The story begins with Sharon Stone – perhaps best known as the star of lurid thrillers such as Basic Instinct but, crucially, an actress of more highbrow literary tastes than some of her Hollywood colleagues. Sitting down last year to tackle the 1,100-page diaries of Christopher Isherwood, she came across a reference to a film-treatment Isherwood had written with Aldous Huxley. Two renowned novelists collaborating on a film. This had potential. Stone, already owning an option on Huxley’s story The Gioconda Smile, decided to investigate.
She asked Dorris Halsey, agent to both men’s estates, who sounded out Huxley’s widow. Laura Huxley, alas, believed the story to have perished in a fire in 1961 that destroyed all her husband’s possessions (including three unpublished novels). But then she happened upon the 100-page manuscript in an old trunk in her Beverly Hills home. The central character was male, so it was no use to Stone – but the story continues because another producer snapped it up for $400,000.
Film treatments – rough outlines of plot for scriptwriters to work from – are usually just seven or eight pages long. But this is different. Though written in the barest prose, it is practically a short novel. An American publisher paid $100,000 for it. Next month Bloomsbury publishes it in Britain with an introduction by Huxley’s biographer, David Bradshaw.
Jacob’s Hands, written in 1944, is about a man whose power to heal animals leads him to cure humans, too, with miserable consequences. Huxley, almost blinded by an eye infection at Eton, was always fascinated by healing – especially alternative and marginal methods – and Isherwood shared his enthusiasm for spiritual matters.
Bradshaw says nobody in Hollywood today would try to combine heavyweight spiritual issues with an appealing story, yet the film rights – which failed to sell in the Forties – have finally changed hands, and John Malkovich is tipped to play the lead, Jacob Ericson.
The script also highlights the problems facing established writers entering the world of film (plenty of them, from F Scott Fitzgerald to Rose Tremain).
“It enhances,” says Bradshaw, “our picture of the religious mind-set of Huxley and Isherwood . . . and the kind of artistic and intellectual compromises both men were prepared to make.”
Huxley arrived in the US in 1937, aged 42. He had been before, without much pleasure, but film work was lucrative. “He hated writing articles and short stories to make a living,” says Bradshaw. “If he could make a big dollop of cash from a film script, that was great.” Huxley already knew the dangers of film work: “Film companies engage prominent novelists and dramatists at handsome salaries,” he wrote in the Twenties. “The result is almost invariably the same. The distinguished author is driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown – or over the edge.”
His first, ill-named effort, Success, found no buyer. Next, he was asked to adapt The Forsyte Saga, but couldn’t face being “closeted with Galsworthy’s ghost”. Then MGM offered $15,000 for a life of Marie Curie – but scriptwriters subsequently transformed Huxley’s work, he sniffed, into Mr and Mrs Miniver Discover Radium. After that, he adapted Jane Eyre (“tiresome work”, he complained).
At dinner with Harpo Marx, once, he playfully suggested a film starring Groucho as Karl Marx and Harpo as Engels. Harpo, taking him seriously, said it was not a good idea. Huxley’s really spectacular disaster, though, was a treatment of Alice in Wonderland for Walt Disney. The studios, he suspected, wanted “photographically recorded pantomime”, but he gave them a spot of background about Lewis Carroll’s High-Church Oxford. Disney promptly rejected the proposal on the grounds that he could “only understand every third word”. Huxley’s one success was his treatment of Pride and Prejudice, which was to star Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.
Isherwood arrived in America in 1939, two years after Huxley, whose novels he dismissed as academic. “He simply hasn’t the gift of making his characters live,” Isherwood said. “Instead of a great novel, we get a prim, chilly morality play interrupted by philosophical con-versations.”
Isherwood seemed better suited to film and he soon secured a contract with MGM, working on at least five films. Screenwriting, he said, was “the most absorbing of all games”.
A friend of both men, the pacifist Gerald Heard, introduced them that year. Isherwood regarded Huxley as “bookish and inclined to be pontifical”, but grew fond of the older writer, who shared his passion for oriental Vedanta philosophy. “How kind, how shy he is,” he noted in his diary. “I think Aldous knows that I like him . . . [but] we talk such different languages.”
Despite this apparent obstacle, the two began work on Jacob’s Hands in March 1944, at Huxley’s Californian home in the Mojave Desert. The story was based on a man who worked nearby. They took turns at writing the script, Huxley first, then Isherwood, though it is impossible to say who wrote what, says Bradshaw. By June, Isherwood deemed the finished story “quite good”, and Huxley was looking forward to selling it. The studios, however, considered it “deplorable”.
Huxley’s agent blamed the studio’s reaction on a fear of offending conventional doctors. Isherwood ventured that “either they thought it was too goody-goody, or that it was superstitious, or both”. They wanted “something suave and cynical”, he said later. “Mystical doings were highly unfashionable in California at that period. Earlier on or much later we could have sold the thing.”
Maybe so, but the truth could also be that the story lacks the brilliance of either man’s work at its best. Huxley’s British publisher, HarperCollins, turned down Jacob’s Hands after Sharon Stone dug it up, and Isherwood’s biographer, Peter Parker, has dismissed it as “Hollywood gush”.
Despite the studio’s reaction, the two writers went on to collaborate again. That same year, they tackled The Miracle, a play about a nun who falls from grace, and faced a familiar problem – how to combine a busy but essentially lightweight storyline with weighty, spiritual matters. A further project, Below the Equator, about revolutionary violence in South America, also failed to sell, despite interest from John Huston.
With Jacob’s Hands finally exciting interest in Hollywood, perhaps Mrs Huxley should ransack her trunks once again.