Warner Bros. Conjures 'Merlin' Tentpole With Novice Screenwriting Wizard (Exclusive)

Ed Whitworth, a script reader for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Prods., will pen the big-budget adaptation based on the first book of the T.A. Barron fantasy series.

It’s the screenwriting equivalent of pulling the sword out of the stone.

Ed Whitworth, a script reader for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Prods., has seemingly come out of nowhere to land the plum gig to write The Lost Years of Merlin, Warner Bros.’ big-budget adaptation of the first book of the fantasy series by T.A. Barron.

Donald De Line (Green Lantern) is producing what is basically an origin story of the mythical wizard. The film will trace Merlin’s journey from being a boy washed on the shores of Wales with no memory and no home, to him becoming a young man learning to use his powers and ultimately defender of the natural world and eventual mentor to King Arthur.

The project previously had been at Paramount, where Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes) was taking a crack at it. But the option ran out and Warners, looking for a suitable replacement for its billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise, picked it up with De Line attached. 

The studio then set upon a quest for a scribe to tackle what it hopes will be a new spell-binding tentpole.

Whitworth had studied at Oxford and worked as a journalist at the Times of London before heading west and enrolling in UCLA’s screenwriting program. He worked as a reader for ICM and, for the past year, for Harpo, which afforded him time to write in his spare moments.

Although Whitworth found representation at management outfit Circle of Confusion, none of his spec scripts seemed to take. Still, he continued to write. “If it didn’t work out, I’d move on to the next one,” he tells THR/Heat Vision of his 10-year journey: “I would just try to persevere. It’s something I really wanted to do, even when it got hard.”

Last year, Whitworth wrote a spec titled Powell, a biopic about now-retired General Colin Powell that mixed fact and fiction to tell the behind-the-scene dealings leading up to Powell’s United Nations speech making the case for the war in Iraq.

The script made the rounds this spring, generating notice in the development community, and six weeks ago Whitworth signed with WME. That led to a series of general meet-and-greets with execs (“generals,” in the industry shorthand), including one with execs from Warners and De Line Productions.

The two companies took to the up-and-comer, and when he pitched them a take that saw the first two Merlin books combined to make one movie, the gig was all but sewn up. On top of that, Whitworth bonded with Barron, also an Oxford grad now living in Colorado, who flew out for the final meeting.

As might be expected, Whitworth has informed his Harpo bosses he is going “on hiatus.” He is still taking generals and is now at work writing the script.

“Everyone tells me it’ll never happen this easily again,” he says.

Something I’m sure they told King Arthur.

Email: Borys.Kit@THR.com