Man On Fire | The dramatic incident that led to a hit novel and film

Man On Fire
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The novel Man On Fire was a best-seller and was adapted into a film twice, but it may have been very different without an incident on a plane…

In 2004, the author AJ Quinnell was enjoying a beer at Ta’ Frenc, an upmarket restaurant located on the Maltese island, Gozo. The writer, then 64, appeared to be relaxed and jovial as he spoke to a reporter from the Times Of Malta, and he had good reason to be – thanks in no small part to film director Tony Scott, Man On Fire, a novel he’d written almost a quarter of a century earlier, was back in the New York Times bestseller list.

About a former soldier turned bodyguard named Marcus Creasy, Man On Fire was a page-turning thriller full of violence, revenge and redemption – the perfect fodder, in other words, for a movie. Quinnell’s debut novel, Man On Fire was published in 1980, and provided the basis for a highly successful writing career, taking in some 14 books – four of them continuing the adventures of the indefatigable Creasy.

As is common with most fiction writers, Quinnell drew heavily from real life when writing Man On Fire. The name Creasy was taken from a pilot friend who’d once flown the author on a particularly fraught journey across South Korea; the hero’s persona was loosely based on the actor Robert Mitchum, whom Quinnell had once met on a boozy plane journey from Bombay to Hong Kong during the book’s writing. Its plot, about the abduction of a young child by gangsters, was inspired by two real-life kidnapping incidents, including that of John Paul Getty’s son in 1973.

Perhaps the most significant catalyst for Man On Fire, however, occurred entirely by chance.

Long before the book was written – or the author had even dreamed up his pen name – AJ Quinnell was born Philip Nicholson on the 25th June 1940. Already an experienced traveller by his teenage years – he’d once narrowly missed out on a meeting with the author Ernest Hemingway on a holiday to Tanzania – Nicholson headed off to Asia in his 20s, and spent several lucrative years as a trader in the textiles industry.

During an otherwise routine flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong one day, Nicholson found himself seated next to a conspicuously wealthy older gentleman who, he later recalled in an interview with the Observer, was “dripping with gold.”

At some point on the journey, the man suffered a heart attack.

“The flight crew were going to call an ambulance from the general hospital,” Nicholson later said, “which would have been a disaster because it’s a huge government hospital and not very efficient.”

Instead, Nicholson recommended that the plane’s captain call a private hospital – there, Nicholson said, the man would receive medical attention more urgently.

A few days later, Nicholson was visited by “a lot of young men in smart suits” – the man on the plane, he quickly realised, “was a member of one of the old Italian families.”

“They said if I ever needed help I should get in contact,” Nicholson recalled.

As he began putting together the initial ideas for what became Man On Fire, Nicholson took the ‘young men in smart suits’ up on their offer. “I had the name of his son,” he told the Observer, “who put me in touch with his lawyer in Rome, who put me in touch with various people I wanted to talk to.”

Nicholson’s dive into the murky underworld of the Mafia was so deep that he spent several days in Sicily, and even stayed in the home of one of those ‘old Italian families.’

“It was a chilling experience,” Nicholson told Times Of Malta. “The families were very hospitable, but at the same time you knew the men were involved in kidnappings and killings.”

During his stay, Nicholson was open about the type of book he was writing: it was about a bodyguard who embarks on a bloody rampage when the young girl under his charge is kidnapped by the Mafia. “When I wrote the book, I said to them I’d change all their names, but they refused,” Nicholson told the Observer. “I said, ‘Look, you all die terribly.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, we want them to be in the book,’ so I left them in.”

It was as Man On Fire neared completion that Nicholson began thinking about writing under a pseudonym; he had, after all, spent some time in the company of the Mafia, and had an idea percolating for another thriller – about the CIA creating a fake Islamic prophet – that could potentially hit a raw nerve.

By now living on the idyllic island of Gozo, Nicholson came up with the name AJ Quinnell while sitting in his local bar – the very same establishment in which he’d sat and written Man On Fire, in fact. Nicholson’s agent had called, asking what pseudonym Nicholson wanted to use; his mind immediately went back to Derek Quinnell, a Welsh rugby player whose nose Nicholson claims to have broken years earlier. The initials ‘AJ’ were borrowed from the barman’s son. In that moment, AJ Quinnell was born; “The name stuck,” he later recalled.

Published not long after Nicholson’s 40th birthday in 1980, Man On Fire was a success – such that producer Arnon Milchan picked up the rights to adapt it into a movie not long after the book emerged in print. As previously explored in a Film Stories Podcast, director Tony Scott was initially attached to this early adaptation, but the job eventually went to the French filmmaker, Élie Chouraqui.

Released in 1987, Chouraqui’s Man On Fire is an odd beast. On paper, it has an excellent cast – the reliably charismatic Scott Glenn stars as Creasy, while among the supporting cast you’ll find Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello, Jonathan Pryce and Brooke Adams.

There are signs everywhere, however, that the finished film was heavily cut down; weighing in at a conspicuously lean 92 minutes, it barely gives Adams or Pryce the time to utter more than a line of dialogue. Creasy’s somewhat uncomfortable relationship with his young charge, Sam (Jade Malle) is given little time to develop. Pesci is given a bizarre scene in which he busks a rendition of Johnny B Goode at a wedding, only to display signs of PTSD that are never referred to again elsewhere.

Similarly, Glenn’s Creasy has a scene in which he shows a borderline comical ability to mimic the voice of the 12-year-old Sam (a feat clearly achieved with a bit of dubbing). It’s a plot point that presumably would have had a pay-off later in the film, but instead ended up on the cutting room floor.

Of this 1987 adaptation, Nicholson once said that he’d flown to Paris and had been given an early draft of a script to read. When he commented that it didn’t appear to have much in common with his book, the response from the screenwriters was, he claimed, something along the lines of, “Book? What book?”

(The screenplay is credited in the final movie to Chouraqui, Sergio Donati, writer of a number of Italian comedies and thrillers, and Fabrice Ziolkowski, who later wrote the 2009 animated film, The Secret Of Kells. That’s quite a mix.)

Perhaps sensing that the 1987 Man On Fire was a missed opportunity, Arnon Milchan made the unusual decision to adapt the book again in the early 2000s. This time, Tony Scott remained firmly attached, and while the resulting 2004 film moved the book’s action from Italy to Mexico, it remained more faithful to the tone of Nicholson’s prose – the author was even pleased to note that screenwriter Brian Helgeland preserved much of his hard boiled dialogue. (Sample line: “Forgiveness is between them and god. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.”)

Urgently told by Scott, 2004’s Man On Fire was also enlivened by the terrific pairing of Denzel Washington as Creasy and Dakota Fanning as the youngster under his protection, here named Lupita. Although not a stratospheric hit, Man On Fire was arguably among the best films of Tony Scott’s career, and marked the beginning of a string of collaborations between he and Washington (Deja Vu, The Taking Of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable were the others).

The release of Man On Fire also boosted sales of the novel – by the time journalists caught up with Nicholson in 2004, it had sold around seven million copies worldwide. At this point, Nicholson, who’d long denied requests for interviews, had begun to relax a little – and while he still requested that his real name be kept out of the public eye, clearly enjoyed the newfound attention his debut novel was getting.

Nicholson was even hard at work on a sixth Creasy adventure, which he’d called Priests Of A Dead God – a prequel that would have taken readers to the Korean War, and the events that turned Creasy into the burned-out character they’d met in Man On Fire.

Sadly, ill health meant that Nicholson would never finish that book; he passed away in July 2005 – less than a year after journalists had finally begun to learn more about this once reclusive and private writer.

Mere weeks before his passing, though, Nicholson had cheerfully invited a fan of his novels, Tony Mortlock, over to meet him in Gozo. The two had struck up a friendship via email after Nicholson discovered Mortlock’s AJ Quinnell fanpage online; “If you can find yourself in Europe in the coming few months,” Nicholson had emailed, “try to make your way to Gozo.”

Mortlock wrote a lengthy and warm account of his visit, and describes an author who, despite his faltering health, was content and happy on the island he called home. Unlike Marcus Creasy, who also happened to visit Gozo in Nicholson’s books, the author was far from embittered or burned out.

“I got the strong impression that Philip had led a very full life and that was giving him a lot of comfort in the situation [in which] he now found himself,” Mortlock wrote. “From my perspective, he had made himself immortal through his writing.”

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