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?

  • It's such a favorite book of mine that it's hard to imagine anyone nailing it, but now considering DiCaprio in the role is growing on me. I think he nails it as much as anyone else I can think of.

  • s34w0lf3

    'satori' was hardly a favorite, Windslow proved to be nothing more than a redundant poseur- Trevanian was a genius with his Magnum Opus "Shibumi", his deft use of metaphors and absolutely brilliant gift of descriptive language - I believe DeCaprio 'might' be a good choice, but what about Barry Pepper, the Bible-quoting sniper from "Saving Private Ryan"?? Such a brilliant book deserves nothing less than a brilliant cast and script...

  • Jim Wilmerding

    I alway thought that Viggo Mortenson might be a good choice... as remember, Hel is not a large man... or particularly classically good looking ! (Sorry Viggo)

    • tzitz

      +1 for Mortensen - my instant choice for Hel. Di Caprio is not a bad actor, but totally wrong for this character is you ask me.

  • Nancy

    Brad pit could make a good nicholai.
    Dicaprio eyes does not match the character

  • B. Schofield

    Robert Ludlum. The Materese Circle.

    • ahh come on. 'The Parsifal Mosaic', but... if i remember correctly the central dynamic of Matarese was that two cold warriors and personal enemies had to reconcile their grievances to fight a larger evil. Way cool.

  • Fr0ntSight

    Shibumi has been my favorite book since I read it almost 15 years ago. I really hope it actually does become a movie.

  • Tom

    Nicholai Hel doesn't practice Kung- Fu, he practices "Naked Kill". The guy that wrote Satori (Winslow) got so many things wrong in his book. Even the way Nicholai has to kill his adopted Japanese step-father (as a favor to him) in prison was wrong!!
    You people that do movies changed everything anyway - so who really cares???

    • um... i'm kind of remembering that Nicholai killed his step-father with the pencil in Shibumi. Maybe i misread your post.

    • Also, if my diminishing memory serves me, i believe the term Nicholai used for his artistry was 'Noskill'.

  • Marsha

    How exciting ! One of my very favorite s

  • Marc Emory

    I have been told by several people who "oughtta know" (including such as Stan Lee and Adrian Cronauer--the real one--not Robin Williams) that "The Time Cellar" screams "FILM!" but no one has yet to act on it.

  • Murray

    Satori was a poor imitation of Shibumi (which I have read multiple times and still love to this day). It really lacked the depth, warmth and cunning wisdom of the original. One suspects Winslow knew this, given his somewhat grovelling foreword to it in which he claimed to be not worthy of the task. I suspect they were looking at Satori first, because it has a more "movie-friendly" action plot. Shibumi is not afraid to play out the action in a way that is faithful to the characters and events, e.g. the long scene in the caves and the slightly rapid resolution and ending. Satori plays it out in a much more formulaic and predictable way. If this ever reaches cinemas, they had better not mess it up!! 🙂

  • Erik Beale

    I would like to see "Shibumi," made into a film. The problem is Hollywood in all probability would butcher it beyond recognition. Does anyone agree? Feel fee to contact me at m email above

    • Where Hollywood and any writers subsequent to Rod Whitaker (Trevanian) might fail is that Whitaker is widely believed to have invented the character of the WRITER before he sat down to put pen to paper. Hence, future attemps to re-create Hel with the same vivid, intricate web of narrative/insight will likely be missing
      I know nothing of film making, but something tells me the best script will come from a consortium of people versed in everything from culture to mysticism to sexuality and you name it.

  • Actually after i first read Shibumi i pictured Frank Langella playing the part of Nicholai Hel, per his characterization of Dracula. Of course that won't work now.

    Now in 2014, i can see neither Leonaro DiCaprio nor Keanu Reeves pulling it off. (Shame on me if it has already been done). And of course, like any armchair quarterback, i have no alternative in mind. I'm guessing the guy will end up being a relatively obscure Shakespearean actor, somewhat in the mold of Patrick Stewart but much younger than he was even in Star Trek.

  • Rob

    DiCaprio would be a perfect Nicholai Hel. As you should recall from Shibumi, Hel is not tall, not masculine looking, not well built but rather wiry, and looks much younger than he is. That's DiCaprio to the tee. Furthermore, only with someone of DiCaprio's box office appeal will any producer go all in to really do Shibumi or Satori right. Some relatively unknown actor MIGHT pull it off, characterwise, but the movie would likely languish quickly. Shibumi (or Satori) on film will fail unless the entire production is top of the line. Look at how Eastwood butchered the Eiger Sanction...

  • BoobyTrap

    There's no way that anyone will make a *good* Shibumi movie. The book is waaaay too politically incorrect to be made into a movie nowadays. A true adaptation would be labeled as racist and sexist, at least. (although the book tells no lies about any of those themes, but such are the times we live in)

    Most good books are better left as books, instead of butchered into an untrue movie.

  • Erik Beale

    A film version of Satori, or Shibumi itself? THey would both ave tobe changed, that the reader could not recognize either!!!

  • One of my most fave books. I have always envisioned Ang Lee making the film. I like the idea of Viggo Mortenson as suggested a few posts below. I have not read "Satori," but have read Shibumi three times. Only recently have I begun thinking of it as a film and am pleased to have found it's been in discussion.

  • Dan

    I read this book 40 years ago and it haunted me since. I recently found it again in hardcover at a library book sale and bought it for $1.00 and needed to read it again. I did and again it struck me as it had in the 70s. I found myself buried deep inside the story till I had to lay it down once again.....Remember those of you who struggle with the "proper use of Kung Fu" . These skills had not even made it to the shores of California in the days when this book had been written so don't be too hard on the author who was trying to interpret these incredibly confidential skills. Today every twelve year old thinks he understands these rather dramatic techniques. This writer was working way before the western culture had even caught up with him.


  • Diane

    If anyone should play Nicolas Hel, it should be Viggo Mortenson. Hands down; case closed!