Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer have closed a deal with the John Steinbeck estate for a new version of his seminal novel East Of Eden that will be developed as a re-team for The Hunger Games director Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence.

I’m told that the book is Ross’ favorite American novel and that the director plans to tell the generational story in two films. The novel previously was adapted into one picture, the 1955 Elia Kazan-directed film that starred James Dean and Richard Davalos as sons who compete for the attention of their farmer father in Salinas, CA. Ross wants Lawrence to play Cathy Ames, the cold and cruel mother of the boys and estranged wife of the farmer. The films will tell their stories, leading into the rivalry between their sons.

The studio and Imagine first acquired the 1952 novel back in 2004. This was after Steinbeck’s modern retelling of the Cain and Abel story shot back up the best-seller lists when Oprah Winfrey made it the first selection of the revived book club on her daytime talk show. I’m told that the original option lapsed, but then the studio and Grazer put together a new deal in a competitive situation, this one built around Ross and Lawrence, the latter of whom won the Academy Award in February for Silver Linings Playbook. Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley was very involved, as was Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Uni’s co-president of production.

This comes just before Ross and Lawrence have their CAA agents shop a vehicle for another re-team, on the Hannah Kent novel Burial Rites. They are teaming with producer Allison Shearmur, who as a Lionsgate exec was a catalyst for the first Hunger Games film. I’m told CAA will next week shop the novel by Kent, who got a seven-figure deal for her first novel and rave reviews when Little, Brown published her tale of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. The drama takes place between the murder and the prosecution of the case against a woman who is victimized and powerless against the forces trying to send her to a public execution. Ross will direct and Lawrence wil play the protagonist in a tale as bleak as her Oscar-nominated breakout turn in Winter’s Bone.

Back to Steinbeck, who is hot stuff. This is the second recent seismic deal for the late author; in July, DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg made a deal to mount a new version of the Steinbeck classic The Grapes Of Wrath.

On East Of Eden, Universal, Grazer and Ross are still working out the particulars. When the studio acquired the book the first time, it got a script by Paul Attanasio. It is unclear at the moment if Ross will rewrite it himself or work with a writer. Ross will most certainly have a hand in the writing; he is a four time Oscar-nominee whose book adaptations include Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games. The intention is to get the picture into production after Ross directs Peter And The Starcatchers for Sony and Disney, which is his take on the Peter Pan legend. Lawrence will catch up with Ross and East Of Eden after she completes the final two installments of The Hunger Games series. She will next be seen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the David O Russell-directed American Hustle from Sony.

Anna Culp will be exec producer. Ross is repped by CAA and Alan Wertheimer, Lawrence by CAA and attorneys Gretchen Rush and Steve Warren. The book deal was made by RWSG Agency’s Geoff Sanford, Jill Gillett, with Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein of McIntosh & Otis. Latter represents the Steinbeck estate.

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