‘The MEG’ finally ready to take a bite out of the big screen
You’ve heard of “popcorn movies,” right?
“The MEG” might make you toss your bucket of butter and scream for your mama.
At least, author Steve Alten hopes so.
When Alten was 15 years old, he read Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” the fictional tale of a touristy beach town terrorized by a great white shark.
And his own fascination with monsters of the sea was born.
“I went out and went to the library and took out every book about great white sharks and shark attacks,” he says in a telephone interview.
About 20 years later, his own shark tale, “The MEG” -- or Carcharodon megalodon -- became a bestseller.
“At 35, I picked up a Time magazine in 1995. It covered the Mariana Trench and life at the bottom of the ocean we never knew existed. It planted the seed. What was that shark I read about at the bottom of the sea? I thought it would be pretty cool if (meg) still existed. I did research. It was important to me that it was feasible, or I was not going to write (a book),” he says.
Fast -- or slow, as it turns out -- forward another 20 years, and “The MEG,” set for release on Aug. 10, is expected to become one of the summer’s blockbuster films.
Carcharodon megalodon -- “meg” for short -- is believed to have reached lengths of up to 70 feet, and weigh up to 100,000 pounds.
The prehistoric great white also is believed to have been extinct for about 2 million years.
Alten is not so sure.
“You have to understand that 70 percent of our planet is covered by ocean -- some of it unexplored. We don’t really know what’s down there,” he says.
“Sharks can stay submerged forever. ... (megs’) only threat was from orcas. ... Its natural response would be to go deep. It could still be out there,” Alten says.
Never mind cuing the “dun dun, dun dun” from the “Jaws” soundtrack.
Forget “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Let’s jump straight to YIKES.
Maybe even OMG.
Playing to readers’ fears
Alten, who has written a series of “MEG” books, knows fear of the water -- and some of its inhabitants -- is the very thing that sends many of us straight to the ocean’s edge.
(More than 40 years after its release, “Jaws” is still filling theaters during special screenings; an upcoming event is planned at the Carnegie Science Center.)
It’s a thrill to be scared, especially from the safety of one’s armchair or theater seat.
“That’s the fun,” says Alten, 58, of Palm Beach County, Fla.
“You place the reader in a precarious situation (with the characters),” he says.
In the case of “The MEG,” readers tag along with deep-sea submersible pilot and protagonist Jonas Taylor on a top-secret Pacific Ocean dive.
There he encounters -- and is the lone survivor of -- the prehistoric great white, jaws strong enough, according to a promotional news release, to “swallow an elephant in two bites.”
Haunted by his find, and unable to prove meg exists, the paleontologist researches and wonders about the possibility of meg still trolling the bottom of the sea.
You know where this is going.
Actor Jason Statham plays Taylor in the Warner Bros. film, also starring Rainn Wilson and Ruby Rose.
Struggle to screen
Alten wrote “The MEG” over about six months while working as a door-to-door water treatment salesman, writing from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. at his dining room table.
He later sent query letters to agents while working in sales for a wholesale meat company. One day in 1996, Alten says, he found himself out of a job, with $45 in the bank.
“I said, ‘It’s the best thing that could happen. I can work on my second book,’” he says.
Alten’s wife saw it differently. “She almost threw a frying pan at my head,” he jokes.
Four days later, a bidding war began for his book.
“I really did believe in it. I felt it was a great book,” he says.
But bringing it to the big screen has been a challenge. “I’ve been left at the movie altar twice,” Alten says.
Disney’s Hollywood Pictures optioned the book in 1996, but rights were reverted after a studio shakeup, he says.
In 2005, New Line Cinemas came into the picture. Two years of chaos and problems later, the rights again returned to Alten.
Finally, he took his story to producer Belle Avery. Seven years of financing efforts later, the movie finally is ready to splash down in theaters.
Encouraging young readers
Among Alten’s greatest fans are teenagers, many of whom tell him his books are among the few they read for pleasure.
Alten, who possesses bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in education, takes pride in that fact.
Certified to teach, he often visits classrooms through Adopt-An-Author , a free, nonprofit program he organizes to encourage secondary students to read.
“It’s great to see,” he says.
To celebrate the film’s release, Alten’s publisher, A&M Publishing, is releasing an all-new trade paperback of “The MEG,” including a bonus prequel.
Alten plans to return to his roots this fall and start writing another book.
But first, he’ll see his firstborn create the kind of terror moviegoers happily fork over cash to experience.
Surprisingly, Alten hasn’t yet seen the film.
“The first time I’ll see it will be at the premiere,” he says. “I wanted the story on screen. I think it will make a great movie,” Alten says.
OK, Steve. We’ll bite.