20+ weeks on The New York Times‘ Best Seller list, millions of copies in print, five sequels and enduring publication on all modern electronic platforms… Eric Van Lustbader‘s vanguard novel The Ninja turns 36 years old this month. It was easily the biggest mass media property of the 1980s ninja boom, yet somehow never saw adaptation outside of print. Much of it was lifted for low-budget movies like Revenge of the Ninja, while at the same time a host of A-list talent and Hollywood legends-in-the-making couldn’t manage to sustain its film development with a much bigger studio deal. The Ninja is the biggest ‘what-if?’ or ‘never-was’ or ‘if-only’ of the era.
So why wasn’t The Ninja the first, and biggest, ninja movie?
From Lustbader’s own website:
After a long process too tortuous to go into here, which included two high-profile directors and three screenwriters, the project was shelved when a new head of production was hired at 20th [Century Fox] and put into turnaround [trans. abandoned] all the projects the former head of production had green-lighted.
Read on, we’re going to look that ‘long, torturous process’ while comparing the book to an actual script draft from one of the high-profile directors in question. And we’ll hear from the author himself on what could have been via a Vintage Ninja exclusive interview.
Ed. Note: If you’ve never read the book, spoilers abound.
It came from the pre-craze void…
If The Ninja was published in 1980, it needed at least a year of work behind-the-scenes at the publisher to get there, and let’s speculate the manuscript was started maybe at least a half-year before that. So the notion of a ninja novel was born 1978-79ish? That puts Lustbader two-to-three years ahead of The Octagon in theaters, the Shogun mini-series putting ninja on every TV in America, The Hand appearing in Marvel Comics and Stephen Hayes making the cover of Black Belt. He was ahead of the curve and ahead of the craze, embracing the term ‘ninja’ at a time when only Andrew Adam’s martial arts articles, the Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, Peckinpaw’s The Killer Elite, and sporadic TV episodes of series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy had breached the term in the U.S.
We asked the author about his first exposure in that pre-boom period:
EVL: I had gotten interested in ukiyo-e Japanese prints. To that end, I was directed to the Ronin Gallery in NYC, which has the largest selection of prints in the Western world. In short order, I became friends with the couple who owned the gallery. In those days, it was housed in the Explorer’s Club mansion on the East Side of Manhattan. It was a nexus for many Japanese visiting or emigrating to the US. The word “ninja” came up in a discussion they were having one day. I started asking questions and immediately became fascinated by these modern-day masters of chaos.
Keep in mind how amorphous the notion of ‘ninja’ would have been at that point. The old kabuki magician image of shinobi characters like Sarutobi Sasuke had no legs in the West. Although mystical lore was suggested in various martial arts theses, notions of cultish assassins were out there in more abundance, and the hooded commando image had been introduced in the Bond movie. The stereotypes, conventions, tropes, etc. and so forth weren’t even close to being cemented in the mainstream public’s eye.
So Lustbader had a perfect opportunity to seize onto an exotic foreign term and iconic character type that would have had an inkling of recognition but wasn’t yet weighed down by b-movie and kids cartoon baggage. It was wide open territory.
The protagonist of The Ninja and its sequels is an effective literary archetype — the outsider of two different cultures caught in their inevitable intersection. Nicholas Linnear is of mixed race – a white father, part of the post WWII occupation force in Japan, and a mother of deliberately mysterious pan-Asian descent. As a young man he endures a troubled upbringing in post-war Japan, where he learned deadly martial arts alongside rival cousin Saigo, to whom he loses his first love Yukio. Politics and subterfuge lead to the deaths of his parents, a grudge gets passed to the next generation, and he flees Japan.
Decades later, Linnear is a graphic designer living a playboy life in New York City. He gets tangled with a gorgeous basket case named Justine, the daughter of billionaire industrialist Raphael Tomkin — who just happens to tank a deal with a Japanese conglomerate that puts a price on his head. Saigo, who has spent the interim learning the most demented aspects of ninjutsu’s mind control and black arts, answers their call, unable to pass up the opportunity for a major bounty, and a chance to settle an old score.
What follows is cat-and-mouse, as Saigo stalks both of his prey, killing off their colleagues and friends one by one in signature shinobi fashion. Grizzled burn-out loose-cannon cop Lew Croaker recruits Linnear into the chase, despite the warnings of Nicholas’ country sawbones pal Doc Deerforth, who himself encountered evil ninja in the Philippines during WWII. The more our hero heals old emotional wounds via his relationship with Justine, the more he is maneuvered into protecting his potential father-in-law. Saigo, meanwhile, devolves into an urban monster, frequenting a brothel where he victimizes young boys and sinking further into an opiate drug habit that somehow aids his almost sorcerer-like powers.
The final showdown between Linnear and Saigo happens in that oh-so-80s of locations – the under-construction luxury skyscraper. Tomkins, being the eeeeevil industrialist cliché that he is, screws over everyone to protect himself, not caring as dead employees, bodyguards, disposable police and even family members are piling up like cordwood. Linnear uses him as bait, and it comes down to ninja-vs-ninja – ancient weapons used in a duel amidst modern architecture and office computers.
Copious sex, cultural stereotypes used for flavor, red-light seedy locals interspersed with glass and chrome digs of the rich (and you can just see the Nagel prints on the walls), violence in lurid detail and eventually explosions abound, along with plenty of set-up for sequels. So yeah, 80s blockbuster novel.
With time and perspective (and some nostalgia), I actually enjoy The Ninja now more than I did back in the day. When I plucked my copy off the spinner rack at the local pharmacy in 1980-whatever, it was a mass market paperback already in print for years, and Shogun, The Octagon and Enter the Ninja, along with countless issues of exploitive martial arts magazines, had cemented a notion of what ninja were in my early-teen head.
Decades later, knowing what the black-hooded idiom devolved into, I appreciate the novel’s almost non-genre-ness immensely. The book wasn’t tainted by contemporary exploitation movie posters and mail-order merchandise mania. There was nary a ‘ninja-to’ to be found in its pages, and even the black suits and hoods (later requisite, regardless of what century or continent the ninja tale was based) are only vaguely referred to and could certainly just be modified contemporary garb. It’s free of a lot of the baggage that, let’s face it, killed the ninja boom before a legitimizing big-budget movie ever saw the light of day.
I approach the book now like one should most Best Sellers and read it for entertainment. Sure, critics will task its Western views of Eastern culture, damaged and victimized women characters, tangents to Calvell’s Shogun, etc. and whatnot, but to me (and I’m thinking the rest of you reading this site) The Ninja is fine beach reading… with shuriken!
The Ninja: The Movie
So why wasn’t The Ninja the first big craze-launching movie?
Search around the web, from the author’s own site to various film databases, and a murky picture of what was going on with the film development emerges. 20th Century Fox is widely credited with the option, but just as many sources list Richard Zanuck and David Brown as attached producers, who were more associated with Universal Studios. Regardless of what studio ended up distributing, the production entity that was the Zanuck/Brown Company had this weird cadence of success — every second movie they did was huge. 1973 saw them crank out snakes-sploitation shlock classic Sssssss to meager success, but then later that year produce the mega smash hit and Oscar-rich The Sting. The oft forgotten Spielberg movie Sugarland Express followed, but then in 1975 they were responsible for inventing the summer tentpole movie phenomenon with Jaws. I’m a big fan of their next flick The Island with Michael Caine, but it was a flop, but their next outing was the monster hit Cocoon. So where would The Ninja have fallen in this up/down cycle?
Talent behind the camera certainly would have indicated a big hit, as the author attests:
EVL: The first [director] to be attached was Irvin Kirshner. He was just coming off directing “The Empire Strikes Back,” so he was considered “hot,” with no thought whatsoever as to whether he would be right for the project. He was so not. I sat in on a lot of the pre-production meetings, all of which were a disaster. Then the script came in. It was virtually unrecognizable. The screenwriter (I don’t recall his name) had Nicholas shoot Saigo with a gun in the climactic battle. It was a hot mess.
When Dick and David fired Kirshner and hired John Carpenter, everything was reset to zero from that moment on. Carpenter, as it turned out, was also wrong for the film, and he left after a frustrating year of not being able to come up with a filmable draft.
So many what-if’s here… You couldn’t have a bigger hit than Empire, but Kirshner’s career sort of went sideways after, with marginal genre work like the James Bond red-headed stepchild Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2. Carpenter was coming off the heartbreak of The Thing tanking (despite its now classic status) and would have been writing his version of The Ninja between projects like Christine and Starman. Years later, he would end up channeling his desire to do a martial arts epic into Big Trouble in Little China.
So why not ask the author for an adaptation?
EVL: I did not write a draft, and I didn’t ask to do one. I have family who have been in the film business all their lives. I didn’t want to get enmeshed in that craziness. Dick Zanuck and David Brown had bought “The Ninja” through their production company…they were wonderful to me, real gentleman, and took my suggestions to heart. They threw out that first script, for instance. 20th’s head of production at the time was the great Sherry Lansing, one of the last true production execs in Hollywood. She was also wonderful to me. Very warm and open, but all the film decisions were made by Dick and David.
Another interesting question is what the overall look and general feel of the movie have been. Being right on the cusp of two decades, The Ninja: The Movie might have had a vestigial 1970s-ness to it — think The Yakuza with Robert Mitchum and Takakura Ken, or The Challenge with Toshiro Mifune and Scott Glenn. Conversely, the 1980s was a decade that very aggressively wanted an identity of its own, and actively distanced itself from music, cinematic and pop culture trends of the disco 70s. Would The Ninja: The Movie have been amidst stylistic landmarks of that time, movies like Smithereens and Alphabet City, ramping up to the uber-80s-ness of To Live and Die in L.A. or the Miami Vice TV show?
Location would have dictated a lot as well. With a bigger budget, The Ninja would have been a New York City picture, carrying the Scorsese-like gravitas that city’s gritty streets effortlessly provide. Had it been even partially co-produced or made with Japanese studio cooperation, some scenes could have been shot in Japan on the familiar Toho or Daiei jidaigeki sets, as had Shogun. Had the budget not been as high, Burbank backlots would have subbed for NYC, or more likely the story’s location changed to Los Angeles to accommodate local shooting. The result wouldn’t have suffered much.
Wait… HE could have been Nicholas?
As craze-crazed dweebs, we used to speculate the casting of a movie adaptation of The Ninja back in the day, but we weren’t the only ones! We asked the author who he ‘saw’ as his hero:
EVL: I was very high on Richard Gere to play Nicholas; he had the right look, and I liked his acting. What none of us knew was whether he’d be up to the physical trials the film would put him through.
Damn, I love love love the idea of Richard Gere, circa 1981-ish, playing Linnear, and according to the author he was the closest to getting the gig. As for the question of physical trials, one need look no further than the superb An Officer and a Gentlemen for proof that the actor would have been up to the task. His fight scene with Louis Gosset Jr. is one of the best ever put on screen in the eyes of a lot of industry folk. Gere had the looks to sell tickets off a movie poster alone, and had just come off a big hit with American Giggolo.
If not Gere, then who? Well, let’s be geeky kids again a speculate!
Jan-Michael Vincent around that same time period comes to mind, between action films like Defiance and Hooper but pre-Air Wolf. Vincent was athletic as hell, had that gunfighter squint and could sell the brooding intellectual with a skeleton-filled-closet character type. Or… The Ninja could have been the film to break Mickey Rourke, before Diner and Rumble Fish, adding a more haunted if not sinister edge to Nicholas. Guys like Patrick Swayze or Michael Paré would have been on the young side to carry a major feature, while a Michael Beck of The Warriors fame would have been too blonde for the role, although he’d go on to play a ninja years later in the criminally unavailable TV movie The Last Ninja.
What about Japanese or other Asian actors? In Hollywood, at a big studio, in 1980, that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, it doesn’t happen in 2016. This was the era of Joel Grey in heavy yellow-face make-up playing an ancient kung-fu master in Remo Williams while Mako and Keye Luke sat home unemployed. Plus, Lustbader took time in the book to describe Linnear as greatly favoring his father’s side of the family, possibly thinking of film development down the road.
Where you DO get a meaty role for an Asian actor is in alternate-reality dream casting of Saigo! Sonny Chiba was a name in the States from the Streetfighter films, came with his own stunt team, and also provided the opportunity for Japanese box office for an international co-production. Tadashi Yamashita was a natural as well. But man, think of this mind-blower… and we’re in full geek mode at this point… Sho Kosugi, in full villain mode, makes The Ninja instead of Enter the Ninja, and our world is never the same!
And while we’re playing movie-god, Nick Nolte would have been perfect as NYPD police investigator Lew Croaker, Theresa Russell as Justine, Donna Kae Benz or Shogun’s Yoko Shimada as Yukio, and I would absolutely insist on finding roles somewhere for James Shigeta, Toru Tanaka, and Mako.
Another interesting speculation — fight choreographer. Mike Stone would have already been formulating his own Enter the Ninja script, and was as ahead of the curve on the impending ninja boom as Lustbader was. Tak Kubota was responsible for the ninja elements of The Killer Elite in 1975, while career consultant/cameo types like Gerald Okamura and Fumio Demura would certainly have been available too. And whereas Masaaki Hatsumi had been a technical consultant on the first Shinobi-no-Mono films, would a burgeoning Stephen K. Hayes been given a similar opportunity in Hollywood?
Man, what a blast that gig would have been, too — weapons and techniques most of the audience would never have seen on screen before, and getting to create that gear from scratch years before mail order made it all so homogenous. So cool…
But such was never to be.
The optioned book went into what the industry calls “development hell” and the ninja genre took the exploitation course it did. As lore would have it, exploitation maestros Golan-Globus under Cannon Films cranked out their first ninja movies so fast, and so immediately defined the ninja genre as cheap grindhouse, that mainstream producers saw little potential in raising things out of the gutter and bailed on The Ninja early.
I always believed that, until…
Last year, copies started showing up for sale of a script draft for The Ninja dated January 24, 1983. 1983!!! Not so early.
Credited as a “2nd Draft” and co-authored by the aforementioned John Carpenter with Tommy Lee Wallace (of Halloween III: Season of the Witch fame), this 120 page script is the first piece of hard physical evidence I’ve ever encountered on the project.
And it raises more questions than answers.
The Ninja vs the ninja craze
If… IF… this 1983 script had passed muster and Carpenter’s version of The Ninja had gone into production right away, a movie still wouldn’t have hit screens until early 1985 at best. Now, try to remember the state of the ninja boom at that point. This big budget, mainstream audience-seeking project would have hit theaters amidst Pray for Death and American Ninja, while Enter, Revenge and Ninja III: The Domination were fixtures on cable and VHS rental. While one could argue this was the boom’s peak, the downhill was coming quick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was about to redefine the word ‘ninja’ to a generation of kids and toy-buying parents, Godfrey Ho and ilk were on the warpath in Hong Kong making the worst (or for some, best) ninja schlock ever seen, and The Master was already facing cancellation on TV.
John Carpenter’s The Ninja (he always billed his name before his titles) would have been weighed down by the baggage of already established public perceptions of the genre (news stories about kids hurting themselves with mail order weapons were all the rage on TV, too) and it would have had to overcome all kinds of cheap exploitation tropes to stand above the ranks.
Plus, much of what The Ninja‘s pages had to offer had already been done. Revenge of the Ninja cribbed all sorts of elements from the book – the expatriate master of Japanese martial arts trying to live a decidedly non-martial life in the U.S., a rash of gruesome crimes with ancient weapon calling cards left behind, arcane arts actually disguising the modern business agenda of the assassin, the best friend from the dojo, blades overcoming guns, one-weapon-one-kill arsenals, the grizzled skeptic cop barking “What the hell is a NEEEN-JUH doing in my city!?!?” and yes, the “only a ninja can stop a ninja” commandment governing the final conflict. All done by Lustbader in print first, but by Sam Firstenberg and Sho Kosugi on screen first.
In hindsight, Revenge might have been solely greenlit and rushed into production based on the Lustbader book being in development across town. They raced to beat it to the screen, like Deep Impact did to Armageddon or Tombstone did to Wyatt Earp, and may have done it so well that the second bigger movie never came out as a result.
We asked the author about Revenge of the Ninja in particular and if he saw it at the time, or since:
EVL: I didn’t. I don’t want to. The constant delays on the film, and then it being put into turnaround when Sherry left 20th, opened the way for a whole slew of truly awful ninja knockoff films, which, to this day, have poisoned the well for “The Ninja” as a film project. None of those films did well, and with each release 20th grew more and more reluctant to go ahead with the project. Now, of course, the studio is looking for a “new take” on the story. It seems as if it will never be made in the image of my novel.
Sooooo… here’s the big question — in hiring Carpenter/Wallace in 1983 for a possible 1985 movie, were the producers even trying to faithfully adapt the 1980 book? Or was this hiring of the men who spawned the slasher genre-defining Halloween actually an attempt at what they saw as a course correction?
A look at the script suggests that.
John Carpenter’s The Ninja
You know those movies that carry a book’s title, but have little else to do with the source? Ever feel betrayed when a book adaptation’s trailer seems to have enough of the surface details to look like it remains true, but when you see the actual movie you realize that was just façade? Do you hate that?
Well, if John Carpenter’s The Ninja had hit screens in 1985 or so, man oh man would you have HATED IT!
Let’s start with a few of Carpenter/Wallace’s minor variations in central tone – The Ninja is no longer a martial arts tale, it’s essentially a slasher movie with a semi-researched shinobi in place of a Michael Myers, and all the other characters are now victims on the run trying to find a way to escape him.
What about Nicholas Linnear and his own ninja skills? Well, for starters there is no Nicholas Linnear, he’s now Nicholas Tomkins – son of the industrialist heel, an urban playboy and trust fund baby with the otherwise bohemian lifestyle of a classical musician and composer. Oh, and he’s not a martial artist.
Gone is Linnear as the son of an occupation general/doomed politician trying to do right, gone is his upbringing as a half-breed outsider in Japan, gone is the deep-seeded rivalry with Saigo, gone… all of it. Saigo’s multi-generational grudge is instead driven by the fact that as a child he witnessed one-time corrupt Occupation-era Military Police officer Rafael Tomkins execute his father after a shady business deal went south.
Justine is there, although not his daughter, but instead is an executive of Tomkins’ ruthless industrial board, and shares his bed in their spare time. A beyond awkward love triangle (for those who’ve read the book) forms mid-script. Justine’s sister Glenda (and her sexually bloated side-story) and Doc Deerforth are lost in the shuffle.
Loose-cannon cop Lew Croaker transforms (in very typical Carpenter fashion) into ex-military kick-ass karate-cop “Lewis Spanzo” – big, black, bald and taking-no-shit. You can just see the Keith David (They Live!) casting! Spanzo is almost the hero of the script, and I say ‘almost’ because John Carpenter had an interesting way of not having obvious central leads in more than a few of his big ensemble cast films (see Prince of Darkness).
But within this divergent Carpenter/Wallace dimension, a bunch of action scenes and character beats from the novel actually made it into the script, and could have helped a trailer seem rather faithful. Saigo-Meyer’s hunt still takes him through Nicholas’ friends, although the dojo killings are now Spanzo’s pals. Brothels, blowguns, hypnosis tricks and poison shuriken abound. Saigo is still a whore-mongering pervert, although the book’s use of homosexual acts for both pleasure and torture of victims were cut. He’s also the same drug addict – which would have made for some great demented hop-head sequences under the skillful Carpenter hand. The under-construction skyscraper infiltration is still the climactic set-piece, followed by the doppleganger dead body swerve and the limo scene — those being firmly established crutches of the horror genre anyway.
Carpenter’s Saigo is a legit monster, and in the context of horror movies, would have been a unique menace worthy of bearing the film’s name. He’s genuinely evil, loves the chase, kills each victim in a different spectacular fashion, has both the mental and physical prowess to overcome all authorities in his way, and is possibly gifted with spiritual super powers. He’s part Jason/Freddy/Myers ilk, part Terminator.
But the cast of victims is hard to care about. Nicholas Linnear, who by 1985 was now the star of the book’s hit sequel The Miko (with more on the way) just cannot be downgraded from Eastern martial master in a Western world to just another pretty boy cowering in fear and coming up with a miracle to somehow kill the monster and save the girl. Spanzo is a walking symbol of Western arrogance at first, but becomes the voice of reason who knows just enough ninja lore to realize how screwed everyone is. He’s more of a literary device than he is a human being.
Despite the jarring differences, I can actually see the studio’s (albeit flawed) logic here — you’ve invested in a major hit book’s film rights, but since writing that check other lesser studios have knocked-off your once exotic property. With that pandora’s box open, you hire some proven talent from another genre to repurpose the work into something less canon (and less Cannon, see what I did there!), thus more compatible to a wider audience.
Thing of it is, when you genre-bend like this, trying to pick up devotees of each genre, you often isolate both groups instead, and neither buy tickets. The Ninja as slasher film disguised in black pajamas would have pissed off ninja movie hopefuls, especially with its lack of ninja-vs-ninja action. At the same time, slasher freaks weren’t looking to a ninja movie for their gore-hound content, either. Also, by then, Ninja III: The Domination had tried to bridge horror genres in ninja gear, and while we love that film here, it wasn’t exactly a franchise-launching juggernaut like Halloween.
As much as we love Kosugi and Dudikoff fare — both back in the day and looking back now in nostalgia — the frustration of there never being a big studio, big-budget validation of the genre we loved lingers to this day. I remember being in the theater for 1994’s The Hunted — the best 80s ninja movie ever made a decade too late — and thinking to myself THIS is what The Ninja would have been like.
I was one of about 12 people there on opening night.
The Ninja‘s Nicolas Linnear might have been an unstoppable shinobi superman, but all it took to stop The Ninja: The Movie was bad timing. Super bad timing. Cheesy competition beat them to the punch, the craze sputtered out early, and the very word ‘ninja’ wound up irrevocably associated with pizza-obsessed cartoon turtles.
When the 1983 script came to light, and thus the fact that development continued into the mid-80s, it was a shocker, but the fact that this leg of the development didn’t produce a film is not.
The book remains a much better read.
Keith J. Rainville — April 2016
A special thanks to Eric Van Lustbader for the interview and his time. Check out his official web site.
We’ll repeat our recommendation to re-read The Ninja, which is now available in eBook form.
Despite the film going nowhere, it’s surprising The Ninja was never adapted to any other medium. Why during the graphic novel explosion of the 80s didn’t a company like Eclipse adapt the book to at least black & white panels? Although if you lived in Ecuador at the time, you did get this weird homage/unauthorized adaptation!
The Carpenter/Wallace script is also readily available via eBay.