Neil Gaiman's Film Work

Cool Stuff  |  Essays

Neil Gaiman's Film Work

What's Neil's relationship to film? Cindy Lynn Speer breaks it down.
A ton of things have happened since we first presented this article.  Links have died, film projects have appeared and disappeared.  The time has come to revisit this article, and see what has changed, and what yet may reach our screens in the future.

Ever since Neil Gaiman's work with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens and his own Sandman series caught the minds of so many fans, people have been wanting to see his stories on the big screen. Perhaps it is the intensely visual aspects of his writing, or perhaps it is the natural need that people seem to have to see the books they love made "real". For years, small, independent productions of his short stories have made film, such as the recent "We Can Get Them For You Wholesale." Neil's agent receives several requests a year, and as long as they aren't commercially available, he often agrees.

Neil has already successfully worked in television. He created and wrote the 1996 BBC miniseries Neverwhere, which has been optioned by Henson's. His Babylon 5 episode, "Day of the Dead" has been a favorite of many of the show's fans. (The Lurker’s Guide has a spoilery but great page here.) Neil lent his voice to Baal in 1997's Archangel Thunderbird, a part animated, part live action television pilot where the forces of good need to fight off invading demons bent on destroying London. Baal was the leader of these evil creatures. It mostly appeared on UK's Sci-Fi Channel. (To read more about the show, and get to see the pilot episode, please click here)   He also makes a screen appearance in Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a film about Harlan Ellison.  A trailer can be found here. For The Last Dragon, the director asked Neil for some suggestions, some of which they used.

Whenever you read an article such as this, you need to keep in mind that the movie world flexes and shifts like the wind. One moment a project may be running full speed to the finish line, only to have some executive pull the plug. It is often hard to discern the reasons, but movies are incredibly expensive, especially ones where any kind of special effect is involved. Budgets can easily soar into the millions over a one set drama. So many people and so much money is involved that sometimes it is easier to say "no" than "go ahead". So, as ever, all the information in this article is the time of its posting.

Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (1999): Hayao Miyazaki's beautifully animated tale was one of the highest grossing films of all time in Japan. When Prince Ashitaka is cursed after he kills an insane forest god, he goes on a quest to discover the cause of the god's madness. He finds himself in Lady Eboshi’s prosperous Iron Town. She is determined to kill the Great Forest Spirit and stop its interference in her business. San, the Princess Mononoke from the title, has grown up in the forest and is willing to do anything to stop Eboshi's plans. It is an intricate story, pitting ecology against man's needs. No one is truly evil. Lady Eboshi disregards the environment, but does it in order to give people -- the outcasts of society -- a decent living. San understands the importance of the forest, and resents the fact that the humans are destroying it.

Miramax and Studio Ghibli worked together to bring this visionary film to a western audience. Neil was given the challenging task of reworking the script, adding context to help an audience unfamiliar with Japanese culture understand the story, as well as making the words match the mouth movements of the characters. Steve Alpert, an employee of Studio Ghibli, offered insight into just how complicated this process was in his behind-the-scenes journal, now offline. Neil received conflicting notes from both Miramax and Ghibli, one wanting it more western, the other wanting more of the Japanese aspects left in. Neil drafted two different versions that gave everyone what they wanted, and decided to let the studios hash things out. This meant that every word was negotiated in the final draft. He was then bounced off the project, and the script was given to another man, who was supposed to make sure that the mouth movements of the animated characters matched the script. He didn't like the script, and tossed it out, going back and creating another script based on the subtitles. When this version of the movie was screened, the public reaction was so negative that Miramax brought Neil back in at the last minute and asked him to fix it. He worked with the director, but some things couldn't be re-recorded. The movie represents only eighty-five percent of the original intention, which goes to prove that dubs are more than a simple translation. A successful and meaningful dub keeps the audience in the story, and is a way of helping more people discover the beauty of other language films. Unfortunately some of the changes that Miyazaki specified as necessary to the script were left out. For example, the things that look like rifles in the movie are not rifles, as they didn't exist during the setting's time. Neil had all of these things fixed in his script, but the changes were not accepted. There are many interviews with Neil on Mononoke, including this one at Critical Eye and Hollywood GothiqueThe official site is an excellent stop; if you click around the pictures it will take you to sounds, screen savers, icons and desktops.

Avalon (2001): Set in the near future, it is the story of Ash, a top player in an illegal and dangerous virtual reality game called Avalon. Determined to find the gate to the legendary final level, Ash is confronted with the true nature of the game. It was filmed in Poland by a Japanese creator, Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). Neil wasn't contracted to do the same things that he did with Mononoke, but rather to add meaningful narration to the script to help the story along. Originally, in the beginning of the movie all of the information that the audience may need to know is dumped on them all at once. Neil's plan was to spread it out more, and he used more than one character to conduct the narration, which would add some interest in itself. It was decided that more than one voice was too expensive, so Neil redid his work. None of his drafts have been used, and as far as Neil knows, nothing that he has written was used for this movie.  If you would like to see the movie, there is a complete chart of the different DVD versions available here.

Life, the Universe and Douglas Adams (2002): A tribute biography of the life of the late Douglas Adams. Neil's main role here is as narrator, but he did work on the script they sent him, changing it a little so that the lines sounded like him, and to add his own knowledge. Neil wrote the book Don't Panic, and so was in a perfect position to flesh out some details.

A Short Film About John Bolton (2003):  In order to direct Death and Me, Neil Gaiman had to prove to everyone that he could, indeed, direct.  An exploration of where ideas come from, the film introduced us to brilliant artist John Bolton, whose beautiful art has been featured in Neil's own Books of Magic and Harlequin Valentine, as well as Gifts of the Night, Batman: Manbat, and User. He also does cover art for David Gemmell's popular fantasy books.  It is filmed interestingly: instead of being an interview/documentary based film, it has actors playing the roles of artist (John Bolton is played by John O'Mahoney) and the interviewer (Marcus Brigstocke) who wants to know how he does his art.  (Some reviews call it a mocumentary, but I don’t quite agree with that; I’ve described it to friends as a fictional documentary.) Being the director was an interesting experience for Neil, giving him a new perspective on the craft.  John Bolton's personal web page has a wonderful galley of his works.  There is an excellent interview with Neil about it at

MirrorMask (2005):  A surreal, beautiful film, it stars Stephanie Leonidas (Who readers may have seen in the 2006 version of Dracula with Marc Warren) as a circus girl who is tired of performing and longs for a normal life.  Her mother becomes seriously ill and is hospitalized, which Helena is completely convinced is her fault.  One night she discovers herself in an odd, dreamy world, where all the people wear masks.  She is taken to the palace, where the White Queen, who looks oddly like her own mother, sleeps.  If she can not be awakened, the world will be taken over by the Black Queen.  Helena decides that she will go and find the Mirrormask herself, and save the White Queen.  Dave McKean co-wrote, directed and animated this award winning movie, creating a world that is extremely dense and real, not cartoon like at all, but truly another world.  The DVD has several features of interest to people who would like to learn more, and Voidspace hosts a rather nice page that includes overviews and information about the cast and crew, as well as Dave McKean's Director's statement.

Stardust (August 2007): Just released in theaters as of this writing, this movie has generated a great deal of praise.  It was originally with Miramax, but the rights eventually went to Paramount. Starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O’Toole and Robert DeNiro, it is the tale of Tristan Thorne and his quest across faery for a fallen star. Tristan hopes to use the fallen star to win the heart of the village beauty, but the star, a young woman with a broken leg, isn't thrilled about being dragged across faery to serve the whims of some girl. Neil Gaiman did the outline for the movie script, then decided that, since there are so many other stories that he wants to tell, it was time to let someone else deal with it. That someone else is Jane Goldman, who previously may be better known for Jane Goldman Presents. The Director is Matthew Vaughn, who produced A Short Film about John Bolton, and directed Layer Cake. < a href="">The official site is a website you can easily spend hours lost in, with games and all sorts of neat places to explore.  Also, as a reminder, our site has its own stardust movie page, with video interviews of Neil and downloads. There is also an interview with Neil that describes many of the changes between the book and the movie, and on Ain’t It Cool News he talks about how the movie came about.

Beowulf (November 2007): Written in 1997, Neil describes his and Rodger Avery's take on the classic heroic saga as "Trainspotting in 4th century England." They decided to take a page from movies such as Jabberwocky, adding a grittier texture to it and keeping it more serious. It was bought by Image Movers, which is Robert Zemeckis's company. Originally it went all the way into pre-production, calling in special effects artists, then someone read the script, didn't like it, and it was stopped.  When Rules of Attraction was so well received, Avary was able to declare that he wanted Beowulf to be his next movie, yet Avary's increasing popularity was not enough.  The option expired before the movie could be made, and Avary decided to get the funding to make the movie on his own.  Zemeckis really wanted to direct the film, and eventually a deal was reached.  Avary and Neil's script is still being used, but Zemeckis is now the director.  Most movies on this subject only cover the part where Beowulf faces and defeats the Grendel and his mother, but Gaiman and Avary's script spans the entire saga, including the much older Beowulf going out to face a dragon that is attacking his people.  Dr. David Breeden's translation of the complete story of Beowulf is online.  The movie is scheduled for November of 2007.  Currently the official website contains some really nice content, including wallpapers and podcasts.  The movie will use the same type of motion capture animation as in The Polar Express, though the style will be even more realistic, with special care taken to improve eye movement.  Ray Winstone, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie are among the many well known actors lending their talents.  Rumor has it that that the studio is thinking about releasing two versions of the film. One would be rated PG-13 for wide release and the other, rated NC-17 for limited release on IMAX.   "THR adds that Beowulf, from Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, is expected to play in more than 1,000 Real D theaters, as well as other 3-D locations (probably IMAX), in what will likely be the largest day-and-date large-format 3-D release ever."  In the somewhat unrelated by very cool category, you can hear the Old English version of Beowulf read out loud here. The script book will be available in October of 2007. 

Black Hole (2008):  Because Roger Avary truly wanted to direct something Neil had written, Neil's is co-writing a new screenplay with him, Black Hole, possibly coming out from Paramount Pictures. It is a graphic novel originally created by Charles Burns, about a group of teens who contract a mysterious disease that gives them all odd deformities.  Part a pastiche on 1970's horror flicks, it focuses on a horror that is much more real -- getting through high school and growing up with all the self consciousnesses and longings that being an outcast creates. This Fantagraphics Books page summaries each issue.

Coraline (2008): Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) has been hard at work writing, and now directing, this adaptation.  It was written for little girls of eight or so, but its appeal is much broader. Coraline is a bright but bored young girl who explores her parent's new apartment, only to find that a door that was bricked up previously now leads to a world that is a twisted reflection of the one she left. The Other Mother, a woman with stiletto fingernails and black buttons for eyes, wants to love Coraline, give her wondrous toys and make her happy...for a price. The story, with its two very different feeling settings, provides the opportunity to do some interesting things with stop action animation.  According to Henry Selick, in this article, despite rumors, it will be almost completely stop motion, with as little CGI as possible.  It's expected to be out in time for Christmas 2008, and will be distributed by Focus Features, released by LAIKA Entertainment. You can visit their project page here.  Selick was one of two directors to receive an advance copy of the book, and he loved it so much that he started work on it right away. His first script was too faithful to the book, and so he continued to expand his ideas across several drafts until he was satisfied. Currently, Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are lending their vocal talents to this project.  According to a recent article in Billboard Magazine, They Might be Giants are working on the soundtrack. 

Books of Magic: The story is about Tim Hunter, who is offered the chance to make a decision of a life time -- to embrace magic, or to live a normal life. Three men guide him through the journey, each showing him a different aspect of the world of magic so that he can make an informed decision. While Tim Hunter predates Harry Potter, similarities between the two mages in training have suggested otherwise, and so Tim has undergone some mild changes to make it look less like a sequel in the Harry Potter franchise. Neil is the Executive Producer, his main duty being that he reads Matt Greenberg's scripts. He was much happier with the earlier scripts, which kept much of what made the Books of Magic interesting and different. In later drafts people picked up The Matrix-like elements in the plot and expanded them, until an executive from Warner's realized that it was too much like the Matrix, and dropped it. There are also problems with using some of the characters, for example, John Constantine was already in his own movie, so there are conflicts with that, as well. As with all DC owned properties, Warner Brothers owns this project. Nic Thierry is set to direct.

Chivalry: An elderly lady discovers the Holy Grail in a thrift shop, and is found by a knight of the round table, who offers her many thing of great wonder in trade for it. The relationship between these two is beautifully written, and it is little wonder that Harvey Weinstein has declared it his favorite of Gaiman's stories. Miramax has bought the story outright, and Weinstein wants to write and direct it.

The Confessions of William Henry Ireland: Is based on an autobiography written in 1805. All William wanted to do was impress his he did what any young man might do...forge some documents and claim that they belonged to William Shakespeare. His father, a huge fan of the bard's, had them authenticated and was incredibly happy with the results. If William Henry had left it at that, things might have been fine. His discoveries escalated until he "found" a lost play of Shakespeare's, Vortigren and Rowena. The consequences of his actions are both funny and tragic, made more so by the fact that they actually happened. Neil was originally slated to direct as well as write, but because of time has decided to just stick with the writing end, and perhaps co-produce. There is very readable article on William Henry Ireland to be found here.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish: Sunbow wanted to make a cartoon series based on this sweet children’s tale, and commissioned four of five scripts, but it’s never gotten further than running some tests.

Death and Me:  The final draft of the script that Neil has sent in was very well received, and if all goes right, Neil will begin directing it soon. When asked if he's looking forward to directing, he's honest about it...he's only really directing this movie because the subject is too close to his heart to see anyone else impose their vision on it. If there are mistakes, they'll be his, if something has to be changed, he'll be the one to do it. The movie will be about Dream's older sister, Death. Every hundred years, for one day, Death is a human girl. This is so that she never looses touch with her function, that she always understands what it is like to be a human, and the high cost of living as well as dying. It was originally a three issue mini series, which, even filmed word for word would only make a half an hour movie. Neil has written a great deal of original material to add to the length.  In 2004, New Line Cinema was attached at the studio for the project, and actors were being lined up for the roles. It’s rumored that Shia LeBeouf will star. Guillermo del Toro is the executive producer. Some sites refer to the movie as Death’s Day, but it is not officially the title yet.

The Fermata: Based on Nicholson Baker's 1994 book, The Fermata is the fictionalized autobiography of Arno Strine. He has the ability to stop time at will, at which point he usually indulges himself by taking women's clothes off. Neil and Robert Zemeckis take the main character's ability to stop time, and what he usually does with it, and emphasize the man's inability to connect with society, making the character a bit more sympathetic. Neil has written three drafts, and after each draft he met with Zemeckis to discuss it. In 2003 he finished putting the final touches on the script, and hopefully it will eventually go into pre-production.  At the Nicholas Baker Fan Page you will find more information on Nicholson Baker and his works.

Interworld: In 1996 Michael Reeves and Neil Gaiman started collaborating on this project, originally meant to be an animated series for young adults. It’s the story of Joey Harker, a normal boy who finds out that there are other worlds…and other Joey Harkers. They all join forces to defend themselves against evil forces who want the one thing that makes all these Joeys special, the ability to travel between dimensions. They shopped it around to places like Dreamworks, who were not interested, and eventually they gave up, and wrote the story as a book, which was released in June, 2007. It was written partially because they were sure people would understand the concept better in book form, a theory that has, after many years, proven true. Advanced reviews are very positive, and Dreamworks, the people they originally submitted to, is now interested in making this into a movie.

Modesty Blaise Script: Peter O'Donnell is the original author of this popular novel and comic strip heroine. Modesty grew up an orphan, making her way in a rough world were all her wits and cunning were needed to survive. Eventually she would head a criminal organization called The Network. She was a thief, but a thief with a sense of honor. When she and her friend Willie Garvin retired, they thought they could live out the rest of their lives in obscure peace. Unfortunately Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of a secret British agency, had other plans.  Miramax thought that Modesty could be their answer to James Bond. Luc Besson was set to direct, Quentin Tarantino was to write the first Modesty Blaise film, and Neil Gaiman was asked to adapt the sequel, I, Lucifer. Neil has loved the series since he stumbled across a copy of Saber Tooth as a six year old, and was thrilled with the opportunity to adapt Modesty for the big screen. He submitted a treatment right away, even began writing the script. Unfortunately problems and disagreements over the first script stopped the film from being made. Miramax's option was almost up, and O'Donnell made his intention not to renew it clear. In 2003 Miramax put out a prequel called My name is Modesty, a direct to video production that was made in a matter of weeks, which automatically extended Miramax's option on the property. It was shot in Bucharest in the spring of 2002, and was written by husband and wife team Scott and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever). Scott Spiegel (From Dust to Dawn 2) directed it, and Alexandra Staden (Hotel, Vanity Fair) starred. Rumor has it that the second movie, Modesty Blaise, is set to follow. For a list of Modesty Blaise books and more information, as well as an interview with the author, visit here.

Murder Mysteries: David Goyer took and expanded this mystery within a mystery about a murder in Heaven and a young man, who, while he sits and listens to the angel relay the tale, may not be so innocent himself, and created a longer, lovely adaptation for the screen. Neil read the script and really thought it was smart. Right now it's sort of in limbo, because Goyer needs to find a company willing to tackle it.

Neverwhere (TV Mini, 1996/Movie Hopefully in the Future): This was originally a six part mini series for the BBC, running in September and October of 1996. Frustrations over things being taken out of the script and poor effects (the climatic scene where the heroes fight The Great Beast of London is ruined by the fact that the Beast is obviously a cow) caused Neil to write his own, director's cut of the series in the 1996 (1997 for the US version) book of the same name. Henson's bought the option, which is great news if for no other reason than the creature shop would create a truly amazing Great Beast of London. From 1997 to 2000, Neil wrote eight drafts of the script. He then announced that he was done with it, citing that he was too close to the material. The reason for the many drafts was because the studio wanted a lot of changes, including a stronger love interest. Also, whenever they switched directors, a whole new set of concepts was introduced, and a whole new script was needed. Matt Drake was picked to write the new script after Neil left, and Vincenzo Natali (The Cube) was said to be the new director.  A nice home page for the TV series can be found here. In June 2007, Neil mentioned on his blog that he has been asked to re-work the script he started in 2000, and at Comic Con International he told MTV’s Jennifer Vineyard that David Slade (Hard Candy, and 30 Days of Night may direct.

Good Omens: Neil co-wrote this book with Terry Pratchett (author of the Discworld series) in 1990. It is, in short, a funny novel about the end of the world and how we're all going to die. Originally Neil wrote the script for it in 1992, then he was asked to write a completely different script, one that used the same characters but departed completely from the book, and so he did. Sovereign pictures went into bankruptcy the day he handed in this second version, and so the authors were fortunate enough to get the rights back free and clear. These negotiations were such a debacle that for years they refused to consider reselling the option. When the Samuelson brothers approached them, they seemed to be the first people to understand Good Omens, and soon not only secured the option, but financing from Renaissance Film, and the perfect director, Terry Gilliam. Years ago Gaiman and Pratchett sent Gilliam a copy of the book, hoping for a blurb, but the blurb note got lost, and Gilliam thought that the book was a submission. He read it, loved it, and has always wanted to make it into a movie. He wrote a script with partner Tony Grisoni, one that Neil has said is wonderful.  Johnny Depp and Robin Williams were both attached, but since then things have dissolved into rumor. Currently they have a script that requires a 60 million dollar budget, of which they'd only raised eighty percent of the funding for. The hang up is that much of this money is contingent on an American distributor signing for it and putting in the last bit of financing. So far the distributors have refused, despite the fact that they'd be putting a relatively small about of money into a movie that, with the combined popularity of Gilliam, Pratchett and Gaiman should be a safe bet. Renaissance films is now bankrupt, and the option expired. Since, Gilliam has moved on to other projects, but has often said, even as late as November 2006, that he still hopes to make the movie.  An excellent place to keep up with rumors is find it here. The site also includes many facts, for example, Ramayana is pronounced rum-iron, or rum-ine. Neil wrote five treatments for DreamWorks and they really seemed to love the final draft.  Unfortunately, while comedies in a two dimensional format usually do well, adventures are another matter. For example, DreamWorks'  Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an adventure movie set in the west, did not quite do as well at the box office as was hoped.

Signal to Noise:  Dave McKean will be directing another piece he worked on with Neil, adapting the Graphic Novel to film.  Neil is only helping here and there with it, reading over Dave's script and helping him get financing.

Sandman: Is one that most people are beginning to hope never sees the big screen. It's a story about stories, told in ten volumes, and, in my thoughts, seems too big, too diverse to really pin down. Neil himself has said several times that it's better in people's heads. The central character is the Sandman, or Morpheus, the anthropomorphic action of dreaming. In the first book, Morpheus, or Dream, is captured by a coven of wizards and imprisoned for seventy years, and in that time the tools of his office have been scattered. Once he frees himself, he needs to go and get these items back and rebuild his realm. In the second, which some movie scripts delve into, Rose Walker is on a quest of her own -- to find her brother. Some of the dreams and nightmares that left The Dreaming during Morpheus' absence figure highly in her quest, both in her brother's troubles, and in the form of Fiddler's Green, who helps her. Any movie scripts that I've read, and you can find several of them online, combine these two books. John Peters trashed the first attempts, then hired a screen writer who shared his vision, who created a terrible version, where the Corinthian (in the comic books a nightmare created by Dream) becomes Dream's twin brother, naming him the Prince of Nightmares and Morpheus the Prince of Good Dreams. Instead of being a meditation about the nature of stories and of change, it becomes a mediocre action film where two super beings duke it out for the love of a woman. For this reason and a lot of others, Neil has decided that he wants absolutely nothing to do with it. The property is owned by Warner Brothers.  As of February 2007, the news that Joel Schumacher was interested in directing it stirred up interest again in the idea of the movie, but things are no closer than they were before.