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Tortuous road from print to screen

In 1996, Donna Woolfolk Cross stirred a hornet's nest with the publication of her novel, "Pope Joan."

The Catholic Church vehemently objected to its premise that a 9th century woman had disguised herself as a man before rising through the church hierarchy to be elected pontiff. Besides drawing the ire of the Vatican, Cross also stupefied academic historians around the world who haughtily dismissed her book as fanciful fiction - and indeed it was labeled a novel and not a biography.

While clerics and scholars scoffed, however, the reading public - especially in Western Europe where the heroine had her roots - heartily embraced "Pope Joan" as a damn good read if not a downright fact.

The book was translated into 36 languages and sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and "Pope Joan" attracted the attention of German filmmakers.

Things looked rosy for Cross, the first-time novelist who lived on Onondaga Hill and taught writing courses at Onondaga Community College. But she would soon learn that the film business - not unlike the Vatican - also buzzes like a shaken hornet's nest.

Not long after the novel topped the German best-seller lists, Fine Line Cinema approached Cross's literary agent to option the rights.

"Little did I know then that this would be the first of many attempts that'd fail," the author recalled. "It took 10 years, four different production companies, five different directors and seven different scripts, two of which were mine," Cross sighed. "It can drive you crazy."

The first screenwriter to produce a script for Fine Line actually changed the novel's bittersweet climax into a clich d happy ending. Cross objected, and - even though she had no experience with screenplays - she insisted on writing one herself. Eventually, she wrote a second script for yet another producer.

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