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Musician-turned-novelist Frank Portman of the Mr. T Experience has long joked about conceiving his novel King Dorkas part of a strategy to "get out of debtor's prison." After 20 years in the punk-rock biz without a hit, it appears his strategy has finally paid off.
On November 14, Gary Sanchez Productions, a Hollywood film house part-owned by actor Will Ferrell, announced an option to produce a film from the Oakland musician's dark, comic novel about a local teenaged loser. Neither party would disclose the amount of the option, but Portman said it's substantially more than a few thousand dollars and is tied to profits from a finished film (which has an expected budget of roughly $20 million). The news comes alongside King Dork's seventh print run and a year-end rave from Time magazine featuring quotes equating the book to deeply nuanced, young adult fiction by Mark Twain or J.D. Salinger.
In the novel, precocious 14-year-old protagonist Tom Henderson endures constant humiliation and takes solace in his dead father's book collection as well as his own music creating fictional songs, band names, and band members with his only friend, Sam. Searching for answers to his father's death, Tom discovers The Catcher in the Rye, which becomes a punk-rock metaphor for everything that's wrong in Henderson's society, namely the perverse, mass appreciation for rugged individualism.
Gary Sanchez Productions executive Chris Henchy (whose writing credits include Entourage) said he, Ferrell, and Anchorman writer Adam McKay share the author's comic sensibility and dubbed Dork their first acquisition for development. "People love this book," Henchy says. "They can relate to this book. I was the king of nosebleeds growing up. Every chapter, I'd go, 'Yeah, yeah, that was me.' A lot of this stuff still happens to be very fresh, vivid, and painful or funny."
Henchy is currently seeking a writer and director for the project, and since the book is set in the Bay Area, he would love to shoot the film there, "if I could have something to do with it... Oh, yeah, I guess I could." Still, no decisions have been made.
At home in Oakland, the 41-year-old Portman is working full-time on another coming-of-age novel, this time about girls and fortunetelling. He still writes songs for the Mr. T Experience which is simmering on the back burner for now and has yet to see any big checks come in the mail.
"It's impossible to predict," Portman says. "I used to think when you hear about someone being successful, then they have money, but I don't yet. I'm hoping I will eventually. Right now, it's all a trickle.
"It's amazing, because I've been putting songs out for 20 years, and nothing has matched this," he continues. "It hasn't always been this easy. Being a bestselling novelist is the best gig I've ever had, so I'm taking it very seriously."
Hacking King Dork down to a screenplay can happen any number of uncomfortable ways over which he has no control. But right now, he's just happy it's happening at all. "It'll be awesome," Portman says. "Even if people say, 'You're gonna hate the movie. They're gonna ruin it' or whatever, I think that's an imprecise advance criticism. But I don't even care. It's such a weird idea. Something I never imagined."
Awestruck as Portman may be, he remains the punk hustler Dr. Frank. "All I will say is this: My book makes a great Christmas gift, and it may one day be a valuable collector's item. So I recommend you buy multiple copies, store one, and burn the rest to protect your investment. That's the way to go."