The Dark Side of the Screen

With the Academy Awards upon us, we’re approaching the end of the awards season – that heady, glossy time when Hollywood gives itself the once-over and then a generous round of applause. While celebrating the feel-good stories that emerge from this time, we also remain aware of the dark side of the industry: the unspoken paths to power, the falls from grace, the never-made-its, the unacknowledged. So we have a special feeling for film adaptations that deliciously expose the shadows and secrets that roil just below the surface of all this glitter and bonhomie.

Below, five of the most famous:

“What Makes Sammy Run?” (1959)
Based on the novel by Budd Schulberg

The most lacerating of Hollywood tales, this infamous debut novel charts the rise and rise of Sammy Glick, a newspaper copyboy whose cheerfully cutthroat nature takes him to the top of the studio system. Son of a producer and himself a screenwriter, Schulberg was warned the industry would blackball him over the novel; however, he went on to have a long career, winning an Oscar for “On the Waterfront.” In 1959, NBC produced a two-part dramatization; despite the 2002 reprint of the novel citing Ben Stiller’s attempt to mount an adaptation, Sammy still awaits its first big screen treatment.

“The Last Tycoon” (1976)
Based on the unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A one-time colleague of Schulberg, novelist Fitzgerald had a notoriously rough time in Hollywood, ending up with a single credit (“Three Comrades”) after years of toil. His experience, though, provided material for a fictionalization based on Irving Thalberg, MGM’s “boy wonder” producer. The Love of the Last Tycoon offers an idealistic flip-side to Sammy; its hero, Monroe Stahr, has the industry at his feet. Fitzgerald died before completing it, but, even in its fragmentary state, Tycoon is a lyrical accomplishment, perhaps one of the great possibilities in literature. In his last film, Elia Kazan directed Harold Pinter’s adaptation, with Robert De Niro as Stahr.

“The Day of the Locust” (1975)
Based on the novel by Nathaniel West

Like Fitzgerald, West was a writer who unsuccessfully tried his hand in movies, but found inspiration for a novel. Set during the Great Depression, Locust offers a grotesque glimpse of the surreal nature of Hollywood. Artist Tod Hackett works as a set designer and lives in a dingy apartment building filled with would-be industry players: an untalented yet hopeful starlet, a former vaudeville man, an androgynous child who apes movie clichés. His interactions with these characters reveal the desperation to which Hollywood drives its aspirants, culminating in a violent, bizarre climax. John Schlesinger’s adaptation starred William Atherton, Donald Sutherland, and Karen Black.

“The Player” (1992)
Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin

In a nice twist on the self-reflexive nature of his novel, Tolkin adapted his own book for a director who rejected the studio system in the 1970s. This most inside of all Hollywood narratives is about Griffin Mill, a producer who attempts to cover up the murder of a writer blackmailing him and save his career. Featuring innumerable references and homages and dozens of cameos from real-life actors, The Player refocuses the cynicism of Locust from outside the circle to its very heart. This film, which starred Tim Robbins as Griffin, helped revive Robert Altman’s career.

“Adaptation” (2002)
Inspired by the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Known for his mind-bending work, Charlie Kaufman transformed a story of an orchid poacher into a meta-comedy about Hollywood. Asked to adapt Orlean’s book, he struggled with the project and instead wrote about his problems with the adaptation, writing Orlean, the orchid thief, and himself (and a fake twin) into the plot. Teasing the line between fact and fiction, “Adaptation” nevertheless ponders the difficulty of retaining one’s integrity while working in Hollywood. Spike Jonze directed the film with Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for his role.

  • Mick

    What Makes Sammy Run is one of the all-time great Hollywood novels. IMHO, of course. I've heard rumors that Ben Stiller has been trying to remake this for years. I wonder what the status is on that...

  • Ben

    I totally didn't know there was a TV adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run? Now we just need Spike Lee to make that boxing movie he was planning with Schulberg before he died.

  • Jenna

    I love film about film. I also love theater about theater. I really wish I could have seen Mistakes Were Made, a one-man play starring Michael Shannon (so great in Revolutionary Road). Thanks for the tips, there are a couple here I hadn't heard of!

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