Minneapolis It’s a scenario many authors dream about: Their book becomes a smash movie. But novelist Walter Kirn is taking the pessimistic view of fellow Minnesota writer Garrison Keillor as he watches the movie version of his book, “Up in the Air,” soar to critical and box office success.
“I’m a Minnesotan,” Kirn says. “We dream too big, we’re going to be humbled.”
Paramount’s “Up in the Air” has pulled in $63.9 million domestically in seven weeks and won raves for actor George Clooney as a slick ax-man racking up frequent-flier miles as he fires workers for other companies.
Director Jason Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner won Golden Globes for best screenplay last week, but “Avatar” director James Cameron and his box-office behemoth took top honors at the Globes. That could foreshadow the Academy Awards race; nominations are announced Feb. 2.
It’s not the first time a Kirn book has become a movie. “Thumbsucker,” based on his adolescence in eastern Minnesota’s St. Croix River Valley, became a 2005 indie movie starring Lou Pucci and Tilda Swinton.
But “Up in the Air” is a mainstream hit and has “kicked the sales (of the book) in the seat considerably,” says Doubleday executive editor Gerry Howard.
Speaking from his home in Livingston, Mont., Kirn, 47, says he came up with the idea for Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, while next to a stranger on a flight in 1999.
“I turned to him and asked him where he was from and he said, ’I’m from right here, this seat,”’ Kirn recalls. The man said he had an apartment in Atlanta but never used it and spent two-thirds of the year traveling.
“I felt like a zoologist who’d discovered a new species of monkey deep in the jungle,” Kirn says.
“Up in the Air” hit bookshelves in July 2001 — weeks before Sept. 11.
“Then Sept. 11th happened and no one wanted to buy a book or certainly see a movie set on airplanes,” Kirn recalls.
But things changed. Reitman found the book and identified with Bingham.
Reitman worked on the screenplay until 2008, pausing to direct “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007). Then the financial meltdown hit.
The movie went from being “about a man who was trying to figure out his place in the world” to “a movie that spoke to hundreds of thousands of people who had lost their jobs,” he says.
Meanwhile, Turner says he read the book when it came out and became “obsessed” with it. Turner had written half a script when studio dealings fell through. But he finished the script, put it on a shelf and eventually sold it.
Kirn says his only requirements were that the movie retain the book’s title, main character and Kirn’s worldview. And he would like moviegoers to know “Up in the Air” was a book first.
“I do get grumpy at times that they’ve forgotten that there was this book it was based on. And it didn’t come out of nowhere.”