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12 Celebrated Novelists-Turned-Screenwriters And How They Fared

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by The Playlist Staff
October 24, 2013 2:10 PM
7 Comments
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Night of The Hunter

James Agee
Notable Novels: A Death in the Family,” “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Selected Screenplays:The African Queen,”The Night of the Hunter
To be fair, James Agee always had a background in film. The Harvard graduate served as film critic for both Time magazine and The Nation in the 1940s. He was actually hired as Time’s chief film critic the year after his first novel was published, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The book came out of an assignment Agee received from a magazine, but the article never reached fruition and the book didn’t sell particularly well, meaning that Agee’s literary triumph didn’t come until after his death. The posthumous publishing of “A Death in the Family” won Agee the 1958 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was later included in Time’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

In between the borderline failure of his first book and the runaway success of his last, Agee pumped out two full, feature-length screenplays, both of which became cinematic classics. Unlike his first book, Agee’s first credited screenplay was an absolute smash. The 1952 film, “The African Queen” won Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar and is ranked 65th on the AFI’s list of best films of all time, which seems about right to us. The undisputed classic earned Agee an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but Agee didn’t churn out many more scripts despite his early success. His second classic came four years later after Agee adapted a segment of “Face to Face” in 1952 and wrote five episodes of “Omnibus” from ‘52 to ‘53. But it was in 1955 that Agee made arguably his most indelible contribution to film history with the screenplay for Charles Laughton's only directorial picture, the utterly brilliant "The Night of the Hunter." Over the years some controversy as to Agee's involvement has been cleared up—while his serious alcoholism did undoubtedly contribute to the end of his Hollywood career, reports that the script for 'Hunter' had to be totally rewritten by Laughton, as well as that Agee had been fired from the film, were comprehensively proven false. Agee's contribution to the film was genuine and integral and it deserves to be counted as partly his legacy, as well as Laughton's and star Robert Mitchum's. 

Away We Go

Dave Eggers
Notable Novels:A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,” “Zeitoun.”
Selected Screenplays:Away We Go,” “Where the Wild Things Are
Meteoric rises for author wunderkinds are not that rare, but have many of them been as loud and buzzy as Dave Eggers' arrival with his debut novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”? While his success may have seemed to come out of nowhere, Eggers was already planting the scenes of his literary prowess with the awesome and underappreciated ‘90s satirical magazine Might and McSweeney’s, the online literary institution which he founded two years before ‘Staggering Genius’ hit shelves. And while his second novel “You Shall Know Our Velocity” wasn’t as well received (expectations were incredibly high and how can you possibly top such a striking debut?), Eggers quickly refound his footing with the fictional "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” and subsequent works.

But Hollywood and likeminded folks were already taking notice. Circa 2003/04, Spike Jonze approached Eggers to help co-author an adaptation of "Where The Wild Things Are," expanding the original ten-sentence story into a full-blown movie. By 2005 a 111-page screenplay centering on the emotional pains of childhood was complete. While the script is similar in spirit to the 2009 movie (from what we can remember anyhow, it’s been a while since we read it), it was very “written” much like an Eggers novel which is probably why Eggers would go on to pen “The Wild Things”—novel inspired by “Where the Wild Things Are” that let him go beyond the screenplay format.

Considering how close “Where The Wild Things Are” is in tone and spirit to Jonze’s wistful robot love story “I’m Here” and forlorn future romance movie “Her,” one can sort of sense that Eggers was a key force in helping create the early screenplay, but perhaps not the movie’s central voice. However the same year another movie arrived, this time a little bit more personal to him. 2009’s “Away We Go” was written by Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida and directed by Sam Mendes. A bittersweet family dramedy, it’s not either Eggers' or Mendes' best work by a long stretch (though there are those Playlisters who consider it very underappreciated), but it has its moments. Eggers hasn’t written a screenplay since, but he did write the story for “Promised Land” on which Matt Damon and John Krasinski wrote the final screenplay. Surely more ventures into movie making aren’t far off for the celebrated author.

The Godfather

Mario Puzo
Notable Novels:The Fortunate Pilgrim,” “Fools Die,” “The Godfather”
Selected Screenplays:The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Superman,” “Superman II
When people talk about the greatest film ever made, “The Godfather” is often so crowned. When the title fades into view on the screen, though, it says, “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.” Why? Because it really is to a great extent, Mario Puzo’s film. Puzo not only wrote the book the film was based on, but he co-wrote the screenplay with director Francis Ford Coppola. He won an Oscar for his troubles, and eventually contributed to all three screenplays in the 'Godfather' trilogy.

Though Puzo will forever be remembered for these films, they weren’t the only screenplays he produced. Puzo was among the four screenwriters credited for penning the first “Superman” film and among the three credited for its sequel. His last credited screenplay came in 1992, seven years before his death, with the Christopher Columbus biography, “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.” The film featured Tom Selleck and a cameo from Marlon Brando, who seemingly couldn't stop turning up in Puzo-scripted films, but earned less than favorable accolades, including a Razzie for Mr. Selleck and a black mark from Brando for what he deemed an inaccurate portrayal of Columbus’ complicity in the genocide of Native Americans. It was also more or less blown out of the water by Ridley Scott's "1492: Conquest of Paradise" that arrived in theaters barely two months later.

Puzo’s literary career was even more of a mixed bag. Before the critical and financial success of “The Godfather,” Puzo put out four novels, including “Six Graves to Munich” under the pseudonym Mario Cleri. Many of his books were later turned into films, though he never wrote any of the adaptations himself: “Six Graves to Munich” became “A Time to Die” in 1982. “The Sicilian,” Puzo’s literary sequel to “The Godfather,” was adapted for the big screen in 1987, and his biography on his own mother, “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” became a TV miniseries in 1988. TV miniseries “The Last Don” and its sequel in 1998 were the last adaptations of his work that Puzo lived to see, but as the, erm, godfather of "The Godfather" he's as close to immortal as any screenwriter ever.

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7 Comments

  • Eric Rudnick | November 5, 2013 2:34 AMReply

    Peter Craig - A younger example. Novels: The Martini Shot, Hot Plastic, Blood Father. Screenplays: The Town, upcoming Cowboy Bebop, Bad Boys sequel

    Peter Hedges - Wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Both novel & screenplay), About a Boy/Pieces of April/Dan in Real Life screenplays (also directed those last two), and has written novels & many plays.

  • Paul Hughes | October 30, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is not straight non-fiction, but it's far from being a novel. I think you may be confusing "novelist" with "author" — i.e., "writer of fiction" with "writer of books."

  • Helgi Jónsson | October 26, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    This kind of writing has me locked in and interested in The Playlist. You keep reminding me of stuff that I thought I had forgotten and you keep bringing more, which is mercurial music to my lovely ears. The Lubitsch piece (which I pdf-ed) a while ago was just such a reminder.

  • Chris | October 26, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    William Peter Blatty!

  • John Bonazzo | October 24, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    What about John Irving, who won an Oscar for adapting his own The Cider House Rules?

  • cirkusfolk | October 24, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Alex Garland wrote the novels The Beach and The Tesseract before writing his first screenplay, 28 Days Later. Both those novels became movies but weren't written by him.

  • Stephen B | October 25, 2013 5:45 PM

    I was going to mention Garland, too. 28 Days Later, Dredd, Sunshine, the unproduced Halo movie. In fact, it seems like he may have given up novels in favor of screenplays.

    I would also add Donald Westlake who had a number of his books adapted ("The Hot Rock" and many of the Parker novels "Payback," "Point Blank," "The Outfit," "Parker") and also wrote screenplays for B-movies like "The Stepfather" and was nominated for adapting Jim Thompson's "The Grifters."

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