"AS soon as you started talking about a battle in Heaven, he just couldn’t relate,” the screenwriter Philip de Blasi recalled.
It was a particularly demoralizing pitch meeting, explained his writing partner, Byron Willinger, because the producer, “this guy who has made some of the most successful blockbusters ever, started looking at his nails, and I don’t think he looked away from his nails for the whole 15 minutes.”
Then there was the studio executive who, halfway through the pitch, blurted: “Wait a minute. You mean God is God?”
Such were the travails of the writers who traveled from New York to Hollywood in 2004 to hawk their adaptation of “Paradise Lost.”
For two novice screenwriters John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem, which tells the story of Lucifer’s fall and the temptation of Adam and Eve, was an audacious choice of material. “We figured someone’s going to make a movie of it someday, and it might as well be us,” Mr. Willinger said in a telephone interview.
They persevered and finally made a rendezvous with fate years in the making. Almost three decades before, a little boy named Vincent Newman was skimming through the Bible, desperate for something to relieve the boredom that was Sunday school in Fresno, Calif. Finding mention of a fight between angels and devils, he jolted awake, and thus began a lifelong fascination with battles between good and evil.
Mr. Newman, now 39, is an independent producer of medium-size movies with midrange male stars (most recently “A Man Apart” with Vin Diesel) who has long dreamed of exploring his boyhood curiosity by making a “Paradise Lost” movie. Then, after stumbling upon mention of the poem in a Christian inspirational book called “Epic: The Story God Is Telling and the Role That Is Yours to Play,” his dream turned to resolve. At lunch one day, Mr. Newman said, an agent asked him “out of the blue if I’d ever heard of ‘Paradise Lost.’ ”
“He said, ‘I’ve got these clients, these guys are crazy enough that they wrote this thing on spec.’ ”
Mr. Newman bought the script and arranged co-financing with Legendary Pictures, which, with Warner Brothers, produced “Superman Begins” and “Batman Returns.” Legendary’s chairman and chief executive, Thomas Tull, said his first response to the idea was, “Well, that’s going to make a lot of older folks relive bad college experiences.” Later he realized that “if you get past the Milton of it all, and think about the greatest war that’s ever been fought, the story itself is pretty compelling,” he said.
As with any Hollywood development project, things are changing along the way. The original script hewed a bit too closely to Milton for the producer’s taste, for instance. Mr. Newman, by his own account, told the writers he wanted “less Adam and Eve and more about what’s happening with the archangels,” the battle in Heaven between God’s and Satan’s armies.
“In Eden there’s the nudity problem,” he pointed out, “which would be a big problem for a big studio movie.”
Mr. Newman also knows that some might see this project as a fool’s errand. “It’s a 400-some-odd-page poem written in Old English,” he said, laughing. “How do you find the movie in that?” But he speaks of the project with unflagging enthusiasm, though it may seem his passion is more for the idea of the poem than for the poem itself. (It’s in blank verse, not Old English.)
“This could be like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ or bigger,” he said. Daniel Craig and Heath Ledger are two of his top choices for Lucifer.
The film, which will make extensive use of digital effects, is still waiting for a definite go-ahead from a studio. Mr. Tull said its budget would likely be in the range of $100 million.
Scott Derrickson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is known for his horror films exploring supernatural themes of good and evil (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Hellraiser: Inferno”) and is likely to direct. The script’s second draft was written by Stuart Hazeldine, whose sole previous credit is a science-fiction TV movie called “Riverworld.” (Mr. Hazeldine is also adapting the popular DC comic “Battle Chasers” for 20th Century Fox.)
The filmmakers hope that “Paradise Lost” will prove enticing to Christian audiences. Mr. Hazeldine said he read “several theological tomes” because “I’m adapting Milton, and then Milton’s kind of adapting Genesis, and I wanted to make sure that for the faith audience, I guess, that they will see it more as ‘The Passion of the Christ’ than ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ ” — that is, more a reverent treatment of Biblical material than a reconsideration. Both he and Mr. Derrickson said they are Christians, as are Mr. Newman and the script’s original writers. Even so, Mr. Newman said the film is not “a Christian endeavor or Christian movie.”
But he added that it would be “made with total adherence and respect to any of the three religions’ involvement in the story of God, the Devil and the archangels,” referring to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But “it’s a war movie at the end of the day,” Mr. Newman said.
As a Christian, Mr. Hazeldine said, the project poses “a challenge for people like Scott and I, who have a faith, but we just love movies.” He added, “We often find that we are wondering, are we too worldly for the church and too churchy for the world?”
But jabs are likely, if not from the faithful, then almost certainly from Milton scholars. “Miltonists have not traditionally been interested in popularizing, in the way Shakespeareans have,” said Gregory Colón Semenza, assistant professor of English at the University of Connecticut and co-editor, with Laura Lunger Knoppers, of “Milton in Popular Culture.”
Mr. Semenza pointed out that many films have been influenced by the epic, some obviously (Taylor Hackford’s “Devil’s Advocate,” in which Al Pacino’s Satan character is named John Milton), others less so (the light sabers in” Star Wars,” some contend, must have been inspired by Milton’s angels’ “flaming swords”).
Still, he said, “there’s the sense that Milton is the last figure that can be protected from the tentacles of pop culture, so there is some resistance to this movie,” and to the film adaptation currently in production for New Line of “The Golden Compass,” the first of Philip Pullman’s best-selling “His Dark Materials” trilogy of young adult novels based on “Paradise Lost.”
The depiction of Satan may be a polarizing one among scholars. Some, in line with Romantic poets like William Blake, will want the dark prince to be the hero; others won’t be happy unless Satan is a self-deceiving hypocrite, and the story an education in virtue and obedience.
Yet Stanley Fish, author of “Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost,’ ” said in a telephone interview that the filmmakers “could use these two readings of ‘Paradise Lost’ in a dramatic fashion, as Milton does.”
“In the introductory books,” he added, “the figure of Satan is presented with a certain kind of heroic glaze surrounding him, but then, as the poem proceeds, Milton quite deliberately, and for some readers unforgivably, insists that you see the terrible emptiness and self-aggrandizing narcissism at the heart of this character. You could pull the audience in by giving them the kind of romantic rebel that is so easy to respond to, and then pull them up short and ask them to re-think the matter and ask them to think about why this figure has such appeal to them.”
As for Mr. Hazeldine’s answer to the Satan question: “Milton was trying to achieve with ‘Paradise Lost’ what Scorsese was trying to achieve with Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas.’ You can’t understand the nature of the fall until you’ve tasted some of the exhilaration of sin and crime. Scorsese makes you feel the rush of being in the Mafia — what it’s like to be special, get the best table at a restaurant, kill anyone and get away with it. Milton was after something like that, and that’s what we’re trying to convey.”