Novelist as Screenwriter: The Good, the Bad, the Debate

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in ‘The Counselor’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox Corporation

We all love a whiff of literature in our movies and TV. Witness the countless articles kvelling over the references to The Yellow King, Robert W. Chambers’ 1885 collection of horror stories, in HBO’s broodingly macabre series “True Detective.” But not everyone is as enthusiastic when book authors try their hand at screenwriting. In the largely negative reviews of last year’s “The Counselor” (Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir called it “the worst movie ever made”), many of the worst potshots were leveled at novelist Cormac McCarthy’s script, which was sometimes dismissed as bloated and windy.

Those potshots were wrongheaded. Yes, the critically touted, bestselling author wrote an unorthodox script for a Hollywood suspense thriller. Teeming with speeches delivered by the likes of a leopard-owning, silver-taloned ice queen played by Cameron Diaz and an alarmingly orange Javier Bardem, "The Counselor" philosophizes about the moral hazards of a potential drug deal until it fast-forwards into philosophizing about the existentialist dilemmas spawned by that deal now gone south. In between, such manly men as Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender sport deeply baroque getups while swilling deeply baroque cocktails, and Diaz and Penelope Cruz engage in some of the most female-centric sex acts to ever grace a big-budget movie.

Heads rolled. Literally.

Audiences accustomed to the quick-paced, hyper-male, explosion-laden, catch phrase-driven action movies clotting today’s multiplexes may have been taken aback. But I believe that, in the years to come, “The Counselor” will be admired. McCarthy didn’t just deconstruct a traditional Hollywood thriller; he and director Ridley Scott subverted it with the great gusto of people who love movies. This is the secret of that movie’s eventual success – as well as of all successful scripts penned by authors.

For nearly as long as movies have been made, book authors have been enlisted to write them – and have been judged in the process. Some have flailed, of course. Some didn’t accept that, since a picture tells 1,000 words, less is more. “Some Like It Hot” director Billy Wilder described F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hapless stint as a Hollywood scriptwriter as akin to “hiring a great sculptor to do a plumbing job.” But other authors have soared as screenwriters, including hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler, whose film credits include “Double Indemnity” and “Strangers on a Train,” among others.

Chandler’s success might suggest that plot-driven, terse authors are better suited as scriptwriters. But then there’s William Faulkner. Faulkner, revered for his stylistically and psychologically dense novels of the Deep South, produced a host of muscular screenplays for director Howard Hawks (including “The Road to Glory”) as well as adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Chandler’s own novel, The Big Sleep, that are now regarded as classics.

One gets the sense that, in addition to the juicy paychecks, authors as hallowed as Faulkner also might appreciate the relief from “all those words” afforded by their film endeavors. Certainly many of the chatterboxes from the Algonquin Round Table, including Dorothy Parker, migrated to Hollywood writers’ rooms. What’s compelling about that legendary wisecracker’s screenplays is that, for the most part, she left her snark back on the East Coast: Her most noteworthy Hollywood script is the tremulously earnest screenplay she co-wrote for 1937’s “A Star Is Born.”

Dave Eggers, whose very title of his first novel (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) was ironically windy, demonstrates a sweet, smart economy in screenplays for such films as the fracking drama “The Promised Land,” the child-birth comedy “Away We Go,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Directed by Spike Jonze (most recently of “Her”), “Wild Things” is another movie that will be more highly regarded later, when initial comparisons to the beloved Maurice Sendak book fade.

It never hurts if you’re succinct to start, of course. Dry-eyed Joan Didion has a long history as a Hollywood scriptwriter, often collaborating with her now-deceased husband and fellow novelist John Gregory Dunne. Her credits include the underrated “The Panic in Needle Park” and “True Confessions,” as well as the surprisingly soapy journalism romance “Up Close and Personal” and the 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born.” To be fair, the latter’s bathos might partly be attributed to its star, Barbra Streisand.

This all goes to show that one can never predict who will write a terrific film. Who would have thought that Paul Auster, the author of such cerebral works as the New York Trilogy, would churn out the pulpy, stylish pleasures of “Lulu on the Bridge” and “Smoke,” as well its sort-of sequel, "Blue in the Face"? The latter features the definitive New Yorker rant from the late, great Lou Reed.

I definitely would have thought the late journalist, author, screenwriter, and director Nora Ephron, that all-time queen of pith, would have batted 1,000 in the world of film writing, but her record was arguably spotty – even if she never failed to entertain. Many forget she wrote the heartbreaking “Silkwood,” which, in addition to launching her career-long collaboration with Meryl Streep, set the bar for naturalistic social issue dramas. And “Julie & Julia,” her adaptation of both Julia Child’s and Julie Powell’s autobiographies, is clever and warm. But though I admire the one-two punch of her screenplays for romantic comedies “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Sleepless in Seattle” (the latter two she also directed), they lack the acuity of some of her best essays. It was as if Ephron, who grew up in Hollywood with two screenwriter parents, donned a good girl hat when she wrote for film that she would never have worn as an essayist. One can see it in her “Heartburn” screenplay, which lacks the teeth of her novel Heartburn. I won’t even get into the awkward metamovie that is “Bewitched,” whose failure Ephron herself acknowledged.

Ultimately, one can never tell who is to blame when a movie goes wrong. Unlike writing for the page, screenwriting entails so many cooks in the kitchen: financiers, directors, editors, actors. Gaffers, even! With so many variables in play, translation from page to screen isn’t predictable. It may not be as bad as what’s depicted in Robert Altman’s “The Player,” in which desperate screenwriters cringe, beg, and are even murdered, but authors inevitably wield less power on a Hollywood set than when penning their own book. (Unless they’re the holy terror that was P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks,” anyway.) The one ingredient they can control is their own enthusiasm.

No author, no matter how talented, can write a successful screenplay if they condescend to the medium of film. Audiences can tell, as they did with Michael Chabon’s oddbot script for “John Carter.” If not for love, why else would so many authors continue to write screenplays anyway? The headaches are enormous and, despite common wisdom, screenwriting doesn’t always deliver that much bang for your buck. The truth is that, despite the old literary bias against authors who “go Hollywood,” many clamor for the magic of the silver screen with the same zeal as the rest of us. And thank goodness for that. A love for movies is key.