Marlon James’ critically acclaimed novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” may soon be coming to the small screen.
HBO has optioned James’ rangy epic that was inspired by the 1976 assassination attempt on the life of reggae icon Bob Marley. The novel spans decades as it touches on transnational drug trafficking, CIA Cold War activities and the crack epidemic.
James, an English professor at Macalester College, is doing his own adaptation, overseen by screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award for “Forrest Gump.” Roth built his reputation adapting books into screenplays, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Munich.”
“Seven Killings” is James’ third novel. His debut was “John Crow’s Devil,” about a Biblical spiritual battle in 1957 Jamaica. His sophomore effort, “The Book of Night Women,” was a slavery-era work often likened to Toni Morrison with splashes of magical realism. “Night Women” was optioned by Samuel Jackson’s production company, an option that was recently renewed.
“Seven Killings” includes Quentin Tarantino-style explorations of violence.
“I was really excited and shocked at how much HBO was interested in the whole story,” he said. “I thought maybe they would be interested in the espionage angle or something about Americans abroad. But they realize the main character, Josey Wales, should be the center of it. A lot of this is still up in the air, but it’s still a big deal.”
James will have some time to work on the adaptation. On Wednesday, he was grading his last three papers of the semester before a yearlong sabbatical. He is a fan of such TV series as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” which, he noted sadly, “got Baltimore right.”
“I like the TV serial in terms of what you can do to explore characters,” he said. “There are some characters in the book who are minor who I’d love to dig into in a bigger way. And I know that Jamaica may be wary that the main character, Josey Wales, is a gangster, a bad man. But you can look to New Jersey to see how they deal with ‘The Sopranos.’ They don’t take pride in the criminality, but they look at the show and say, this [setting] is a place of deep, meaningful stories.”
As to the questions about how to keep the show authentic, James said he is not worried.
“A good percentage of the actors portraying convincing Americans on TV are British, and you wouldn’t know until they tell you,” he said. “There are ways of ensuring that with acting, directing, everything. The show runner makes Vancouver feel like New York.”