Browsing through “My Life As A Quant” for the umpteenth time (these days I no longer read books, I randomly browse through them searching for eye-catching passages) I couldn´t help thinking that someone, somewhere, someday should make a movie out of this great tome.
Have I gone insane? A movie about a quant´s life? Do I want to irremediable jeopardize the possibility of a future Hollywood career for myself? Am I really that bad picking cinematic projects?.
Call me crazy, but I think that people would want to see a Derman-inspired flick. I know, I know. You are probably imagining the long line of science PhDs eagerly waiting to see their idol inmortalized on the screen. But I don´t mean just brainy types when I talk about the potential popularity of the movie. I very much mean the general public.
What prompts me to believe in Derman: The Movie? Well, his book (his life) touches upon several experiences that I think can be quite appealing. The lonely young foreign student that lands in crime-infested New York. The PhD seeker at a legendary physics department. The aspiring academic doing the postdoc rounds. The Wall Street success story at the most famous of institutions. The revolutionary quantification of finance.
But even more than this individual biographical bits, the main selling point for the movie would be the presence of a major essencial theme, one that inspires and that would be bound to attract attention from folks. When travelling through Derman´s life it is impossible not to detect a sense of betrayed innocence, a nostalgic yearn for lost love, an indefatigable yet hopeless attempt to satisfy a relentless passion. Derman is a man who loves deeply and who fights very hard to have that love reciprocated, only to be disappointed by unfavourable circumstances. Derman´s love interest is, of course, physics. We see him as a young idealist bent on doing physics all day for the rest of his life. This is a quest for him, an absolute must, life-defining. And he wants to do physics for the purest of reasons: he wants to find truth. In order to achieve that romantic goal he is willing to make the toughest of sacrifices and to incur untold pain. He continues to fight and hope under strain, refusing to give up the dream.
For the reader, it is impossible not to root for the hero. We want Derman to succeed, we desperately wish that by the end of the chapter some university has finally offered him the coveted full-time position. When disappointment comes knocking again one final time, we sink with Derman. Innocence is lost, the dream is gone. The search for universal truth would have to be postponed.
But if we shed some tears at the sight of our hero departing from his beloved physics path, we glowingly smile when he eventually finds happiness, fulfillment, and untold recognition on Wall Street. We feel elated that life has vindicated him. We find his triumph an act of justice. We bow at the altar of the humbleness and modesty that Derman continues to show even after having reached the pinnacle at that most illustrious of institutions, Goldman Sachs. And we surrender to his never-ending intellectual curiosity.
I think that regular people would also side with our hero at movie theatres. I think they too would be moved by the story of this man who came to New York guided by a passion for scientific truth, who became a marvelled inhabitant of a genius den at Columbia, and who struggled relentlessly in the quest for a life of science. I think people would sink too when the hero has to finally confront the inevitable reality that he will not be able to pursue his dream further. It would break their hearts to see Derman leave physics, just like it broke our readers’ hearts. And, just like it happened to us book worms, it would energize and inspire them to see his victory later in life. Patrons would leave the theatre with an open smile (fittingly for a movie about the man who first modelled the volatility smile).
In sum, I would recommend the Hollywood honchos to do this movie for several reasons. One is that it contains lots of interesting sub-plots. The youthful pursuit of scientific accomplishment at a genius-filled top university could be appealingly presented (did you like “Proof”?). The hardships associated with finding an academic job could also be made attention-grabbing. The use of esoteric quantitative techniques to make money and manage risks on Wall Street is definitely a winning theme. And Derman has certainly met his share of intriguing eye-catching characters (all of whom should be portrayed in the film).
But again, the biggest selling point would be the portrayal of an idealistic likeable man who sacrificed so much for the pure love of science, who had to brusquely and tragically abandon his life-defining quest, but who eventually found extraordinary worldly success without betraying his basic traits and his never-ending passion for intellectual achievement.
Wouldn´t it be nice if the final scene were that of Derman satisfactorily returning (as financial engineering professor) to his beloved Columbia after so many years, to the place where he dreamt of endless days of physics, the place where innocence still ruled supreme.