There was a time when everyone wore hats and screenwriting was a lot less respectable a specialization for a writer than it is today. Stories of “legitimate” authors and playwrights doing the “Barton Fink” and selling out to Hollywood were nearly as legion as the tales of their boorish mistreatment once there: the studios that commodified their creativity, the honchos who more or less paid for words by the pound, the seismic shift between being the author of a finished piece of work, however underappreciated, and being regarded as one pair of hands on an assembly line. It’s no wonder that for a while there, Hollywood became a bogeyman to authors and the adage that screenwriters were little more than failed novelists was born. After all, who but a failed writer would put themselves through such debasement?
But in fact a great many successful novelists made that move, and of that number, quite a few went on to have what we can retrospectively see was a good influence over a number of the films that they wrote for screen. And as film as an art form gained in respectability, so did the job of screenwriter to the point that now it’s not solely financial concerns that impel authors California-ward (we can’t imagine Michael Chabon, for example, is short for the price of a sandwich), but also the desire to conquer another writing form. This week a new name joins the ranks—Pulitzer prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay hits the screens in the shape of Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” (our review).
McCarthy’s novels have been adapted for TV and the silver screen already multiple times, notably (and fruitfully) with “No Country For Old Men,” but also “The Road,” “The Sunset Limited,” “All the Pretty Horses,” and, most recently, James Franco’s “Child of God.” But this is the first time he’s been the one typing “Fade In." However well or badly the film does, McCarthy’s revered name has some good company in the pantheon of novelists-turned-screenwriters. Here’s a look at twelve such writers, what they did for Hollywood and what Hollywood did for them.
Notable Novels: “Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow,” “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man”
Selected Screenplays: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man,” “The Ghost and the Darkness”
William Goldman is a novelist-turned-screenwriter who may have been a screenwriter all along; he just didn’t realize it for a while. It’s not that he was an underwhelming novelist—far from it—but his best novels turned into films that were just as good if not better. For instance, “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man” will always be remembered as movies first—even though the movie version of “The Princess Bride” prominently features Peter Falk reading from the book itself. The films are staples of their respective genres, and proved to feature defining roles for many of the actors (Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Dustin Hoffman, and Laurence Olivier).
In fact, before any of those were released, Goldman had already won two Academy Awards. The first came after the Chicago native sold his first screenplay for a then-record $400,000. The investment paid off. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was the top grossing film of 1969, won four Oscars, including one for Goldman, and was ranked the 11th best screenplay ever written by the Writers Guild of America earlier this year. His second Oscar came seven years later when “All the President’s Men” also took home four Oscars, for its taut, brilliantly written account of the Watergate scandal.
Goldman may have peaked with his two trophy films, but who wouldn’t? 'Butch Cassidy' and “All the President’s Men” are pretty tough to top, though some fans may argue he did so with “The Princess Bride.” Still, no one can deny he’s been steadily producing hits his entire career. After the successes listed above, Goldman wrote the screenplays for “Misery,” “Chaplin,” “The Ghost and the Darkness" and “Absolute Power.” He may have stepped off the path of virtue when he adapted the Stephen King novel “Dreamcatcher” into its mesmerizingly abysmal screen version, but with the career he's led thus far, not to mention entertaining, gossipy tell-alls "Adventures in the Screen Trade" and "Which Lie Did I Tell?" he's kind of earned a pass, especially as his failures are often more interesting that other writers' successes ("Dreamcatcher" we wish we knew how to quit you).
Notable Novels: “Brave New World,” “Crome Yellow,” “The Doors of Perception,” “Eyeless in Gaza”
Selected Screenplays: “Pride and Prejudice” (co-written), “Jane Eyre” (co-written), “A Woman’s Vengeance”
Aldous Huxley was born into an illustrious intellectual family and published his first novels in his early twenties, quickly being embraced as a preeminent literary figure and a member of the so-called Bloomsbury set that included Bertrand Russell and DH Lawrence. In 1931 he published his most famous work, the dystopian classic “Brave New World” and in 1936, the bestselling pacifism novel “Eyeless in Gaza.” However in 1937 at the age of 43, Huxley moved to Southern California, and there, through contacts of his friend, the famous writer Anita Loos, he embarked on a sporadic and apparently rather frustrating Hollywood screenwriting career.
It’s clear from his screen credits from this period, that studios could think of nothing better to do with Huxley, the famous British novelist, than put him to work on adaptations of other famous British novels, and so he contributed to the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier “Pride and Prejudice,” which is a very charming if willfully inaccurate version of the Jane Austen classic, and the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles “Jane Eyre,” which is again an enjoyable watch, even if it does take many liberties with the Charlotte Bronte novel. How much Huxley had a hand in these heavily Hollywoodized films is debatable, however his one produced, solely-authored screenplay gives us more of a taste of what he brought to the table. “A Woman’s Vengeance” is actually a pretty terrific, sadly overlooked courtroom drama about infidelity, jealousy and death by poisoning, starring the great Charles Boyer, a rather anodyne Ann Blyth and a tremendous Jessica Tandy (seriously, anyone only acquainted with her ‘Miss Daisy’ era output should check out this portrayal of thwarted desire). Huxley not only wrote the screenplay, but he also adapted it from one of his own short stories, “The Giaconda Smile,” and he’s clearly very comfortable with the material, knitting in a lot more literary and philosophical dialogue than you might expect from a studio melodrama.
Less successfully, Huxley also wrote “Alice and the Mysterious Mr. Carroll” for Walt Disney who claimed, “It was so literary I could understand only every third word,” and never put it into production, making it something of a white tiger for Huxley fans, as after its rejection, his Hollywood career petered out and he became more of an essayist. Huxley died of cancer the same day JFK was assassinated (also the same day C.S. Lewis died, trivia fans), with his last request apparently being to be injected with LSD—which was granted. Just in case you were wondering if he could get any cooler.