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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?
7
An Education

Nick Hornby
Notable Novels: High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “A Long Way Down
Selected Screenplays:An Education
Perhaps one of the less experienced screenwriters on this list with only two screenplays to his name, Nick Hornby is nonetheless deserving of a mention. His first screenplay was “Fever Pitch,” but not the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore comedy from 2005. He wrote a more straightforward adaptation of his British novel about soccer (or football if you're so inclined) for the audience most familiar with his book: citizens of the United Kingdom. The British native then let two Americans (comedy superteam Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) adapt his book for American audiences, resulting in the aforementioned comedy.

Perhaps because of their inherent Britishness, with adaptations often transpose, Hornby’s novels are better known in film form over here. You would be hard-pressed to find a music fan not a little bit in love with the John Cusack-starring “High Fidelity,” or a Hugh Grant fan who doesn’t point to “About a Boy” as Example A in their case for why the rom-com veteran is actually a talented actor. The books are equally good, if not better, but the films are close to generational touchstones. “About a Boy” was even picked up for a series order by NBC this season: created by “Friday Night Lights” scribe and executive producer, Jason Katims, the show has yet to be given a release date, but fans will undoubtedly be looking forward to the pilot directed by Jon Favreau.

Hornby’s next stab at screenwriting didn’t come until 2009 when he adapted someone else’s memoir (Lynn Barber's) and earned an Academy Award nomination for his efforts. The Lone Scherfig-directed "An Education" made a star of Carey Mulligan and was very well received, totaling three nods from Oscar and earning rave reviews. Though Hornby didn’t jump immediately back into the Hollywood machine, “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallee is shooting Hornby's third screenplay, “Wild,” right now, and with Reese Witherspoon and now Laura Dern involved, yep, we're there.

Spider Man 2

Michael Chabon
Notable novels: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” Wonder Boys,” The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Telegraph Avenue
Selected Screenplays:Spider-Man 2” “John Carter” (both co-written)
Surprisingly, perhaps given his Pulitzer and his meteoric ascent to the top echelons of American writing talent, Michael Chabon has pitched repeatedly, and largely unsuccessfully, in Hollywood, with both original and adapted material, leading to what he describes as an attitude of “pre-emptive cynicism” towards the whole industry. However, the story of his literary success is much more straightforward, with his as-of-then-unfinished college thesis “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” being sent off unbeknownst to Chabon by his professor to a publisher and securing an unheard-of (for a first-timer) advance of $155,000. The book was an instant hit, but, perhaps as a reaction to the sudden fame and the weight of expectation, he abandoned his second novel after five fruitless years, bouncing back with “Wonder Boys” that he wrote in a matter of months and which fully cemented his critical and commercial reputation.

Then in 2000 came the extraordinary “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” which won Chabon the Pulitzer and this gasping fan’s eternal adoration. It was because he was working on this that Chabon turned down the offer to work on the film adaptation of “Wonder Boys,” which went on to be a critical hit, though underperformed at the box office. But even before this period, Chabon had ties to Hollywood, having nearly gotten an original project into production for producer Scott Rudin (who was the one who was most frequently optioning Chabon’s novels), though that fell through, and also pitching story concepts for “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” to no avail.

Also for Rudin, Chabon worked for 16 months on the ‘Kavalier and Clay’ screenplay, though that project has been tangled up in production limbo since, before finally, his comic-book-adaptation-geekery paid off at least partially when his script for “Spider-Man 2” was used as the basis for the Sam Raimi film (though it was substantially rewritten, Chabon retains a shared “screen story” credit). He was subsequently hired to and fired from the martial arts Snow White movie Disney was developing which was itself recently kiboshed, before being enlisted to revise the script for surefire megahit “John Carter.” The result of all of this is that despite many efforts, Chabon’s only wholehearted screenplay credit (shared with Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews) is on one of the biggest flops of all time. It wouldn’t be surprising if his “preemptive cynicism” has hardened into “well, never doing this again” as a result, especially as most recently Chabon's promising-sounding pilot "Hobgoblinwas also dropped by HBO and by potential director Darren Aronofsky (step up, FX!). However his books will no doubt continue to be adapted with 2006 already having seen a turgid movie version of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and Scott Rudin, again, optioning his latest opus “Telegraph Avenue” which, last we heard, was due to be adapted for HBO by Cameron Crowe.

Viva Zapata!

John Steinbeck
Notable Novels: Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden
Selected Screenplays:Lifeboat,” “A Medal for Benny,” “Viva Zapata!
As a novelist, John Steinbeck has few equals. The author of multiple literary classics won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men” are still required reading for most high school students to this day, and the film versions of his novels are also well known and mostly respected, though not to the same all-time classic level of his books. “East of Eden” for example, is remembered more for James Dean then John Steinbeck.

Yet Steinbeck was very involved in the movie business. The man earned three Academy Award nominations, all of which were for original screenplays. Though he later requested his name be removed from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (which we wrote about for the gazillionth time in our recent Survival Movies feature) due to what he saw as racist undertones in the final cut, he was nevertheless nominated for co-writing the film in 1944, his first nod. His second came the following year for “A Medal for Benny,” starring Dorothy Lamour. His last nomination came in 1953 for “Viva Zapata!” which starred Marlon Brando, but it was co-star Anthony Quinn who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

It would have been virtually impossible for Steinbeck’s screenplays to surpass or even rival his novels, but he came damn close. Three Oscar nominations is nothing to sneeze at, and his ability to transition between the mediums as well as produce work ready to be consumed in both formats was astounding—especially during this more regimented, studio-dominated period. Though his work hasn’t been as steadily adapted posthumously as other highly-touted writers—other than “Of Mice and Men,” which has seen at least four interpretations over the past five decades—there is another version of “East of Eden” in the works with Jennifer Lawrence attached to play Abra. Whoever takes on Dean’s role of Cal Trask will certainly have his hands full, but the film is off to a good start.

This is but a brief, somewhat arbitrary selection but there were a few guidelines: for the most part we excluded novelists who were really mostly known for adapting their own novel(s), so no Peter Benchley (“Jaws”). Additionally we avoided writers who were more famous in areas other than novels before turning to screenplay, so Arthur Miller, for example, who did write one novel and one novella (“The Misfits,” for which he also wrote the screenplay), doesn’t appear as he achieved much more notoriety as a playwright. 

However there are some notable omissions that were simply down to time limitations: Truman Capote is a prime example of a writer who seems to have been a polyglot from a very early stage, writing short stories, plays, novels, nonfiction essays, journalism and screenplays (including “Beat the Devil” and the excellent “The Innocents”). In fact it’s kind of hard to precisely quantify him as a novelist-turned-screenwriter in the way that many of these other names were, but still he certainly made a name for himself in both areas. More recently Bret Easton Ellis is a credited screenwriter on the adaptation of his own “The Informers,” and, of course, wrote “The Canyons” and the upcoming “The Curse of Downers Grove” but it kind of feels like there’s little we can say about Ellis that you won’t have already heard from the horse’s mouth. Ray Bradbury is another example of a writer who has a perhaps surprising screenwriting credit, in amongst various sci-fi titles almost all for TV, Bradbury also wrote the screenplay for “Moby Dick” with Gregory Peck and was uncredited for writing the narration on biblical epic “King of Kings.” Evan Hunter, who wrote crime fiction prolifically under the pseudonym Ed McBain, also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald is of course practically the archetype of the dazzlingly talented author that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with—his contributions to movies largely went uncredited, with the best of his credited work probably being the now neglected “Three Comrades” based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel. And of course there are those writers who just seem to fare better when they let others adapt their work—Stephen King, whose screenwriting credits include “Creepshow," “Cat’s Eye” and the “Children of the Corn” TV movie but whose “based on a story by” section of his CV is much more impressive, being a good example. 

Any favorites of yours that we missed? Or any novelist you love that you think Hollywood is terribly misusing? Tell us below. - Ben Travers & Jessica Kiang, with Rodrigo Perez.


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


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