producer of critical and commercial hits, including adaptations of classic novels such as “No Country For Old Men,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Wonder Boys,” made the intriguing decision to bring in Stephen Fry to write the screenplay.

While his status as a national treasure had long since been secured in the U.K. thanks to his work on “Blackadder” and “A Bit of Fry & Laurie,” Fry was less iconic stateside, perhaps best known there for his appearance in Kenneth Brannagh’s “Peter’s Friends” and his novel “The Liar.”

He was, though, undoubtedly an inspired choice. Already an avowed fan of the book, Fry even had casual conversations with friend Robbie Coltrane about adapting the book with Coltrane in the role of Reilly. This was back in the days of Belushi and Ramis’ involvement and neither Fry nor Coltrane, then both relatively unknown, became involved at the time.

In 1992, however, Rudin not only sought Fry out, but even sent him to New Orleans for a week to work on the screenplay and soak up the city’s unique ambiance and culture. Although no director appears to have been officially involved at this point, Chris Farley was in line for the lead role. Even though he possessed the necessary bulk, some would question whether Farley had the depth and range needed to play the disheveled but scholarly Ignatius. Farley was never afforded the chance to prove himself as the project once again trundled to a halt, this time due to a dispute between Rudin and Kramer over who actually owned the rights.

Despite this, Farley continued to be linked with the part up until his death in 1997.

Chris Farley’s name was bandied about, but some worried the comedian lacked the dramatic chops (Photo: Getty Images)

After Belushi and Candy, Farley became the third actor to die prematurely having been in line to play the part. This, along with the now 15-year-old abortive attempts to bring the book to the screen, led to some making the somewhat fantastical claims that any attempts to adapt the novel were cursed.

Cursed or not, efforts continued to overcome the obstacles that seemed to spring up with each attempt. While New Orleans resident John Goodman was said to have been attached for the role of Ignatius at some point, the latest big-name officially brought on board was another Louisianan; filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. With Fry still loosely attached, he and the “Sex, Lies and Videotape” director formed a brief collaboration on the screenplay. By this point, Fry’s script had reportedly taken on a meta quality, with Toole himself appearing in the screenplay. This was where Fry’s involvement with the project ended.

Going back to the drawing board, Soderbergh began his own adaptation, and it is his script that came closest to ever seeing the light of day. Set to be directed by David Gordon Green, with a phenomenal cast including Will Ferrell as Ignatius, Lily Tomlin as his mother Irene and Mos Def as Burma Jones, this production reached the point of having a staged reading of the script at the 2004 NantucketĀ Film Festival. Once again, though, the breaks had to be applied later that year due to yet more arguments over rights, this time between Miramax and Paramount.

Other than a 2008 Will Ferrell interview in which he claimed Jack Black had been attached to an unspecified production, things were quiet on the “Confederacy” front until 2012 when Zach Galifianakis was cast in an adaptation set to be directed by “Flight of the Conchords” director James Bobin. Bobin eventually elected to direct “Muppets Most Wanted.”

In 2015, a theater production was staged in Boston starring Nick Offerman, but to date, this remains the only successful adaptation of the book in any medium. We are now approaching 10 years since any meaningful attempts were made to bring it to the screen, and it’s hard to see a time when the various obstacles will be overcome. “I think it’s cursed,” Steven Soderbergh said in 2013. “I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”

As with Toole’s, and then his mother’s, attempts to find a publisher for the novel, there is a quixotic feel to the ongoing struggle to adapt the book. With all the actors and directors linked with various projects, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary actor suited to the role, or a director driven enough to see an adaptation through, and it feels like the chances of ever seeing that green hunting cap outside D.H. Holmes Department Store are as closed as Ignatius’ troublesome pyloric valve.

Nathan O'Hagan is a novelist and short story writer from Merseyside, England. You can follow him on Twitter here.