Is there anything more hallowed in the world of storytelling than the literary novelist? Revered as a cultural touchstone who sets the standard for highbrow entertainment while illuminating and examining issues, both timeless and current, novelists often carry more clout of the lofty variety than Tinseltown’s band of screenwriters. But why, then, have so many novelists made the trek to Hollywood in an effort to write for the movies?
To use the historically inaccurate quote of infamous bank robber Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”
For the most part, it’s a long, sad saga when it comes to legendary authors trying to write for the studios. The most famous was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent the last three years of his life drinking himself to death while struggling to find work in Hollywood. But the chronicle of well-respected authors writing movies has had its bright spots – and may have just hit another. This month, the indie film “The Canyons,” written by eighties zeitgeist novelist Bret Easton Ellis, opens in theaters, while November will see the release of the bigger-budgeted affair “The Counselor,” penned by literary heavyweight Cormac McCarthy. Both films are the first original screenplays written by the authors to be made into movies.
So in honor of these upcoming releases, here’s a look at seven instances when literary giants found success in Hollywood.
There’s a bit of controversy regarding the low number of Americans who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the 100-plus years since the Swedish Academy began giving out the award, just over a dozen American writers have been named Nobel Laureates. William Faulkner is one of them. The author of such classics as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August also wrote for the movies. In 1932, while in dire financial straights, Faulkner was offered a contract writing screenplays for MGM. With no other forcible way to earn cash, he took the job. By most accounts he hated the shallowness of Hollywood, but the pay and a good working relationship with legendary director Howard Hawks kept him at it for most of the thirties and forties. The most notable films Faulkner worked on include “The Big Sleep,” “To Have and Have Not,” and “Gunga Din.”
What’s the definition of success for a screenwriter? Is it consistently penning hit movies or is it maintaining a sustained presence in Hollywood selling scripts, pitching stories, and doing rewrites? If it’s the latter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon is a success. Since the mid-nineties, when Chabon sold his first original script, “The Gentleman Host” (which was never produced), he’s kept up the effort – though without much fanfare. He sold the film rights for two books before they were published, put together unused treatments for “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four,” wrote an initial draft of “Spider-Man 2,” and most recently worked on the script for “John Carter.”
Dave Eggers first rose to prominence in 2001 for his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Since then he’s helped lead a new generation of literary elites with his publishing house McSweeney’s, the literary magazine Believer, a nonprofit teaching group for kids called 826 Valencia, and a slew of books that have gained both critical and commercial success. And if you weren’t envious enough of Eggers’ achievements, he’s also written a few movies, the most notable of which was the film adaptation of the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Thing Are. He also co-wrote the Gen-X hipster romantic dramedy “Away We Go” with his wife Vendela Vida. Most recently, Eggers earned a “story by” credit for the last year’s anti-fracking drama “Promised Land,” which starred Matt Damon and John Krasinski.
Ray Bradbury never considered himself a science fiction writer (he preferred the term “fantasy”) even though he wrote one of the most important science fiction novels of all time, Fahrenheit 451. But Bradbury fanatics will cantankerously point out that their icon’s strongest medium was the short story. Collections greatly outnumber novels in his bibliography (and even some of his novels, like The Martian Chronicles, are more like short story collections). So it would make sense that his style would fit in well with the TV anthology craze of the fifties and sixties. Bradbury adapted his short stories, as well as wrote original episodes, for such classic shows as “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He eventually even wrote and hosted his own anthology series, “The Ray Bradbury Theater,” which ran for six seasons across two cable channels from 1985 to 1992. But Bradbury’s scripts (which also included various TV movies) didn’t just land on the small screen; he also wrote a few films. Starting with story credit for 1953’s “It Came from Outer Space,” Bradbury penned a handful of different films throughout the years. The most surprising, 1956’s “Moby Dick,” the adaptation directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, is considered by many to be the best film adaptation of the Melville novel.
It was 1937 – years since he wrote and published his most well-known novel, Brave New World – when English writer Aldous Huxley arrived in Hollywood. Like Faulkner, he used the income of working on screenplays to keep himself financially stable between books. Among his script credits: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Jane Eyre,” and the biopic “Madame Curie.” Huxley struggled for years unsuccessfully to get “Brave New World” adapted; he did manage, however, to adapt his short story The Gioconda Smile into the film “A Woman’s Vengeance.” Huxley’s screenwriting career is unfortunately most notorious for his failed attempt at the first draft of the animated “Alice in Wonderland” for Disney. Huxley, who had a family connection to Lewis Carroll, wanted to use the film to explore deeper themes, but Disney rejected the treatment outright. In the end, Huxley benefited most from the move to Hollywood from the influence of the SoCal culture. He became fascinated with mysticism, particularly the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, and would write and lecture on it for years. Eventually, Huxley became a major figure in the early psychedelic scene, writing about his experiences using the hallucinogen mescaline in The Doors of Perception, and promoting the use of drugs like LCD (which he famously took on his deathbed in 1963) in the search of enlightenment.
The Godfather made Mario Puzo a household name. The irony? When he wrote the now-classic mafia novel, Puzo already had two critically well-received books under his belt. They just hadn’t made him any money. So, as Puzo fully admitted afterward – and even, by some accounts, as he was writing it – the book was intended as a moneymaking vehicle. The salacious subject matter and skillful narrative work, however, turned it into a runaway bestseller. Then, through luck and an eager-to-collaborate Francis Ford Coppola, Puzo was able to parlay his bestseller into two cinema masterpieces, “The Godfather” and “Godfather Part II” (we’re ignoring “Part III”), both of which earned him the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The acclaim brought more film work; Puzo wrote the initial draft of the blockbuster disaster movie “Earthquake” and worked on the mother-of-all superhero movies, “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, and its sequel “Superman II” (both were written and filmed as one massive project).
“Nobody knows anything,” is how William Goldman famously described Hollywood in his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade. Whether that’s an apt description remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Goldman knows from writing movies. Before making it big in Hollywood, Goldman (who’s probably best known in the book world for his thriller Marathon Man and children’s book The Princess Bride, both of which he adapted for film) had written nearly half a dozen literary novels and even a few Broadway plays. In the nearly fifty years he’s been writing movies (next year moviegoers will see his name in the credits of “Heat” starring Jason Statham), more than twenty of Goldman’s scripts have been produced. Some notable entries include the Oscar-winning “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men,” and “A Bridge Too Far.”