Lynn Messina wrote Fashionistas when she was working as a copy editor at InStyle magazine, and it became one of several popular books from 2003 that skewered the fashion industry and celebrity culture from the inside. The Devil Wears Prada was quickly adapted into a blockbuster movie. Fashionistas was not. This is her story.
I’m reasonably sure Charles Dickens wasn’t thinking of a movie option when he wrote about the interminable Chancery court case at the heart of Bleak House — mostly because film hadn’t been invented yet but also because he was a best seller and the works of best sellers often make a smooth transition from page to screen.
It was, however, the first thing I thought of while watching Masterpiece Theatre’s wonderful 2006 adaptation. In my experience, having one’s book optioned by a Hollywood producer bears a striking resemblance to the litigation of a generations-old lawsuit that ruins almost every life it touches: engulfment in a system so vast and arcane that only industry insiders understand how it works as it slogs through an expensive, ineffective, and technically difficult process that promises great wealth to those invested in an outcome so far removed from its origins that few can remember its source material.
Welcome to the High Court of the Chancery.
My book’s transition from page to screen was supposed to go smoothly. When Fashionistas was published in 2003, almost simultaneously as The Devil Wears Prada, Hollywood quickly came calling. Within months of a generous offer, it had everything it needed: studio backing, established screenwriters, and a star — and not just any star: Lindsay Lohan, bright-eyed and fresh from the success of Mean Girls. Reports of her involvement ricocheted around the world so quickly that it was my brother on a business trip to South Korea who broke the news to me.
And then there was the party — the completely wonderful, perfectly absurd party in Los Angeles the producer threw to celebrate the relaunch of Fashionistas with a younger, sexier cover and a gushing quote from La Lohan herself. Suddenly, there I was, an awkward New York writer teetering self-consciously down a red carpet, my heart in my throat, as photographers snapped my picture and journalists from every major entertainment-news organization asked me to list my fashion influences. Extra interviewed me on camera for 10 minutes. Hollywood glamour pusses dressed to the nines gushed over my book and breathlessly insisted to me — me! Whose style can at best be described as ragamuffin chic — that they were fashionistas, too.
My film agent, who had seen it all during her 20 years in the business, conceded that things seemed to be progressing nicely, but she calmly advised cautious optimism. I did my best to comply. I shopped for an outfit with a sense of irony, bought bargain heels at Macy’s and professed to reckless pessimism. But I defy anyone to stand next to Paris Hilton against a backdrop of her own novel in the Fenix room of the Sunset Tower Hotel in Hollywood while dozens of paparazzi shout her name and not get a little incautious.
Actually, I defy her not to go all in.
Better people than me have succumbed with less provocation, and I, who had never believed in anything wholeheartedly in my life, especially in the endurance of good fortune, now believed wholeheartedly in the Fashionistas movie. Major life decisions were put on hold as my husband and I contemplated our suddenly bright future. Why buy a convertible one-bedroom apartment on the fringe of the Village when we’d soon be able to afford a three-bedroom on Perry Street?
For 14 months, we lived in the happy bubble of speculation, giddily discussing all the things we could do, see, buy, and eat when the movie went through… and then pop! The studio turned down the script and pulled funding. The project was dead.
But the producer wasn’t done with Fashionistas yet and resolved to raise the money on her own. It was a classic Hollywood reversal: from studio flick to scrappy independent in the blink of an eye. Like any good comeback story, this one had plenty of hurdles to be overcome. The script needed work, the star had begun to self-implode, and the project required financing. But every problem was an opportunity for a meeting — with old writers, with new writers, with potential actresses, with potential directors, with potential funders. At any given moment, there was an outcome to wait for, a date to circle on my calendar. And while I waited, anxious, jittery and unbearably excited, I scoured the Internet with incessant furor, ferreting out crumbs of information from dark corners. I stalked the IMDb discussion boards for the movie, as if Kitty_Cat_22 knew more about its development than me. I found a musician who listed the Fashionistas theme song among her recent accomplishments and emailed her to say, “Really? Are you sure? What do you know?” I eagerly anticipated a reply for days.
With all this unbearable expectation coursing through my everyday existence, I didn’t write a single sentence. I couldn’t focus on a thought long enough to make it coherent. I’d resolve not to check my email for an entire day, then for a full hour, then for 15 measly minutes. But seconds later, I’d be back on Yahoo, refreshing my inbox again. Someone somewhere had to be getting back to me now.
And this is how Bleak House found me in December 2006. Three years into the moviemaking process, I felt a disturbing kinship with the wayward Richard Carstone, a promising young man whose potential is squandered as he waits for Jarndyce and Jarndyce to be decided in his favor. Distracted by the prospect of a great fortune, he can’t settle on a career, darting from medicine to the law to the military and dying a broken man when he discovers that court expenses have devoured any inheritance he might have gotten.
With growing dread, I realized I was Richard Carstone. This being the 21st century and, well, reality, I wasn’t wasting away from some debilitating disease that reflected my weak moral character, but I suffered from the same distraction, the same willingness to sacrifice the present for the future, the same inability to put aside the prospect of a big payday and live my life, the same thoughtless eagerness to squander my potential.
The next day, I began writing a contemporary adaptation of Bleak House in which the destructive central unresolved issue is a movie option. The parallels between the Chancery and Hollywood, two institutions that feed on hope, were easy to find and exploit.
That was six years ago. Now, as I finally publish the book on the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, the Fashionistas option moves steadily along. Just last month, I signed another contract for an extension. But rather than daydream about wonderful what-ifs, I’ve taken the kindly Mr. Jarndyce’s advice to Richard, which echoes my own agent’s recommendation with considerably more melodrama: “Whatever you do on this side of the grave, never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years.”
To her credit and my profound relief, the producer continues to nurture this horrible phantom, and I’ve heard enough Oscar acceptance speeches to know that the only way a movie gets made is with passion, persistence, and ineffable energy. Thankfully, she has all three. Someone has to throw herself whole-heartedly into a project — the average film takes nine years to make, and George Lucas famously worked on Red Tails for 23 — but that person is no longer me. For the sake of my sanity, I’ve stopped living in the glorious future, with its three-bedroom apartments on Perry Street and meals at Per Se. No, I live in the present. And the present is Bleak.
Somehow, that’s bright enough for me.