by Len Lear
When Steve Alten was a student at George Washington High School in Northeast Philly, where he graduated in 1977, no one could have predicted that he would write a best-selling book that would be turned into a blockbuster Hollywood movie. At the time his main claim to fame was barely making the varsity basketball team as a senior. He was not exactly a magnet for college scholarships, but “the coaches awarded me the Most Valuable Player for hustling. I was usually the last player off the bench, but I busted my ass in practice … I took it as far as a slow, white Jewish guy could take it.”
As it turns out, Alten, 58, who also played basketball for Penn State Ogontz (now Abington) and coached for one year at Jenkintown High School, is now the Most Valuable Player in Hollywood, but his slam dunks are at movie box offices, not on basketball courts. That’s because Alten wrote the novel “The Meg” about a Megalodon giant shark that has been turned into box office gold by director Jon Turteltaub, star Jason Statham and their $150 million budget.
The film opened worldwide on Aug. 10 and in its first week became one of the most successful shark films of all time behind only Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ and the animated ‘Shark Tale,’ not adjusted for inflation.
In North America, the movie finished its first week with a total of $59.4 million, and according to the Hollywood Reporter, “The Meg” finished its first week overseas with $153.9 million for a global total of $213.4 million in box office receipts, much of it from China.
How did Alten come up with the idea for the story? “The idea actually germinated back when I was 15 years old and saw ‘Jaws’ in the theater,” he told us in an interview last week. “That made me want to go read Peter Benchley’s book, and then I started reading everything that had to do with great white sharks. There was always a little blurb about Carcharodon Megalodon, the prehistoric cousin of the great white shark, usually with a picture of four or six scientists sitting in the Smithsonian. (Ed.note: Megalodon, meaning “big tooth,” is an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 2.5 million years ago.)
“Fast forward 20 years later. I was 35 years old in 1995, and I picked up an August issue of Time magazine, and on the front cover was the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean, an unexplored gorge seven miles down and about 1500 miles long.
“And it sort of gave me ideas; you know. What was that huge shark I read about back then? This would be a pretty neat place to put it if I wrote a story about it. I went to the library because there was no internet back then and did about three weeks’ worth of research and saw that it was feasible. And then I worked on the book from 10 o’clock every night until 3 in the morning and on weekends, and it took me about a year to write it.”
Then on Friday the 13th in September, 1996, Alten went to his job as a general manager of a wholesale meat company only to find that he was being laid off. “And I went home with no money in the bank basically. My wife was very upset, and I said, ‘Honey, don’t worry; this is the best thing that could happen. Now I can work on my second book,’ and she had a fit.”
But four days later, a miracle happened. The phone rang, and the call turned out to be from Bantam/Doubleday, a major book publisher, with an offer of a two-book deal. “I was elated,” Steve recalled, “but a year later they cancelled book two, and that was two weeks before I was to be paid $800,000. Six months later Disney’s studio head at Hollywood Pictures was fired, and I lost that deal. It’s been a rollercoaster ride since then … and I hate rollercoaster rides.”
It has obviously taken a long time — over 20 years — to have a movie made of “The Meg.” Why so long? The whole answer would take up a whole article in itself. The short version: “I took a lot of body blows,” said Alten, who was on an escalator of expectations and letdowns for years. Numerous bold names in Hollywood were interested in making a movie out of Alten’s novel such as Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), script writer Shane Salerno (“Alien Versus Predator: Requiem”), director Jan de Bont (“Twister”) and horror film maven Eli Roth, but something always happened to stick in the gears until producer Belle Avery took over and was able to attract a barrel of Chinese money.
“The Meg” is by no means Steve’s only rodeo, by the way. He has written nine novels all told, and all have sold well. Steve believes his best novel is “Grim Reaper: End of Days,” a modern-day Dante’s Inferno that takes place in New York when a man-made plague strikes Manhattan. Three months after Steve finished his eighth novel, “The Shell Game,” in 2005, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Steve has also written six original screenplays. His comedy, “Harlem Shuffle,” was a semi-finalist in an L.A. screenwriting contest, and his comedy, “Mintz Meats,” was selected as a finalist at the Philadelphia Film Festival, as was his psychological thriller, “Stranglehold.” A reality series he created, “House of Babel,” won at Scriptapalooza, an international TV writing competition. He has also created a TV drama, “Papa John,” based on his years coaching basketball with Hall of Fame coach John Chaney. Nothing has happened yet with “House of Babel” or “Papa John.”
Steve, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education at Penn State University, a Master’s degree in Sports Medicine from the University of Delaware and a Doctorate in Education at Temple University, has also launched Adopt-An-Author, a nationwide non-profit program designed to encourage students to read. Teachers who register for the free program receive giant shark posters, free curriculum materials, student-author correspondence and more. To date, over 10,000 teachers have registered, and Steve now spends half his work week at high schools. (For more information, visit www.AdoptAnAuthor.com.)
How has Parkinson’s Disease affected Alten, who now lives in Florida? “It affects every waking moment. It tarnished the walk on the red carpet and makes me miserable. It does not affect my writing, but it makes typing challenging at times. And yet I have no right to complain as God has blessed me with so much — family, friends and readers.”
Steve’s new “The Meg” paperback is available at a discount at www.SteveAlten.com. You can sign up for his free monthly newsletter to learn how to become a character in a future Alten novel.