04.08.10

Patricia Cornwell Finally Makes a Movie

It's taken nearly 20 years for the crime novelist's work to be adapted for the screen, but Lifetime will air two of her lesser-known stories. Barbara Spindel spoke with Cornwell.

Many have tried, but all have failed—until now.

On Saturday, Patricia Cornwell’s At Risk will premiere on Lifetime Television, marking the first time an adaptation of the bestselling crime writer’s work has made it onto any screen, big or small.

“My own entertainment lawyer has told me repeatedly how odd that is,” Cornwell says in an interview, speculating that up to this point she was likely the only author with as many bestsellers who hadn’t seen a single book adapted for television or film.

If the audience at the screening broke into laughter several times during scenes that weren’t intended to be funny, and if early reviews have been less than kind (“confounding” and “maddening,” wrote Variety of At Risk), that probably shouldn’t have too much effect on the success of the movies.

For 20 years, various studios, actresses, and directors have struggled to base a movie on medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, the heroine of 17 Cornwell novels. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that studios have bled more than $10 million in development costs, with Demi Moore and Kristin Scott Thomas expressing interest at different points. (Angelina Jolie is attached to play Scarpetta, a prospect the author calls “amazing.”)

Cornwell, too, had been actively involved in trying to get a movie made, even taking a stab at the screenplays herself before concluding that she didn’t have a knack for it. “There’s a certain amount of humility that comes with being defeated in a process over and over again,” she says. “I sat down enough times with studio heads with notes going over my own screenplays—my God, the nuances, it’s a wonder any of them ever happen. I felt repeatedly disappointed by what I’ve gone through with this.”

Enter Lifetime, pitching adaptations not of Cornwell’s Scarpetta series but of her two Win Garano novellas— At Risk will be followed by The Front, premiering April 17—which were originally published in serialized form, At Risk in The New York Times Magazine, The Front in the London Times. Tanya Lopez, Lifetime’s senior vice president of original movies and “a huge fan of Patricia Cornwell’s forever and ever,” says it took “about a year” to persuade the author, who had concentrated her efforts on a feature film, to work with the cable channel.

But once she came on board, with the focus off of her signature character, Cornwell says the pressure eased. “I wouldn’t want anyone to ruin these books or any books, but it was a little more relaxed because it’s not my whole life’s work,” she says.

According to Lopez, Cornwell, who has an executive producer credit on the movies, was involved at every step, taking part in the development of the script, the casting, even the promotion and the marketing. The collaboration, to believe the parties involved, can only be described as a lovefest. “We’re so proud of these movies and so proud to be able to be the network that has made her first movies to film,” Lopez gushes. “We’re so, so excited.”

For her part, Cornwell says the process has been “effortless”; the only thing that seems to have caused her any angst at all was her “absolutely nerve-racking” cameo as a waitress at the Harvard Faculty Club. The author is full of compliments for the cast, particularly Rescue Me’s Daniel Sunjata, who stars as investigator Win Garano (“You look more like Win Garano than Win does,” she says she told him), and Andie MacDowell, who plays scheming Boston District Attorney Monique Lamont.

But she reserves her highest praise for the network airing the movies. “I’ve been extremely impressed by Lifetime,” she says. “This is a high-energy, forward-thinking group. I’ve been blown away by these people.”

Lifetime recently was consolidated into the A&E Television Networks group, losing its popular chief executive Andrea Wong in the transition, and the channel has been in flux. But at the New York screening of The Front Wednesday night, the mood was buoyant. “At last the curse is lifted!” Cornwell declared, introducing the movie. And, well, if the audience broke into laughter several times during scenes that weren’t intended to be funny, and if early reviews have been less than kind (“confounding” and “maddening,” wrote Variety of At Risk), that probably shouldn’t have too much effect on the success of the movies, which Lopez concedes have “no huge issue, no big platform, just pure entertainment.”

Indeed, now that it’s happened, one wonders why Cornwell and Lifetime didn’t get together sooner. There is surely much intersection between the women who devour Cornwell’s highly commercial books and those who make up Lifetime’s target demographic. “Patricia represents what the Lifetime viewer is all about,” Lopez said in her remarks at the screening, citing the audience’s love for female characters who are strong, smart, and “a little bit bitchy.” (It's quite possible that the Lifetime audience also enjoys watching hot men like Sunjata remove their shirts and push women up against the wall to kiss them.) The New York Observer once described Lifetime original movies as featuring “some combination of a woman being stalked, a serial killer, and/or a cheating/abusive husband,” and, check, check, check, all of those elements show up in At Risk and The Front.

While Cornwell is cautiously optimistic that a Kay Scarpetta feature will ultimately be made—and she brushes off fan complaints about Jolie’s casting by saying, “We can only be lucky there’s someone to complain about!”—she may have a hard time leaving Lifetime’s Venus-like embrace for another go-round in the Mars-ish world of feature films. “Now I’ve really been spoiled because my first time around the block has been an incredibly pleasant experience,” she says.

But it looks like the experience might very well be repeated. Lopez says that Lifetime is in talks to create more original movies with Cornwell, adding, “We just want to stay in business with her.”

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Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor who covers books and culture. She has contributed to Time Out New York, Details, Spin, the Barnes & Noble Review, Newsweek.com, and other publications. She has a Ph.D. in American studies and lives in Brooklyn.