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J. Michael Straczynski Speaks On His Doyle/Houdini Screenplay

While Hollywood seems on a hot streak for outlandish historical genre pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the latest hot pickup is showing a turn from the ridiculous and on toward the real with two of the 20th Century’s most eccentric figures.

Announced today via The Hollywood Reporter, DreamWorks has picked up Voices from the Dead from Changeling screenwriter and well-known comic scribe J. Michael Straczynski. Voices spins a roaring ’20s mystery thriller out of the real-life friendship between Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and escape artist Harry Houdini. Spinoff Online reached out to the writer shortly after this afternoon’s announcement for the first word on how the story and deal came together.

“I was doing some research into Houdini when I discovered that he and Doyle were friends,” Straczynski explained. “I hadn’t previously been aware of this, and was fascinated by their relationship. I managed to get a lot online about them, and I ordered Houdini’s book where he talks about Doyle, and Doyle’s book where he talks about Houdini … the more I dug the more interesting it became. Whey that friendship broke apart over their different beliefs, the heat was equal to if not greater than the friendship that spawned it.

“It was a friendship that dominated headlines in the U.S. and Britain … the world’s greatest magician and the creator of the world’s most famous detective. The story that came out in the screenplay is about 60 percent factual and 40 percent fiction.”

Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

The story of Voices from the Dead is driven by the longstanding debate between the two men over the existence of the supernatural, with Doyle playing the supporter and Houdini the eternal skeptic. “Basically, Houdini believed that most mediums were frauds but there might be some real ones out there, and Doyle believed that most were real but that there were some frauds who needed to be weeded out, and their friendship lived in the space in-between,” Straczynski said. “It came down to a story that would put them at opposite ends of the spectrum. I didn’t want to do a story about magic, per se, because that’s been done so many times. Instead I wrapped the story around a murder mystery with supernatural overtones — is it real or isn’t it? — and set them on the path to find out, accompanied by someone who may or may not be a real medium. It’s an action story, a character story, there’s humor and some really scary stuff … I think it’s going to do really well, and I know that the folks involved want to get this made as quickly as possible.”

While he readies the sequel to DC’s Superman: Earth One, Straczynski also has a number of other movie projects in the pipeline, including two projects Jerry Bruckheimer Films: Shattered Union (based on the video game) and a sci-fi action movie called Vanishing Point.


  • Jim DeLorenzo

    This would be great news if it wasn’t for the fact that William Shatner & Michael Tobias collaborated on a fine original mystery novel, “Believe,” that covered the EXACT same ground. Just now discovering that A. Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini were friends is like finding out the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby made hit movies together from the 1940s through the 1960s. Stuff like this, which JMS has suddenly “discovered,” is what used to be termed “General Knowledge.” Move on, JMS — your work is derivative and stale.

  • Majka4

    “Most often, story ideas are not born fully-formed but come to the imagination in stages. I first learned of the friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while researching a film project for Ray Stark. Make a great buddy movie, I thought, even as the idea slipped from my mind. A decade later, I found myself toying with the notion once again. What I lacked was a caper. One morning, drinking coffee in Rob Bottin’s kitchen, gruesome serial killings in the manner of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe came to me in a flash. A great caper but somehow not quite enough spark to light the fuse. Another couple years passed and the final eureka moment exploded out of my subconscious while I drove down the beautiful Boulder Valley where I live in Montana. Houdini and Conan Doyle had disagreed over the issue of spiritualism, so why not make Poe’s ghost a character in the novel? With that piece of the puzzle in place the book seemed almost to write itself.”
    – from the webpage of author William Hjortberg

    Sounds like this road has been traveled down already. Is this story just a screenplay based on this novel?

  • Yanks5179

    Awesome. Maybe he’ll write only part of it and then have something come up and leave it unfinished…

  • Someguy

    Yanks, a script can’t be bought unless it’s finished, so your comment is pointless

  • TheBoyWonder

    Eh, he won’t finish it. Some poor schmuck will have to come along and follow his “notes”.

  • Scud

    Man you beat me to it.

  • Yaaaaaay

    Guys, be nice. I’m sure the first third of this screenplay that he manages to write will be really stupendous.

    Maybe he’ll have an exciting scene where Houdini stops performing escape acts and goes walking around instead! And Arthur Conan Doyle can suddenly be way less of a successful writer and slowly have to earn all his craft back through challenges!

  • Flavioeldritch

    Oh man, reading these comments only remind me how much I REALLY HATE NERDS!

  • Yanks5179

    It was a joke, dick. Lighten up.

  • Yanks5179

    Oh, and, YES, a script CAN be bought before a finished product; companies can purchase the rights to the full script based off a treatment.

  • GT

    It’s not fair to judge JMS on Marvel/DC projects that were, at least in part, editorially mandated. I’ve always figured most writers work better when given free reign. This sounds like a fun project.

  • Thegunn21

    Hey spinoff, what the hell is wrong with you? I was hoping for the news of Samaritan X, or something. not holly wood crap. But…

    It good to see JMS to do more screenwriting work. half the fuckers who read this site has never seen Changling.

    PS: Superman Grounded is kind of a shit premise, but I did like Earth One Superman.

    reply if you dare.

  • Flip Maker

    Uhh, dude, Spinoff is all Hollywood news. What the hell is wrong with you?

  • jscott1520

    Finish “The Twelve” first, dammit!

  • Someguy

    Yes, a script can be commissioned, but if you had bothered to read the actual STORY it said that this was a FINISHED SPEC SCRIPT that was purchsed. If you can’t be bothered to actually read what it says, then why comment?

    And as for the Twelve, Marvel is waiting on Chris Weston, the book has been almost entirely written. This has been said elsewhere.

  • Thegunn21

    and part of cbr, dipshit.

  • Lex

    JMS got over 90% on Spider-man. It 100% ruined the book. Seriously, I don’t know who the new guy is supposed to be and nothing can happen because they already promised readers ‘everything’ in the span of about 8 months. Stuff like ‘dying’ and ‘identity revealed’ The most bizare and awful stuff I’d ever seen in a Marvel comic. You can’t undo it, either. It’s still there and now the book and character are just a whole lot of nothing.

    I’m sure that Superman thing he did worked out great. All one issue of it, from what I’ve heard.

  • pharon

    hmm the most unprofessional man in comics still gets articles written about him sheesh.

  • Captain_Obvious

    Obviously he is bullfuckingly overrated.

  • Mwedmer

    He is a TV and film writer first and foremost. He has long had success in those fields, including the Oscar for Changeling.
    When you have Editorial micro managing your comic scripts, is it any wonder shit doesn’t get finished?

  • raymond

    this writer is a fraud he does not deserve anything but a bumbs life stealing stories from people who work so hard to make something of themselves i prey his brakes go out

  • raymond

    dont buy into any of this guys crap he is a thief. trust me i know who he stole it from same story.