Rules of Civility Heads to the Big Screen as Hollywood Continues to Court the Wolves of Wall Street

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Pink slips recently went out to vampires and werewolves. Byronic heroes, Beatnicks, brooding bastards in black leather and brutes of dubious origin: Your services will no longer be needed. To make matters worse -- o cruel irony -- you’ve been replaced by a guy in a suit with an expensive haircut.

Wall street power players have become pop culture’s latest bad boy crush. And as with most unhealthy obsessions, there’s no room for moderation or playing the field. These days, if a character in a novel or film is to part with innocence, break glass ceilings, defy convention, experience untold ecstasy, or descend into a hell of her own making, it's probably going to happen in close proximity to The Street, the trope of choice for writers in all media.

As the financial crisis continues to cast its long shadow, the one percent has suddenly taken on an exotic allure like never before. There’s definitely an argument to be made that this love-hate relationship with capitalism’s epicenter of excess has added a mythic timeliness to a slew of pop culture icons, from Christian, the domineering financial magnate in Fifty Shades of Grey to the sex-is-power binges of Michael Fassbender’s bespoke-suited sex addict in “Shame.

Most recently Lionsgate finally succeeded in scoring the film rights to the period financial district success parable, Rules of Civility, after a months-long campaign spent wooing first-time novelist Amor Towles, who was wary of subjecting his bestseller to any studio’s creativity-by-committee conveyor belt. Towles' reluctance to commit to a big-screen adaptation represents a radical role reversal between the two storied sources of American affluence, particularly considering it wasn’t so long ago that stock market fat cats were beating down studio gates for the opportunity to siphon off some Hollywood sex appeal by making high-risk investments in money-losing movies.

Now commodities traders have themselves become the hot cultural commodities. The upper tax brackets of Hollywood talent are clamoring for material set among the financial markets’ bulls and bears. To wit, The Wolf of Wall Street became one of this year’s most hotly contested projects, landing Martin Scorsese in the middle of a lawsuit after he shed a previous commitment in order to direct this high-pedigree adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s cautionary tale about his high-flying days as a hedonistic investment banker. Likewise, Rob Pattinson was similarly seduced by the creative rewards of playing a corrupt business tycoon in David Cronenberg’s polarizing adaptation of Don DeLillo’s "Cosmopolis."

Alas, New York’s financial world can only claim Rules of Civility, which actually takes place in a high-powered law firm, as distant relation. Set amid the pre-WWII economic doldrums, the novel centers around Katey Kontent (a Jazz Age version of Kardashian alliteration), a working-class Brooklynite who uses her wit to catapult herself out of her firm’s secretarial pool and into the gilded redoubts of the city’s elite. But the city’s Darwinist initiation rites required of anyone foolish or daring enough to ascend the social ladder remain relatively unchanged from then to now.

Though Towles, himself a former hedge fund mogul, sets up a familiar tension between New York’s haves and have-nots, the source of the story's popularity lies in its retro charms. At heart, Rules of Civility has more in common with the screwball comedies of the '30s than it does with today’s financial crisis. And given that Hollywood long ago abandoned the social commentary and machine-gun banter of Golden Age comedies for the contrived meet-cute formulas of today’s rom-coms, Towles' reticence to sell the novel’s film rights is understandable, considering.

If done right, a film version of Rules will require Hollywood to break a few of its own conventions. The first order of business will involve lining up a toweringly talented filmmaker to combat the swelling tide of bland studio-vetted dialogue. If there’s an heir apparent to Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, it would have to be Alexander Payne. And as for his leading lady, for our money, there’s only one only actress with the pluck and power to pull it off: Emma Stone.

But please, don’t just take our word for it. We encourage you to break the rules of civility and voice your strong support or dissent for our choices and add to the list with a few of your own.