In the Coen Brothers’ 1991 drama Barton Fink, the title character (played by John Turturro) is an acclaimed playwright in New York. His agent recommends that Barton fly off to Hollywood so that he can make more money. In Los Angeles, the head of the movie studio assigns Barton the job of writing a B-movie boxing film; however, when he sits down to write the picture, Barton cannot get past the first few lines of description.
Several authors have found allure in the promise of making big money by drafting Hollywood screenplays, but Barton’s struggle to find a creative chord while writing movies did not afflict many of America’s biggest literary figures. Several fine authors found formidable success writing for the movies.
Later this month, Fox will release The Counselor. The film’s scribe: Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road”. It is McCarthy’s first big-screen foray. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling just announced that she would pen the first film in a new series tied to her “Harry Potter” universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Even if the money is good, it is strange that successful authors would try to make a name in the film industry. While working for a major studio, the screenwriter trades in total creative control of their original work for more money up front.
Authors build a universe in a novel’s page that comes from their singular mind; meanwhile, the primary creative force behind a film’s success is usually the director. Directors, producers and studio executives also get to choose what stays in, what is cut, and what needs rewriting – sometimes against the screenwriter’s will. The final film could be quite different from the screenwriter’s original draft.
That has not stopped several of America’s quintessential writers from hitting it big in Tinseltown. Some of the biggest noir classics of the 1940s came from two revered novelists. Raymond Chandler co-wrote Double Indemnity and an early draft of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The hardboiled dialogue and characters from Chandler’s pulp fiction were easy to transfer to a big-screen scenario. Although Chandler got an Oscar nomination for Indemnity, virtually none of the material in his first draft for Strangers appeared in the final cut.
In the meantime, William Faulkner was a close friend of director Howard Hawks. When Hawks decided to bring Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Chandler’s own The Big Sleep to big screen, he called upon Faulkner to help with the scripts. An urban legend tells that Faulkner called up Chandler to discuss the plotline for The Big Sleep, and got the novelist to admit that there was a plot hole in the story.
Recently, two modern literary giants proved their breadth by penning films based on popular works they adored. Comic book fan Michael Chabon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a novel about comic book writers, did uncredited drafts for Spider-Man 2 and X-Men. Chabon is not the first literary giant to focus his efforts on superheroes: “The Godfather” author Mario Puzo wrote the campy but exciting script for 1978’s Superman.
Dave Eggers helped Spike Jonze write 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. The varying conflicts between Max and the Wild Things in that film recalled the central relationship between Eggers and his younger brother from his memor, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. That book also included fantasy sequences that were a commentary on the characters’ lives.
In 2006, Larry McMurtry won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for writing the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. His beloved novels “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove” examine the lives of lost souls in small, desert towns who seek love and redemption. These themes were later explored in Brokeback Mountain.
It is of little surprise that Raymond Chandler penned a film noir, that Dave Eggers wrote a coming-of-age story or that Larry McMurtry won acclaim for a humanist western. Some authors who become screenwriters, though, used the new medium to delve into new genres.
One prominent example is English author Nick Hornby, whose fascination with music, sports and obsessive male protagonists made his screenplay for 2009’s An Education quite a surprise. That film, about a teenage girl who strikes up a love affair with a much older man, does not flow in line with the content in Hornby’s other novels.
Fantasy novelist Ray Bradbury could have brought a plethora of sci-fi works to the big screen (especially since the 1950s were massive for that genre); however, he instead got to work on an adaptation of Moby Dick for director John Huston. Nevertheless, his reputation as a short story writer proved to be a major asset for hit series like “The Twilight Zone“ and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents“, which Bradbury wrote for.
Unfortunately, great success as film writers is not a given for any successful author. Some acclaimed novelists, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald, floundered in Hollywood. Fitzgerald struggled to find screenwriting work that could pay off his immense debts. He was actually paid more for writing short stories than screenplays during his time in Los Angeles.
Furthermore, Stephen King, whose works had been adapted for the screen plenty of times before, will not be remembered for his own screenplays. He wrote a much-forgotten mini series in the late 1990s, Storm of the Century, and the horror-comedy Creepshow for George A. Romero. Although closely aligned to the thriller settings and character tropes he loved using in his novels, these scripts were minor achievements.
New York is the hotbed of the literary world and Hollywood the centre of the entertainment industry. Many authors pick up their typewriters to head to sunny California for the opportunity to pick up some big money for a couple months work. Even though authors get less creative freedom in Hollywood, many of them have brought their writing style and genre expertise to the screenplay page and have created some indelible big-screen classics.
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