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12 Celebrated Novelists-Turned-Screenwriters And How They Fared

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 24, 2013 at 2:10PM

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?
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To Have and Have Not

William Faulkner
Notable Novels: As I Lay Dying,” “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom, Absalom” “Light in August
Selected Screenplays: The Big Sleep,” “To Have and Have Not," “Gunga Din” (uncredited)
Probably the most awarded of all our writers here with a Nobel and not one but two Pulitzers, William Faulkner is also one of the most prolific, boasting 19 novels, 125 short stories and 20 screenplays (produced and unproduced) to his name. And he has also become such an archtype of the celebrated writer slumming in Hollywood for cash that he formed the basis for the genteel, Southern, alcoholic writer/mentor WP Mayhew played by John Mahoney in the Coens’ exemplary Hollywood studio system satire “Barton Fink.” Indeed, like Barton, Faulkner was brought to Hollywood to work on a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, 1932’s “Flesh” (which incidentally is an uncredited movie for director John Ford too).

However, Faulkner’s Hollywood experience was very different from his movie alter ego’s—both men were heavy drinkers, but Faulkner usually abstained while actually writing, and while he did share Mayhew’s contempt for Hollywood, Faulkner actually made some good friends there, in particular, director Howard Hawks, with whom he’d go hunting and carousing. Of the screenplays he wrote during the period (1932-1946), about half were produced, with a smattering being uncredited, and all the others works of collaboration as was the practice at the time. His biggest credits, however were for two Hawks movies that both starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep.” Both are fabulously moody dramas, the former based on an Ernest Hemingway novel and the latter on a Raymond Chandler book (Chandler himself, ironically was across the road writing screenplays for Paramount at the time).

Faulkner continued to write regularly after his Hollywood sojourn, though his later novels tend to be regarded as minor compared with his work from the '20s and '30s. However his novels and short stories provide ongoing inspiration for filmmakers to this day, with James Franco recently attempting “As I Lay Dying” (and Tommy Lee Jones loosely basing his terrific “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” on it too), and Franco again saddling up to directThe Sound and the Fury." Between adaptations past and present and the two classic touchstones that bear his name, Faulkner’s cinematic legacy is pretty much assured, even if it can never live up to his literary achievements. And with his widely reported distaste for Hollywood, that’s probably just as it should be.

Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton
Notable Novels:The Great Train Robbery,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “Sphere,” “Airframe,” “Disclosure
Selected Screenplays: “The Great Train Robbery,” “Jurassic Park,” “Twister
By now we all know Michael Crichton created the hit TV show, “ER.” We’re also well aware of Crichton’s decades-spanning career as a popular novelist. He’s written too many best sellers to list, and probably too many for the majority of us to have avoided reading one or two of them, even if we tried. What may not be as commonly understood is, well, a lot about the immensely popular novelist. For one, he wrote and directed the 1973 sci-fi western, “Westworld,” starring Yul Brynner. He also co-wrote the original screenplay for Jan de Bont’s 1996 tornado-chasing blockbuster, “Twister.”

He also wrote plenty of books not about dinosaur clones, and, beyond that, four nonfiction novels. Crichton first tackled true stories with “Five Patients,” an insider’s look at hospital practices experienced by Crichton himself in the 1960s. His last nonfiction work came in 1988 when he chronicled his transition from Harvard Medical School to successful novelist in “Travels.” In between, he wrote “Jasper Johns” and “Electronic Life.”

But if Crichton will always be remembered for his blockbuster books and movies, he only actually adapted a handful of his own works for the silver screen. So yes, he handled the screenplays for “The Great Train Robbery,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Rising Sun,” but left “The Andromeda Strain,” “The Terminal Man,” “Disclosure,” “Congo,” “Sphere,” and more to other screenwriters. Arguably, the films were much better off when he handled the transition, because while “The 13th Warrior” is pretty good, it hardly makes up for some the others that were outright disasters (”Sphere," and the baffling "Congo" being especially egregious).

Double Indemnity

Raymond Chandler
Notable novels: The Big Sleep,” “Farewell My Lovely,” “The Little Sister,” “The Long Goodbye
Selected Screenplays:Double Indemnity,” “The Blue Dahlia” “Strangers on a Train
Master of hard-boiled detective fiction and creator of one the most indelible genre characters in private detective Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler completed just seven novels, all but one of which has been adapted for the screen (though never by himself, oddly), some more than once. Of course it’s a reflection on the type of novelist he was—Chandler turned to writing as a career for the very pragmatic reason that he lost his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression and needed to make money, so his was not necessarily some higher vocational calling to the typewriter. Yet his talent was such that he transcended the detective fiction genre almost as he helped define it. His best novels are works of great intelligence, wit and insight that just happen to be packaged as mysteries. Yes, we are fans.

The unpretentiousness with which he approached his writing career seemed to suggest he might be well suited, at least initially, to Hollywood when it came calling, and unusually perhaps, you can really feel elements of his style making their way into the films he wrote on, even though they were, as was common, collaborations. Even the great Billy Wilder admitted that much of what made the snappy dialogue in “Double Indemnity” fizz the way it does came from Chandler’s pen, not his, and you have to remember that “Double Indemnity” was Chandler’s very first screenplay. Thereafter he’d also be credited on “The Blue Dahlia” starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, and Hitchcock’s seminal “Strangers on a Train” among other lesser titles, before writing mostly for television in the 1950s.

It seems clear that Chandler’s relationship with Tinseltown soured as time went on, leading to some very funny but scathing essays and letters about the lowly position of the screenwriter on the food chain, and the failure of the studio system to foster an environment which led to decent work getting made (“The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences”). The irony is that when we look back at his career now, as a novelist with almost every book adapted into a movie and a movie writer with three unimpeachable classics under his belt, he seems like something of a model for just how symbiotic the relationship between the novelist and screenwriting sides of a writer’s personality can be. Chandler may have had significant personal demons in the shape of alcoholism and depression, but his writing for both mediums lives on in all its wonderful, inimitable, cut-glass brilliance.

Brokeback Mountain

Larry McMurtry
Notable Novels:Lonesome Dove,” “Buffalo Girls,” “Terms of Endearment
Selected Screenplays: The Last Picture Show,” “Brokeback Mountain
Larry McMurtry represents one more writer who’s truly conquered both writing mediums. In one hand, he’s got his Pulitzer Prize for writing the novel, “Lonesome Dove.” In the other, he holds an Oscar for penning the Best Adapted Screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain.” He’s climbed both mountains and scaled a few other impressive peaks in between.

McMurtry’s career as a novelist began in 1961 with “Horseman, Pass By,” a book later adapted to film and retitled as “Hud” (yes, the one with Paul Newman). “Leaving Cheyenne” came next, and that too was turned into the film, “Lovin’ Molly.” It was with his next novel that McMurtry decided to write the screenplay as well. Good thing he did. “The Last Picture Show” earned McMurtry his first Oscar nomination, seven more nods, and two wins for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman (Supporting Actors).

McMurtry wouldn’t get another shot at Oscar for more than three decades (when he won for “Brokeback Mountain”), but adaptations of his novels proved fruitful for many others. “Terms of Endearment” won Jack Nicholson his second Oscar, and James L. Brooks raked in three trophies for Best Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Picture. By far the most talked-about adaptation of his work though, and the one probably regarded as most definitively McMurtry, was “Lonesome Dove,” which he did not adapt, throughout its resulting miniseries (which pulled down seven Emmys, two Golden Globes) and two subsequent television series. The miniseries also has the unique distinction of being the single piece of work of which the great Robert Duvall is reportedly most proud, which counts for quite a lot too.

This article is related to: Feature, Feature, Features, The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott