He was a first-time novelist whose tale of a manly vocation and family trauma broke publishing and then movie rights records when Robert Redford bought them.
Nicholas Evans, the British journalist turned author whose novel-turned-film, “The Horse Whisperer,” broke publishing and movie records, along with the hearts of readers who made the book a best seller in 20 countries, died on Aug. 9 at his home in London. He was 72.
The cause was a heart attack, said his longtime agent, Caradoc King.
In 1993, Mr. Evans, at 43, was broke and adrift. He had been working as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, and had spent two years on a film project that ultimately collapsed, when he began casting about for an idea for a novel. It was perhaps not the most winning formula for worldly success, as he noted in retrospect on his website: “Why would a debut novel from an unknown author have any more chance of getting off the ground than a movie?”
Yet he had found an intriguing subject: the mystical, manly art of horse whispering. His source was a farrier, and Mr. Evans soon learned that the vocation of calming horses had a long history stretching back centuries.
In England, however, horse-y matters have too much class baggage, as he put it, so he looked to the American West for his story. He came up trumps when he met Tom Dorrance, a terse cowboy then in his 80s, and watched him soothe a frenzied mare in California. He then found two other cowboys who practiced the same compelling magic, and began to craft a character inspired by these three men.
Mr. Evans sat down and wrote some 150 pages of what would become “The Horse Whisperer,” a soapy drama about a young girl and her horse who are hit by a truck, and what happens when her hard-driving East Coast magazine editor mother finds a horse whisperer in Montana to heal their trauma.
The healing that ensues involved more than the horse. Mr. Evans showed his draft to Mr. King, who sent the partial manuscript to a number of publishers on their way to the Frankfurt book fair that year. Suddenly, Mr. Evans was in the middle of a bidding maelstrom, juggling offers from Hollywood as well as from book publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Bob Bookman, the agent at the Creative Artists Agency negotiating the sale of the film rights, asked Mr. Evans what he wanted, Mr. Evans proposed a modest $50,000. “I think we can get $3 million,” said Mr. Bookman, as Sarah Lyall of The New York Times reported. And they did. Hollywood Pictures and Robert Redford’s film studio, Wildwood Pictures, won the bid, at the time the largest amount ever paid for the rights to a first novel (almost $6 million in today’s money). Mr. Evans’s North American book advance, of $3.15 million from Dell Publishing, set another record.
Then Mr. Evans had to finish the book. He told Ms. Lyall he had become morbidly superstitious: He stopped riding his bicycle, and took the slow lane when driving. What he did not disclose, not even to his agent, was that he had been diagnosed with melanoma.
Nonetheless, he survived, and thrived. The book, which was published in 1995, was a global best seller that was translated into 40 languages, though critics slammed it for its melodrama. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, called it “a sappy romance novel, gussied up with some sentimental claptrap about the emotional life of animals and lots of Walleresque hooey about men and women.”
“About the only thing missing,” she added, “is a picture of Fabio on the cover.”
The movie, which came out in 1998, was more favorably reviewed and a modest box office success, thanks to Mr. Redford’s star power and firm hand as director. He delivered a more restrained version of Mr. Evans’s tale, playing Tom Brooker, the horse whisperer. Kristin Scott Thomas was Annie MacLean, the mother, and Scarlett Johansson played Grace, the daughter. Sam Neill was Annie’s cuckolded husband. Mr. Redford’s version ended rather ambiguously; Mr. Evans had chosen a more confrontational route, and he was initially upset by the change.
For better or worse, Mr. Evans had unknowingly introduced the word “whisperer” into the popular lexicon as a catchall term for experts who can tame complicated creatures, like babies.
“It was an extraordinary event,” said Mr. King, remembering the frenzy surrounding Mr. Evans’s novel. “It was just the magic of the story. That was the thing.”
Nicholas Evans was born on July 26, 1950, in Worcestershire, in England’s West Midlands. He studied law at Oxford University, graduating with a First, the highest honors. He worked as a journalist for newspapers and television and produced a weekly current affairs show. In the 1980s, he made documentary films about the artists David Hockney and Francis Bacon, the writer Patricia Highsmith and the filmmaker David Lean, among others.
He followed “The Horse Whisperer” with three more novels, all best sellers. “The Divide” (2005), explores what led to the death of a young woman whose body is found in a frozen mountain creek. The story was inspired, he told The Associated Press, by his own interrogations into what causes rifts in a marriage — a marriage come asunder is the book’s back story. His own 25-year marriage had recently ended, he said.
Like his characters, Mr. Evans was an avid outdoorsman, a charming Bill Nighy look-alike who skied and hiked. And in August of 2008 he seemed to fall into the plot of one of his own stories, a family idyll turned into a near tragedy.
He and his second wife, Charlotte Gordon Cumming, a singer-songwriter, were staying with her brother, Alastair Gordon Cumming, and his wife, Lady Louisa, in the Scottish Highlands. They had picked and enjoyed a meal of wild mushrooms, which turned out to be poisonous. All four became sick, and their kidneys soon failed. Mr. Evans, Ms. Gordon Cumming and her brother required years of dialysis — and new kidneys. Mr. Evans’s daughter Lauren donated one of hers. Ms. Gordon Cumming was offered the kidney of her son’s best friend’s mother, and Mr. Cumming’s came from a patient who had died. Mr. Evans became a patron of a kidney donation charity. Ms. Gordon Cumming made a documentary film about her experience.
Mr. Evans’s survivors include his wife and four children, Finlay, Lauren, Max and Harry.
His reviews grew more positive with every book. Nonetheless, he tended to avoid reading them.
“The book business is such a strange one — and the very definition of literary versus commercial fiction has always seemed to me to be bizarre,” Mr. Evans told The Guardian in 2011. “One is defined by how many it sells, and the other by its ideas and so-called literary merit. And there are all kinds of assumptions brought to bear on this. So for example, if you sell tons of books you can’t possibly have any interesting ideas or themes or things to say. And on the other hand, if nobody buys the book, it’s considered a mark of its esteem because nobody is bright enough to understand it.”