“Primary Colors II:” A hypothetical political novel (and movie) unfolding in real time.

primary colors 2

Occasionally on this blog I do articles about books that were never written, but which would be very cool if they did exist. In a similar vein, I’m going to engage in some literary and cinematic fantasy about a story that hasn’t been written (or filmed) yet, but desperately needs to be. We don’t know the ending or even much about this story yet, but that it will be compelling and dramatic is already obvious even though we don’t know how it will turn out. The story I’m talking about could theoretically be called Primary Colors II, and it would be a sequel to the novel by “Anonymous” (actually political writer Joe Klein) and the 1998 film of it directed by Mike Nichols. And this story-which-needs-to-be-written is unfolding in real life, right now, in real time, on our front pages and news feeds.

To understand where I’m going with this, first you need to know what Primary Colors (the original) is/was. In January 1996, a strange little novel with that title appeared from Random House, bearing the unusual byline “Anonymous.” It was the story of a young political operative, Henry Burton, who is somewhat disillusioned with politics as he kinda-sorta joins the Quixotic presidential campaign of Jack Stanton, a Southern state governor. Stanton has a curious political and personal partnership with his wife, Susan. As the campaign ramps up Henry comes to believe in Stanton, but his disillusionment is more hidden than truly dispelled, as Stanton is somewhat disingenuous–a gifted politician, but a politician just the same.

Obviously the book was about Bill Clinton, and most of the characters were thinly-veiled fictionalized versions of other real people: Henry Burton was based on George Stephanopoulos, Richard Jemmons on James Carville, etc. In July 1996 after much speculation in the press, “Anonymous” was unmasked as Newsweek writer Joe Klein, who went on to write a historical-journalistic book on the Clinton presidency. Late in Clinton’s second term legendary director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) made the film version of Primary Colors. One of the most brilliant political movies of the last 50 years, Primary Colors starred John Travolta as Jack Stanton and Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton. Kathy Bates, who played the Vince Foster character, was nominated for an Academy Award for her role.

Technically, Klein did write a sequel to Primary Colors, the novel The Running Mate which came out in 2000. It focused on a minor character, however, and didn’t really center around the Stantons. (I’ve read Primary Colors but I confess I have not read The Running Mate). But what he really needs to do in the next few years is write a full-fledged sequel, Primary Colors II, set 24 years after the events of the original. The plot would, of course, center around not Jack Stanton, now a happily-retired ex-President, but on his wife, Susan, who is running to be elected President in her own right.

Here are some clips from the original 1998 Primary Colors movie. Emma Thompson’s work as Susan is interspersed.

If one concedes–as one must–that Primary Colors is about Bill Clinton, the political and historical trajectory of Hillary Clinton, now officially running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, takes the story in an entirely new direction. In fact, Primary Colors II would establish Susan Stanton as the ultimate political heir to the legacy of her husband, and essentially make her the central character of the duology–a result Klein probably couldn’t have imagined. Whether she ultimately wins the presidency in 2016 or not–and I believe Hillary will win–is irrelevant to whether Primary Colors II would work as a story, because it’s guaranteed to work with either outcome. And presumably Klein would be able to contrast, most likely negatively, what politics is like in the 2010s as opposed to what it was like in the early 1990s. Wouldn’t this be an interesting story?

Furthermore, wouldn’t a Primary Colors II be a fascinating movie? I think the movie of Primary Colors vastly improved on the book. It made the story much more emotional and heartfelt, and the terrific performances buoyed it across the board, not just Kathy Bates but Adrian Lester as Henry Burton and, of course, Emma Thompson as Susan. While making the film Thompson was adamant that she wasn’t basing her performance on the real Hillary Clinton. If a movie sequel were to be made, this would pose a fascinating acting challenge: play a Hillary-esque character without “imitating” Hillary. As fine an actress as Emma Thompson is, I’m sure she’d relish the challenge. The reprisal of John Travolta as a now-retired Jack Stanton would also add levity and gravitas to the film.

The real Hillary’s campaign announcement from a few weeks ago. Try to imagine Emma Thompson in the role…

Primary Colors II movie is also do-able. Although sadly Mike Nichols passed away in November 2014, his long-time collaborator in comedy, Elaine May, is still alive; she wrote and received an Academy Award nomination for Primary Colors. Ms. May’s romantic partner is famed director Stanley Donen, who would be perfect to direct a sequel from her script. The film would have to bring back Emma Thompson, obviously, and John Travolta as Stanton. Possibly Adrian Lester could return as the central character, or there might even be another central character; not many of the old 1990s Clinton personnel are still with Hillary today. Obviously there are some great casting opportunities here–who, for instance, would be cast as the obvious Barack Obama character? Maybe Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager) or Blair Underwood (L.A. Law)?

Alas, as cool as the scenario is, it’s not likely to happen. Who knows if Klein wants to re-enlist in the Clinton wars, and the movie Primary Colors was, although a critical success, not a money-maker. Hollywood generally doesn’t green-light sequels to flops. But it would be a fascinating story, and an interesting fictional mirror of our contemporary times and the drama getting underway in 2016.

The image of Hillary Clinton in the header is by Flickr user Roger H. Goun and the image of Emma Thompson is by Flickr user Garry Night. Both are used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.
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