Best-selling author Marcus Sakey compounded the challenge of going from book to film long before he agreed to adapt his latest novel, Afterlife, into a screenplay for Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagination Entertainment.
“My goal is entertainment for smart people,” says the Chicago-based writer. “Stuff that’s compelling and well flushed out and feels real.”
That often means venturing deep into the metaphysical wilderness, a trip that readers have been happy to take. Sakey’s nine published novels include the Brilliance saga, a trilogy set in “an alternate present where one percent of people were born savants.” It sold millions of copies between 2014 and 2016.
Afterlife, released this year to rave reviews, is even more complex.
Darting between present-day Chicago and an ethereal, post-mortem Chicago, the plot begins with a terrorist attack, launches into a “relentless manhunt” and wraps around a love story. The Washington Post called it “a mind bending thriller.”
Sakey rewrote the first hundred pages nine times to get them just right.
“It felt like I was trying to really do something so large, I didn’t think I could grasp it,” he recalls. “It was really ambitious.”
The story also contains a “strong nod to mythology” because, of course, Sakey’s version of a “modern myth” is in there as well (mostly Orpheus and Eurydice, he says, but there’s a little Icarus, too.)
A dose of cerebral highfalutinism can go a long way at the box office — The Matrix essentially futurizes Descartes’ concept of intellectual autonomy — but Sakey insists that, “the book is, more than anything, a love story.”
After considering “the things they responded to specifically,” Sakey and the execs at Imagination, who have been “fantastic,” decided to put the romance “front and center.”
“Love is almost always a factor in my work,” he says. “It spans life and death and what’s beyond. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
In this tale, it takes the form of an attraction between a female FBI agent and the hero of the story, another agent who may have died in the opening pages. They battle foes in both worlds while trying to figure it out.
The intimate scenario was inspired by a dream that Sakey can still vividly recall.
“I was wandering around Chicago and everyone was gone,” he says. “I knew I was dead, but it was okay.”
That is, until he woke up next to his wife and “imagined being in the same place as her but not being able to hold her hand.”
“Then it became a nightmare.”
Although most of Sakey’s books have been optioned and one in particular, Good People, has been made into a film, the screenplay for Afterlife is his first screenwriting venture.
The confines may seem restrictive for a novelist of such exponential creativity, but Sakey is content with the process.
“You have to look at the story you were trying to tell and distill it and let the details walk away,” he says. “That’s the nature of adapting a book for film.”
He refers to the novel and the script for Gone Girl — both written by his friend, Chicago author Gillian Flynn — as an example of Hollywood getting it right.
“Gone Girl did a phenomenal job,” he says. “That stayed about as true to a book as I’ve ever seen.”
In the basement office of his Roscoe Village home, Sakey is just beginning to work on the script. He cannot say if the film will be shot in Chicago, but he knew it was the perfect setting for the book.
“I love writing about Chicago,” he says. “It’s a very American city.”
And even though the project’s a long way off from casting — and he probably won’t have much to do with it, anyway — he still has his wish list.
“I certainly wouldn’t object if Emily Blunt wanted to be involved,” he says. “Or if Ryan Gosling shows up.”