A Comprehensive History of the Failed Attempts at a ‘Neuromancer’ Movie
'Deadpool' director Tim Miller is the latest in a long line of would-be directors trying to adapt this cyberpunk classic
Deadpool director Tim Miller was praised worldwide for his faithful adaptation of the irreverent comic book character that was adapted so poorly in its previous movie iteration. He now has an even bigger challenge on his hands though, as he’s reported to be the next director tackling a movie adaptation of the classic science fiction novel Neuromancer.
Written by William Gibson in 1984, Neuromancer is the story of computer hacker Case, a talented antihero in a dystopian future Japan. Gibson was initially worried that the book would flop, and that people would think he copied Blade Runner’s setting, after seeing the first 20 minutes of the movie. His worries were soon disproven, as Neuromancer would grow into the cornerstone of an entire genre of fiction now known as cyberpunk. With such an iconic status, it’s actually surprising the novel hasn’t been adapted for the screen anytime sooner, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The first adaptation of Neuromancer was a fairly loose one, but the most critically acclaimed attempt so far was a 1988 computer game for Amiga, Apple II, Commodore 64, and DOS-based computers. It aged pretty horribly, but is still considered a classic in its genre by many.
Apart from that, Neuromancer has also been adapted into British and Finnish radio dramas, an opera (which has never been performed in full) and a comic book adaptation published by Marvel subsidiary Epic Comics. That 1989 comic book, by writer Tom DeHaven and artist Bruce Jensen, only got about halfway through the novel, and DeHaven declined to finish it, due to the horrible experience he had writing in the by then still requisite “Marvel method.”
“I had to write something like: “Page 1, Case is walking around Chiba City at night. Page 2, Case talks to Ratz and Linda Lee in a bar. Page 3. Linda Lee tells Case that Wage intends to kill him. He leaves the bar and walks around recalling his days as a console cowboy.” Etcetera. After working up that sort of uninflected précis—which was probably no longer than a couple of pages—I sent it off to Bruce Jensen (…) Jensen then did the page and panel breakdowns as he saw fit, roughing out everything, very loosely, in pencil,” DeHaven recounted on his blog.
“I rolled my eyes and grumbled a lot. I crossed my fingers constantly, and hoped for the best.”
“Several weeks later, I got back photocopies (blurry photocopies, at that) of his pencils to script dialog and captions over. What a fucking nightmare! Often, the pencils were so rough, so loose that I couldn’t tell who was even in the panels, what they were doing, or even if there were any props. And just as often, there either would be too many panels on a page, or too few, to create what I considered good scene flow. And since—at a much later stage—Jensen would be creating photographic collages to evoke cyberspace/the matrix, those essential panels, at the pencil stage, were left… blank; even so, I still had to write expository or dialog captions for them. I rolled my eyes and grumbled a lot. I crossed my fingers constantly, and hoped for the best.”
Tom DeHaven didn’t fare much better than his film industry counterparts though. In fact, Miller’s predecessors have collectively put in almost two decades of work trying to get a Neuromancer film made, all to no avail. First up to bat was director Chris Cunningham, director of a distinctly cyberpunk Björk video and several Aphex Twin videos. The latter was supposedly on board to create the soundtrack for the film, and Gibson himself worked with Cunningham on the script, around 1999.
“I sat on a couch beside this dead sex little Björk robot, except it was wearing Aphex Twin’s head”
“We were told, third-hand, that he was extremely chary of the Hollywood process, and wouldn’t return calls. But someone else told us that Neuromancer had been his Wind In The Willows, that he’d read it when he was twelve. I went to London and we met,” Gibson said in an interview with Spike magazine. “Chris is my own 100 per cent personal choice. My only choice. The only person I’ve met who I thought might have a hope in hell of doing it right. I went back to see him in London just after he’d finished the Bjork video, and I sat on a couch beside this dead sex little Björk robot, except it was wearing Aphex Twin’s head. We talked. And we’re still talking.”
In 2004 though, he deaded any lingering rumors still swirling around the project on his website’s message board, where he answered the question “Is it true there’s a movie of Neuromancer in the works?” like this: “Perpetually, it seems, and going on a quarter of a century now. The most recently rumoured version, to have been directed by Chris Cunningham, is now definitely not happening.”
In 2007 however, the project seemed to take on new life, when Joseph Kahn (who would go on to direct Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ video) signed on to direct the adaptation. Judging by the storyboards that eventually leaked, his version appears to have been a fairly straight-forward action flick, although the thingamajigs on the eyes of the character Molly reveal the cyberpunk aesthetic certainly wasn’t fully left behind. He was reportedly about to work with a $70 million budget, but ultimately never got beyond the pre production process. A more extensive look at the storyboards for this aborted project can be found here.
The version that seemed to come closest to fruition, was started under the guidance of director Vincenzo Natali, who took on the mantle in 2010, with Lorenzo di Bonaventura as a producer. A promo page on British production company GFM Films’ website was created, which revealed the film to be a Canadian, British and Hungarian co-production. The page featured an official piece of promotional art by Amro Attia, and another concept sketch of his was featured on his blog around the same time.
Aside from frequent collaborator Attia, with whom Natali also worked on his 2009 film Splice, manga artist Tsutomu Nihei (creator of, among other series, Knights of Sidonia), created concept art for the film. Natali and his cadre of concept artists worked on the project for years, and had a pretty distinct idea for the visual language of the film. Through their efforts, the film gained some forward momentum, and Mark Wahlberg was rumored to be cast as Case, while Liam Neeson would supposedly portray the character Armitage.
The film finally seemed to have its funding together by May 2015, but alas, Natali was out the door by then, and Di Bonaventura had also left the project behind. Natali started tweeting out concept art of his take on the project days after the announcement, with “File under ghosts of futures past” as his comment.
It’s now two years later, and a new director has finally been found. That makes Tim Miller another idiosyncratic movie maker in a long line of people connected to the Neuromancer film. We sincerely hope he’ll be able to finally lead it to completion. But so far, directors and artists on the project have been replaced more often than Case replaced his organs in the Chiba city of the future.