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Hollywood Can’t Leave Romancing the Stone Alone

The deceptively effortless-seeming Kathleen Turner–Michael Douglas romantic adventure never spawned a franchise, but not for any lack of trying. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Lost City, the Sandra Bullock–Channing Tatum movie that’s eked out some modest success for itself in theaters over the last few weeks, opens with a shot of its two stars sprawled out side by side against the strains of Spandau Ballet. “You’re incredible,” Tatum murmurs tenderly. “My heart is still racing,” Bullock responds. Then the camera pulls back to reveal the pair are not actually in the throes of postcoital bliss but tied up on the floor of an ancient temple in a scenario out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, menaced by a henchman-flanked villain and some convenient snakes. Then that turns out to also be a fake-out — the movie pulls back once again to reveal the pair actually are in a love story after all, one being written by Bullock’s character, who isn’t a dashing archaeologist, but a depressive novelist sitting at home in her robe, struggling with the ending of her latest opus. It’s not Indiana Jones the movie is evoking. It’s Romancing the Stone, the 1984 action-adventure romantic-comedy in which Kathleen Turner plays a naïve author who enlists the help of a roguish Michael Douglas while trekking through remote Colombia trying to save her kidnapped sister.

The Lost City isn’t an official remake of that effervescent cable-TV standard, which fizzed with the tension between Turner, as the buttoned-up Joan, and Douglas, as a rough-and-tumble bird smuggler named Jack Colton (it didn’t hurt that the two actors were having an affair). But it’s close enough to feel, as Vulture’s Angelica Bastién put it, like “Romancing the Stone cosplay updated for the current moment.” Like Turner’s character, Joan Wilder, Bullock’s Loretta Sage is a successful romance writer, and like Joan, Loretta gets thrown into a real-life trek through the jungle in the company of her eventual lover, who in her case is himbo cover model Alan (Tatum). Unlike Joan, Loretta finds her work and the passionate fandom it inspired to be embarrassing. She’d rather be taken seriously, like her late archaeologist husband, than be a purveyor of what she thinks of as schlock. If this twist is meant to modernize the premise, mostly it reveals how unsure the four credited screenwriters are about what that means, because Joan, who’s proud of what she does, and has (sometimes unexpected) readers around the world, feels more fresh in her contradictory fantasies than Loretta does in her idealization of academia.

But that’s the thing about Romancing the Stone, which was written by a first-timer named Diane Thomas, directed by Robert Zemeckis at the start of his career, and produced by Douglas himself in hopes it would be the project that pushed him into full-blown movie stardom. No one expected it to be a hit at the time, and no one who’s tried to recapture its spark since has seemed to understand why it worked. This includes Douglas himself, who rushed out a sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, for the following year that caught up with Joan and Jack in a fictional North African country experiencing some growing pains six months into their relationship. Zemeckis, who was off to make Back to the Future, didn’t return. Thomas didn’t either, with Douglas instead opting for a screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. According to Turner, “What had happened was that Romancing was so successful that Diane [Thomas], who wrote the original script, evidently asked Michael for what he felt was a ridiculous sum to work on the sequel. So instead, he went with these two guys and what they came up with was terrible, formulaic, sentimental.” Turner hated it so much that, despite being contractually obligated to take the role, she threatened to pull out after production had begun.

Romancing the Stone had a tough shoot in Mexico, plagued by rainstorms, unruly alligators, and challenging stunt sequences, but it had nothing on The Jewel of the Nile, which shot in the punishing heat of the Moroccan desert and had a schedule that unwisely overlapped with Ramadan. Production designer Richard Dawking and production manager Brian Coates died in a plane crash while scouting locations, and Douglas and Turner were almost in one themselves when their plane nearly missed a runway in Morocco. All of this was for a film that was neither good nor terrible, but something that was in its own way more dire. The Jewel of the Nile, which followed a bickering Joan and Jack as they disagreed over how they want to live, only to reunite as they flee a power-hungry dictator, was forgettable in a casually mercenary way, with no urgency to its own existence and only secondhand charm to coast on. Douglas crawled away from the brutal production and the long press tour that followed with a hit on his hands, at the box office if not with critics, and no desire to do another one even though there was already a draft of a script from Warren Skaaren that involved the now-married Jack and Joan heading to Thailand with their two teenage children.

Romancing the Stone never materialized into a franchise, but not for lack of trying. In 2005, a third film, Racing the Monsoon, was announced, with plans to shoot in India and Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai playing the female lead alongside Douglas, though by 2008, Rai had been swapped out for Catherine Zeta-Jones. How a movie about a romance writer shifted to become one about the macho soldier of fortune she fell for instead is a sad but inevitable tale of industry practicalities — Romancing the Stone was Douglas’s baby, ushered into being by way of his production deal with 20th Century Fox and unlikely to have been made without him. Turner described having to trade pages with Douglas to get to a version of a script for The Jewel of the Nile that both of them could tolerate: “‘I’ll do this if you’ll do that.’ It was frustrating.” Meanwhile Thomas, who became a hot commodity after that first script, was killed in a fatal car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1985, two months before the sequel came out. In a cruel irony, she’d been riding in a Porsche given to her as a celebratory gift by Douglas, dying 15 miles from the Malibu restaurant where she’d been working as a server while writing the film that would launch the career she never got to have.

Mentions of Racing the Monsoon petered out in the trades over the years. In 2008, there was talk of a full-on reboot of the movie, and by 2011, Katherine Heigl and either Gerard Butler or Taylor Kitsch were rumored to be in the mix to play Joan and Jack. Later that year, a possible television adaptation from Mark Friedman, creator of the short-lived Christian Slater procedural The Forgotten, popped up at NBC, threatening to be about “a successful but unfulfilled woman who teams with a risk-taking adventurer to take on weekly missions while on a larger quest to find her missing brother.” But that, too, died on the vine. It’s not that Romancing the Stone, which is a delightful film but hardly a sacred text, is too difficult to be remade or continued. Rather, its pleasures come across as deceptively effortless, as though Hollywood were capable of slapping together multifaceted entertainments like this easily, as though it hadn’t required a convergence of emerging talent and impossible-to-predict chemistry. The truth, as seen in the various attempts to replicate its appeal (like The Lost City, or, say, 1988’s Vibes, with Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum), is that Hollywood usually isn’t, which is why, when Emily Blunt and the Rock cited the film on the press tour for their dead-eyed Jungle Cruise, Blunt (bless her) felt the need to hedge that “there’s a lot of films that have tried to emulate films like Romancing the Stone.”

Romancing the Stone may have been an example of the near-mythical four-quadrant classic, but it was also fundamentally a woman’s narrative, something its sequel and subsequent attempts at follow-ups never seemed to grasp. Thomas’s fairy-tale rise in a male-dominated industry and sudden, tragic death may be a grim asterisk on the film’s history, but Romancing the Stone was not just her idea but her story. In Marc Eliot’s 2013 biography of Douglas, the actor recounts going to meet her, describing her as having “the same kind of quality as Joan Wilder. She was an attractive blonde who had a shyness about her and a real need for adventure. She had written the script as her own fantasy.” Romancing the Stone is a swinging-across-ravines actioner, a fish-out-of-water comedy, an opposites-attract love story, and an admittedly retrograde depiction of a Latin American country. But at its heart is that yearning for something grand, accompanied by a wry sense of self-awareness. Joan is a stubborn romantic who lives in her fantasies more than her surroundings and clings to the idea that someday she’ll meet someone just like the swashbuckling hero of her books. And then she does, this man who appears in silhouette on a ridge and saves her from danger, and actually he turns out to be kind of an asshole.

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It pulled in $115 million at the worldwide box office on a reportedly $10 million budget. It pulled in $68 million at the worldwide box office on a $25 million budget.
Hollywood Can’t Leave Romancing the Stone Alone