Movie Rights To 30-Year-Old Book at Center of Lawsuit

A widow of author George V. Higgins is attempting to stop the development of a film adaptation of a 30-year-old crime novel, The Rat on Fire. The work was originally commissioned with the idea it would be turned into a PBS special, but sat on a shelf for three decades until Higgins once again became a hot name in Hollywood. Now, Higgins' widow is suing over rights to the book and looking to enjoin a film company from further developing the project.

Higgins was a Massachusetts-based lawyer who wrote popular crime novels in the 1970s, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

According to the lawsuit filed last week by his widow, Loretta Cubberley, he was sought out in 1979 by the Fund for Theater & Film to deliver teleplays about arson-for-hire in Boston. The teleplays were to form the basis of a dramatic series on Boston's local PBS station.

Instead, Higgins delivered a manuscript, The Rat on Fire, about some professional arsonists who start fires by dousing rats with gasoline and inserting them into buildings. The work is said to be ripe for adaptation, and FTF is said to have accepted this at the time without insistence on its return of payment. Nevertheless, the project never got off the ground because the PBS station is believed to have objected to inappropriate material, such as hostile treatment of minorities. The manuscript was published as a book in 1981.

Now, thirty years later, Higgins has gotten some post-mortem love in Hollywood. Brad Pitt is currently involved in the development of one of his other works, Cogan's Trade, which allegedly sent FTF searching through its attics.

However, according to Cubberley, the company's film rights on the book have expired and FTF is violating the estate's copyright and trademark by setting up websites and intending to go forward with a film adaptation of The Rat on Fire.

She says the parties have been unable to come to a settlement and so she's now asking a federal judge in Massachusetts for an injunction.


Twitter: @eriqgardner