February 9, 2015

Why there’s a “first edition of the Iliad” in The Boy Next Door



I don’t remember taking this photo, but it was in my phone.

When we last reported the motive behind a laughable movie prop choice, it was a welcome glimpse into the filmmaking process, and how an elder statesman of film handles last-second changes in staging. But only weeks later, an new release with an even better/worse prop choice hit theaters. I’m talking, of course, about The Boy Next Door.

Riding a solid 30/100 on Metacritic, the new Jennifer Lopez vehicle stars her as a high school classics teacher who begins an ill-advised and ill-fated affair with a teenage neighbor. Sort of like Notes On A Scandal meets Fear, with a dash of…ridiculously valuable books?

I have not seen this movie but the prop and scene in question are clearly pivotal, regardless of the plot. (UPDATE: One of my coworkers has seen this movie, and verifies that this book drives the plot at least a little.) You can click here to see the full glorious 65 seconds, or just keep reading.

Lopez’ character, Claire, is approached by her soon-to-be lover, a teenager-played-by-someone-my-age named Noah. Noah hands her a gift of an old-looking book, which the educated Claire quickly deduces is not just any ordinary copy of The Iliad; it’s a first edition. She protests, saying it must have cost a fortune; he counters by saying he got it for a dollar at a garage sale. They touch hands. Fireworks. Chemistry. Wiseau-worthy dialogue delivery and background music.

Now, it would be easy to laugh at the idea of a first edition of The Iliad as a MacGuffin. As an oral epic poem likely created in the eighth century B.C.E., it stands to reason that no “first edition” as we publishing wonks understand it could possibly exist (unless Homer did a lot of performances while people were throwing pots nearby). The Iliad was translated into English by George Chapman and made widely available for the first time in the late 16th century, but unless the Beinecke was holding a garage sale, no dice there.

We have two choices here. We can accept that Claire has a deep and ready knowledge of obscure translations and editions of The Iliad, and she recognizes this as a first edition of one such version. That would be the easy way out. Or, we can commit the cardinal sin of new criticism and delve beneath the surface of the text, by asking the screenwriter: WTF were you thinking?

Well, Fusion has provided the answer to that question, in the form of an interview with screenwriter Barbara Curry. Curry’s bio is worth pointing out; she was a former Assistant US Attorney in Los Angeles’ Major Crimes unit, and she’s taught classes at Quantico. And while “rare book enthusiast” doesn’t appear on her IMDB page, there’s a reason for that.

“Much of my original script was rewritten by the producers and the director. I was not given the opportunity to participate in the production of this movie,” Curry told Fusion. “As for the first edition ‘Iliad’ reference in the movie, that was not something I wrote in my original script,” she says.

However, Curry says she’s not trying to disparage the film or the many talented people who worked on it. “My only point is that I had a different vision as reflected in my script. Of course, I am disappointed that my vision and my script weren’t followed. But we all have different opinions about music, art, film.”

A respectable punt from a first-time screenwriter who doesn’t want to burn any bridges, even if her movie sucks. Certainly a better dodge than when Jamie Dorman narrowly avoided comparing 50 Shades of Grey to Adolf Hitler.

But while it’s easy, as publishers, to rag on a bungled book reference in a screenplay that The AV Club described as “deranged” and [moves like] a Verhoeven satire”, it’s worth considering the notable examples of producer interference in the shooting script. We should never forget NPR‘s own Peter Sagal, and his lovingly crafted coming-of-age screenplay set during the Cuban Revolution; it, of course, ended up becoming Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.

And for all the ridicule, I am spending actual time and brainpower giving The Boy Next Door some free publicity, solely due to the inclusion of this impossible book. It makes me wonder if Enough would have been less of a turkey if they replaced all the krav maga with scenes of Lopez browsing Abebooks.com, or if Angel Eyes would have made back its budget if Lopez’ love interest had been played by a signed copy of A Confederacy Of Dunces, rather than Jim Caviezel. If The Back-Up Plan would have been redeemed had Lopez’ character not given birth to a human baby, but rather parts two and three of Dead Souls.

Sadly, we will never know.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.