‘Romancing the Stone’ and Its Screenwriter’s Tragic Tale

Each day, before her waitressing shift began, Diane Thomas would plop herself onto the floor of her tiny Malibu studio apartment, in front of a low-slung desk, and begin typing. Throughout late 1978 and early 1979, she worked daily, hours on end, conjuring the tale of Joan Chase, a mousy romance novelist suddenly thrust into a life-or-death adventure.

“I wanted to write about a woman who became her own heroine,” Thomas would offer of her inspiration. “The notion that we can be whatever we imagine ourselves to be interested me.”

Forty years ago, Thomas’s story, “Romancing the Stone” — and its heroine, renamed Joan Wilder — reached big screens, becoming one of the top box office hits of 1984 and an enduring classic, owing to a perfectly measured blend of action, comedy and romance. “It’s still the most well-rounded script I’ve ever read,” Michael Douglas, the film’s producer and co-star, said in an interview. “In many ways, it was a reflection of Diane — she wasn’t quite as shy as Joan Wilder, but she poured a lot of herself into this story of a writer who experiences a metamorphosis.”

During a golden era of action-adventure pictures, the novice Thomas turned the genre on its head. “A woman being the impetus for that kind of movie hadn’t been done, certainly not in that way,” said Kathleen Turner, who played Wilder. “I mean, the girls in those types of movies were just that — they were always sidekicks or scenery.”

Thomas’s friends, like her fellow writer Betty Spence, said the sweep of the story — which moved from the posh Upper West Side of Manhattan to the raw jungles of South America — was the product of a fertile imagination. “Diane was a pure storyteller,” Spence said. “She could sit there and spin a tale out of nothing, and it would have a perfect beginning, middle and end.”

When Thomas sold her script in the summer of 1979, she went from minimum-wage worker to one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood. It was the start of a meteoric career that would include a pair of major movie hits and multiple projects with Steven Spielberg. Yet “Romancing the Stone” would be the only film to ever bear a Thomas writing credit because her life was tragically cut short.

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