Culture

Leonardo DiCaprio Signs on to Play Nicholai Hel in Don Winslow's Satori. Could Shibumi be next?

War may be hell. But for over thirty years, Hollywood has been fighting like hell to bring Hel to life.  We're talking about Nicholai Hel, the kung fu-fighting, system-gaming assassin at the center of Don Winslow's East-meet-West crime saga, Satori. It appears that the battle may finally be nearing a resolution with today's news that Leonardo DiCaprio has signed on to play the hero of Winslow's rave-reviewed novel -- a prequel to the beloved  zen-inflected thriller, Shibumi by Rodney William Whitaker, writing under the pen name Trevanian.

Ever since it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists in 1979, Shibumi has been routinely invoked as the great un-produced Oscar-sweeping blockbuster waiting to happen. Copies of the door-stopper of a spy novel can be found gathering dust on bookshelves all across Hollywood. Most recently, Keanu Reeves was attached to play the original Hel, an erudite semi-retired assassin whose heightened powers of perception help him combat some of the world's most nefarious organizations -- corporate, terrorist, and otherwise. That iteration of the project appears to have been shelved indefinitely. Like A Confederacy of Dunces, Shibumi is one of those beloved books that has proven vexingly resistant to Hollywood's attempts to translate it to the big screen.

Winslow's authorized reboot of Trevanian's character has all the elements -- cerebral and adrenal -- for some highly cinematic epic storytelling. Something of an origin story, Satori places Hel at the center of a 1950s-era superpower struggle between the U.S., France, China, and the USSR. Hired by the CIA to take out the Soviet commissioner to China, Hel strategizes his way out of some very hairy situations dispensing of any multinational genocidal bad guys unlucky enough to get in his way.

Winslow, a former detective and exec-producer of the TV cop procedural UC: Undercover, certainly seems to have cracked the code to creating camera-ready fiction. Oliver Stone is deep into production on an adaptation of Savages, Winslow's dive into the anomie of Mexican drug cartels. He is unique among modern crime writers for his baroque literary style and intricate web of political plot twists and rogues gallery of villains and secondary characters including merciless torturers, Asian monk bad-asses and a sadistic man-hunter called The Cobra. If "Satori" becomes the hit that appears to be its destiny, perhaps it will pave the way for Shibumi to finally make its long-overdue big-screen debut. Or here's hoping.

What are some of the novels you're most mystified that Hollywood has yet to commit to film?