Every so often, David Hughes’ latest tome of sad stories about unmade movies cites the website Coming Attractions, which used to collect news tidbits about films possibly in development, and present them largely without comment. (The site, sadly, has become something far more akin to an entertainment news portal in its newest incarnation.) It’s fitting that Hughes references the site, since much of his book Tales From Development Hell is like reading Coming Attractions at its height. These are endless streams of rumors and hints about movies that might have been, presented in a largely exhausting format.
This worked on the web, where Coming Attractions could structure film pages in a rough timeline. It becomes overwhelming on the page, and the longer chapters of the book simply turn into long lists of things that almost happened, with little attempt to separate, say, the obviously fake Indiana Jones IV scripts from the ones that nearly got made.
This is too bad, because Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is one of the two best examples of the weird subgenre of books about movies that never came to be. What it lacks in breadth when compared to Chris Gore’s more wide-ranging The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made, it makes up for in depth, with Hughes digging deep into the details of how those movies failed to materialize. Hughes’ earlier book also showed an impressive love of film history, coming up with projects from earlier than the last 20 years.
In his latest installment—updated and expanded from the 2004 edition—Hughes still has the depth, but never decides what he wants his book to be. A bunch of stories about how famously bad movies were slowly watered down from good scripts into the pabulum they became, as in chapters on Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and Tomb Raider? Or a more straightforward sequel to the earlier book, but focusing on a wider variety of genres than science fiction, as in chapters about the race to develop a Howard Hughes biopic, or make the Arnold Schwarzenegger star vehicle Crusade? Hughes’ indecision leads to slotting genuinely fascinating stories—like the one about how Crusade just couldn’t attain liftoff—next to those big, exhausting lists.
Hughes’ point of view is consistent, at least: He almost always believes if the producers and directors had simply stuck to the original script, the movies would have either been made, or would have been improved. (This in spite of frequent chapters where the original writers admit that notes from collaborators actually made the scripts better.) Hughes is at his best when detailing how original writers would be removed from scripts, with new writers coming in to water down what made the originals distinctive, but in every chapter, he glosses over elements that beg for further illumination.
Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made worked because Hughes contextualized every decision that led to a movie not being made; Development Hell fails because in that eponymous realm, context falls away and all decisions start to seem nonsensical. Hughes can’t bring sense to that process, which leads to a book that’s frustrating in its failure to follow up on its own tangents.