Ever hear a story that’s so good it almost has to be true? Witness Shantaram.
Gregory David Roberts’ doorstop of a novel is the story of a man named Lindsay who is sentenced to nineteen years in an Australian prison for armed robbery. He makes a daring escape over the front wall of the prison and begins a long flight to Germany, but soon finds himself living in the slums of Bombay. It’s there that he finds a new purpose in life after he begins operating a free health clinic for his impoverished fellow residents and eventually earns the name Shantaram, meaning “Man of God’s Peace.” There’s much more in the novel’s nine hundred-plus pages: firestorms, cholera outbreaks, gangsters, Mumbai’s famous Arthur Road Prison, the mujahideen, etc. And there’s this: Gregory David Roberts was sentenced to an Australian prison for armed robbery in 1978, escaped over the front wall, washed up in Bombay, and … well, you get the idea.
Shantaram was rapturously received by readers and critics upon its 2003 publication and sparked a bidding war for the film rights. Said rights were secured by Warner Bros for a cool two million dollars, reportedly at the behest of Johnny Depp, a big fan of the novel. Depp was attached to star and the screenplay Roberts had penned as a condition of the sale was given to all-star screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider,” “Munich”). Peter Weir (“Dead Poets Society,” “The Truman Show”) was brought on in November of 2005 to help steer the screenplay to completion and take up the directorial reigns sometime in late 2006.
Everything seemed to be going well – until Weir dropped out of the project in the summer of 2006, citing artistic differences. This is not terribly unusual; Weir has been attached to a number of projects but has only directed two films since “The Truman Show” in 1998. Roth continued to work on the screenplay, now with an eye toward shaving a few edges off the budget, while the studio brought in Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) to take over as director. A late 2007 start for a 2008 release was now the official plan.
Alas, Warner Bros announced in November 2007 that the shoot had been canceled because of the uncertainty created by the looming writers’ strike. It’s possible that this was the main impetus for shelving the project, but it’s also generally understood in Hollywood that strikes can provide great cover for all parties to walk away from projects with which no one is entirely happy. In a world in which Stevens Spielberg and Soderbergh are complaining about the herculean effort it takes to launch a production lacking superheroes and toy line tie-ins, the studio may have decided that one man’s story set in the slums of Bombay might not have returned the investment required for a Johnny Depp mega-production. (Don’t forget that Depp recently turned down an Oscar-bait role as Boston mobster Whitey Bulger because he wouldn’t lower his quote.) “Shantaram” may have been a case of Johnny Depp the producer not being able to afford Johnny Depp the actor.
Of course, a story as amazing as the one at the heart of Shantaram all but demands a third-act twist. Enter Joel Edgerton and Garth Davis. Edgerton, fresh off high-profile turns in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Great Gatsby.” has been selected to take over the lead from Depp. Davis will be helming his first feature film after co-directing the much-lauded miniseries “Top of the Lake” with Jane Campion. As much as it might have been nice to see Johnny Depp play a human again, this seems like an ideal set-up. You’ve got a skilled actor at that moment in his career when he’s ready to step up and carry a film, coupled with a hungry young director who’s coming off an apprenticeship under one of the world’s great filmmakers. Best of all, the film doesn’t have the added pressure of becoming a mega-production supporting a mega-star. It can be what so many readers, Johnny Depp included, loved in the first place: a good tale well told.