By Annette Hinkle
The late Bill Mulvihill was known locally as an ardent environmentalist. He and his sister, Dolores Zebrowski, who passed away three weeks ago, were actively involved in land preservation — and their gift of more than 100 acres off Brickiln Road in Sag Harbor has preserved a unique ecosystem that can now be enjoyed by all who use its trails.
But Mulvihill, who died in 2004, also understood the importance of saving ecosystems far from the East End. A high school history teacher for 32 years, Mulvihill had a passion for Africa, and he became something of an authority on the continent.
“He had the largest private library on Africa in New York,” notes his daughter, Mary Ann Mulvihill-Decker. “It was this incredible wall of books — he really was a scholar and expert on African history and natural history.”
Mulvihill was also a writer and he used Africa as the centerpiece of several of his novels, including “The Sands of Kalahari,” a New York Times bestseller which was made into a movie in 1965.
Now, it looks as if another of his books — his 1960 novel “The Mantrackers,” which Mulvihill reworked and republished in 1995 as “Serengeti” after the original went out of print — is on its way to the big screen as well.
The film rights to “Serengeti” have just been acquired by Alan Abrams of Santa Monica and Glenn Zoller of Los Angeles. While this is not the first time the novel has been optioned for film, Mulvihill-Decker is optimistic that this time, it will come to fruition.
Mulvihill-Decker explains that when Zoller, an independent producer, first approached the family about the film rights to “Serengeti” a number of years ago, it was still in development under an earlier option. So Zoller optioned “Night of the Axe,” another book by Mulvihill, instead.
But his real interest was in “Serengeti,” and when the property became available again, Zoller moved to option it. As a result, Mulvihill’s family went to entertainment lawyer Alan Abrams to represent them in the deal, but Mulvihill-Decker adds that when Abrams read the book, “he went crazy over it.”
“Alan has been an entertainment attorney for 35 years mostly representing producers — it was more unusual for him to represent us as the writer when we first contacted him,” she recalls. “He thought my dad was just great.”
So great, in fact, that Abrams told Mulvihill-Decker he couldn’t represent the family because he and Zoller had decided to team up to make the film version of “Serengeti” together.
“We are in contract for the option now,” adds Mulvihill-Decker. “Alan felt so inspired by my dad’s work. He had always been interested in producing, but after 35 years, he said, ‘This is it. I want to produce a movie now.’”
When asked why she felt her father’s novel is finding a new audience more than 50 years after it was written, Mulvihill-Decker says, “Alan thinks my dad was a tremendous and under-appreciated writer. He loves his succinct style of writing. Dad was a thematic style of writer, and the story moved them both deeply.”
“It’s a powerful story,” she adds.
Set in pre World War I East Africa in 1910, “Serengeti” is the story of von Tafel, a German Army officer who snaps after being severely maimed and disfigured by a leopard. Seeking revenge, he heads out to the bush on a wildlife killing spree — a virtual animal genocide.
Meanwhile, Peter Ratchford, an American botanist who has seen first-hand evidence of von Tafel’s slaughters in the wild, seeks out John Thrushwood, a retired British elephant hunter, and enlists his help in tracking von Tafel with intentions to stop him.
Thrushwood is initially reluctant. Having personally killed more than 2,000 elephants and other animals for their ivory, skins and meat, he feels great remorse for his actions and is not interested in another hunt — regardless of the prey. But Ratchford convinces him von Tafel must be stopped. So Thrushwood agrees and the two set out, along with Chapupa, an African tracker who Thrushwood relies on for his skill and wisdom.
Though Mulvihill, who visited Africa three times in the 1960s and ’70s, had not yet been to the continent when he first wrote the novel, Mulvihill-Decker explains he understood the place intimately through his research.
“He studied Africa long before he went there,” says Mulvihill-Decker. “He was able to paint an authentic picture.”
It’s a picture that has only gotten worse for many wild animals since Mulvihill wrote the book — especially for elephants which are again being poached in alarming numbers for their ivory.
“He thought the book was one of the first ecologically oriented novels at the time,” says Mulvihill-Decker. “He was very much ahead of his time in many ways.”
Which may ultimately be why “Serengeti” is garnering such interest among film producers these days. In Mulvihill’s story of three men tracking an avowed animal killer, Abrams finds an apt metaphor for the larger environmental and political realities of 21st century Africa and the many threats it faces.
“I see the film as a rallying call to stop the insanity and protect this wonderful and fragile planet from the von Tafels of ecological destruction,” notes Abrams. “I also see it as a damn good old fashioned western, mano-a-mano in the Serengeti, the white hats against the black hats.”
“The theme of redemption runs deep in ‘Serengeti,’” adds Zoller, “and it strongly drives my passion to help transform a gripping and thematic novel into an equally authentic and evocative, yet bad-ass African western.”