Will 'Griffin & Sabine' Finally Get Its Hollywood Ending?

 

In 1992, at the height of Griffin & Sabine mania, author and artist Nick Bantock sold the rights to his unique book series -- a long-distance love story told entirely through lushly illustrated correspondences that the reader could remove and inspect -- to Warner Bros., which planned to turn the trilogy into a sweeping Hollywood romance.

"I think probably everybody involved would tell you it was a disaster from day one," says Bantock, 64, who was born in England and has lived on Canada's Pacific coast since the late 1980s. "They had their first production meeting and they called me up and said, 'We've made our first major decision: We've decided to drop the cards and letters.' It kind of went downhill from there."

The project predictably fell apart, and Bantock made peace with the fact that his mysterious tale of Griffin Moss, a London-based postcard maker, and Sabine Strohem, the South Pacific stamp illustrator who may or may not be his soul mate, was never meant for the big screen. Skip ahead two decades -- and with them the advent of e-mail, Internet dating, social media and the rest -- and Bantock's epistolary tale now seems more romantic than ever. 

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"It's something we miss," he says of the books' outmoded pleasures. "The feel of the paper, the use of a fountain pen. But also that we can express ourselves in a more extended way. There's a tactile romanticism which you just can't get in e-mails or on Facebook." Christine Carswell, head of publisher Chronicle Books, adds that the format also appeals to the snoop in all of us: "What's more fun than reading someone else's private letters?"

The enduring enchantment of Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence and its sequels was not lost on Renegade Films, a Los Angeles-based commercial production company that was looking to expand into feature films. Renegade's Karla Braun and Steph Sebbag approached Bantock about adapting his series -- actually the first of a pair of trilogies -- and Bantock was immediately struck with how intimately they understood his work, delving past their "pop-up book for adults" conceit to grasp the meatier themes lurking beneath. (Not that there's anything wrong with pop-up books: Bantock has illustrated several.)

"Griffin and Sabine is written on so many layers, from the obvious love story through to the metaphysical journey and a lot of the other stuff that's a little more buried, a little more intriguing," explains Bantock, who was persuaded by Renegade's "desire to take all those levels in." Adds Braun, "We think it was the first time that Nick felt the core of these books was understood and that their magic could for the first time be realized."

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Two protagonists separated by thousands of miles who rely entirely on snail mail to interact, certainly proposes a hefty dramatic challenge to even the most seasoned filmmaker. While no screenwriter has yet been attached, all parties agree that -- unlike Warner Bros.' misguided approach -- the letters are essential to the story, and Bantock's illustrations will have a prominent role in the telling. "I managed to hang on to 99.9 percent of all the artworks from those books," he explains. "I would love to see the imagery used."

Nor does Griffin & Sabine yet have a director or stars, though Bantock says several have crossed his mind over the past 20 years, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Jude Law for Griffin, two actors he thinks are capable of pulling off the character's complex arc as well as his "individual Englishness."

"But this is not down to me at all," Bantock concedes. "As the writer, I sit and observe. That's why as always it's the big gamble that you entrust this to someone capable of making the big decision. Why now? Because instinct tells me it makes sense."

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch

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