Arguably the best novel by one of America’s greatest writers is getting an adaptation at Netflix. Ted Melfi (Hidden Figures, St. Vincent) has been hired to write and direct an adaptation of Don DeLillo‘s Underworld for the streaming giant.
DeLillo’s novel is a sprawling tapestry spread across decades in 20th century America, with a variety of characters somehow tangentially connected via the through-line of the book: the home run Bobby Thomson hit in 1951 to win the pennant for the New York Giants, breaking the hearts of crosstown fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The home run ball is retrieved by a young fan named Cotter Martin, while at the very same time J. Edgar Hoover is learning that the Soviet Union has completed its first test of the hydrogen bomb. The ball eventually winds up in the hands of a waste management business owner named Nick Shay, who sets out to find the original owner as he sorts out his own mess of a life.
Netflix has reportedly paid eight figures for the adaptation, and obviously they’re on a DeLillo kick as they’ve already got an adaptation of his other seminal work, White Noise, in development with Noah Baumbach directing.
However, White Noise is a much easier book to adapt. Anyone that’s read Underworld knows that a film adaptation has long been considered unfilmable because of the book’s sprawling scope, but also because it’s not exactly plot heavy. It’s a very novelistic book with characters doing a lot of thinking. Expect this adaptation to feel very different from DeLillo’s 800+ page tome.
Melfi is also a slightly uninteresting hire for such a monumental gig. He previously directed Hidden Figures and just had his new film The Starling premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but he’s not exactly the name DeLillo fans would have been clamouring to adapt such an acclaimed book that plunges deep into the heart of 20th century America’s loss of identity.
There’s also a tinge of disappointment that the Underworld adaptation is being made for Netflix. This is the kind of big novel that deserves a similarly big screen production. It feels like a movie early 80s Michael Cimino or 90s Spike Lee should have made. Having it hit streaming feels like a statement on the current state of Hollywood.
Melfi is producing the film alongside Uri Singer, who is also producing the White Noise adaptation, and has also optioned a third DeLillo book, The Silence.
Melfi’s The Starling, led by Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline, is a drama about grief that will also debut wide on Netflix, although a release date is not currently set.