April 19, 2004

Serious writers and the silver screen

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Does anyone read serious fiction anymore? For years, we’ve been hearing laments about the declining sales of novels. And hardly anyone seems to read short stories these days–the women’s magazines that were once at the forefront of fiction no longer publish them, and you’re unlikely to find any collections in The New York Times bestseller list.

This must all be rather depressing to young, prospective fiction writers. You pour your heart out on the page, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be published and one day see the work you slaved over in all-night writing sessions, while still holding down a day job, on the remainders table at Borders for $1.98. You might have an unquenchable urge to make people think, feel, understand, but people simply aren’t interested.

After all, who is moved by literature these days? Ask anyone the last time a work of art made him think about an idea for days afterward, made him laugh in recognition, made him shocked, made him cry. He will almost certainly answer that it was while watching a film.

Yesterday’s fiction writers have become today’s screenwriters. In an earlier time, a thoughtful, introspective type with a passion for storytelling and a head bubbling with ideas would have been a natural short story writer. But many artists have abandoned the genre in favor of screenplays. Aspiring writers once wanted to become James Joyce or William Faulkner. Surely now they want to become Charlie Kaufman or Joe Eszterhas.

Charlie Kaufman is one of the best examples of someone writing highly original works of art. In the past, his eccentric, wild ideas might have found an outlet in The New Yorker, or, more likely, some small literary press. Now he’s one of the best known, and best regarded, screenwriters of our time. He made his reputation with two movies directed by Spike Jonze, another auteur. The first, Being John Malkovich, was about a couple who discover a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. Those who enter actually become the actor. The second, Adaptation, was more autobiographical, but no less bizarre. The writing credits list Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief as the basis. But the movie concerns a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who is having trouble adapting a book by a New Yorker writer about a man obsessed by orchids.

These movies were very good, and strikingly original for Hollywood. But Kaufman has really come into his own with his latest, the Michel Gondry-directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this film, released earlier this year, Kaufman uses his considerable talents to tackle some really big ideas–love and loss, consciousness and memory. Even how we should live our lives.

The concept is science fiction–Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet break up, and Winslet decides to get all memory of Carrey erased from her mind. Shocked and indignant, Carry decides to do the same–but changes his mind midway through the process. Kaufman also handles the romantic element in a serious way, something that idea-driven short stories don’t always do well. “How’d I look?” Kirsten Dunst asks of someone who witnessed a memory that has been erased from her mind. “Happy,” he responds. In just two lines, Kaufman beautifully expresses the idea that ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The movie is full of such moments. “I’m not a concept, Joel,” Winslet says to Carrey during one heated exchange. “I’m not going to complete you.”

The story’s concept is reminiscent of one of the 20th century’s great short story writers, Philip K. Dick. Dick has always been just a cult figure. His ideas have reached many more people than they might have, though, through film. There have been a number of movies made from his work–Blade RunnerTotal RecallMinority Report. Charlie Kaufman gets millions of people to think. How many would pay any attention to what he’s saying if he wrote short stories or novels? An order of magnitude much, much lower.

Screenwriters were once rather looked down upon, considered the hired help, but now they are celebrities. Perhaps the most famous is Joe Eszterhas. He is certainly one of the most highly paid–he set a record in 1990, the $3 million he received for Basic Instinct being the highest paycheck for a screenplay at the time. The man is a legend, and the master of slightly high-minded erotica: he also wrote FlashdanceSliver, and Showgirls. He manages to get almost complete creative control over the films made from his work–no hired gun is he. Even his background seems like that of a novelist. He came to America at the age of six, the son of Hungarian refugees, and worked as a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and later wrote for Rolling Stone.

But film is a very different genre from fiction, you might say. Don’t good screenwriters need an understanding of this visual form for their work to be any good? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce work very much like a story or novel. Whit Stillman is a prime example. He’s one of the most underrated filmmakers working today, the writer and director of MetropolitanBarcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. Watching his films almost feels like reading novels. They tackle some of the same popular topics–respectively, the sad loss of tradition, American innocents abroad, and again, the sad loss of tradition. They are commonly called “talkie,” as most interesting movies often are.

Some deride these “talkies” as not filmic enough. But Stillman disagrees, and illustrates how much film and fiction really have in common, especially as film has developed from its early origins. “Some visual purists still think film is pictures at an exhibition,” Stillman told Terry Teachout in an interview. “They seem to forget that we’ve been making sound films ever since the Twenties. Talk is incredibly important … Of course you have to be very careful with it, and I understand why all the screenwriting gurus warn against too much dialogue, but I think they’re making a mistake. Even action films often have very good dialogue, though there isn’t necessarily a lot of it. What’s the charm of a buddy comedy? Just to see two guys shooting bullets? It’s what the two guys say to each other that matters.”

Think, too, about how many novels considered unfilmable have been made into movies, many of which are highly successful as movies–The English PatientThe Unbearable Lightness of BeingNaked Lunch, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas come immediately to mind. So it seems that almost anything that can be done in literature can be done in film. And reach millions more people in the process. If you were a budding young writer, which would you choose?

But be careful. Publishing may be tough, but Hollywood is even tougher. Many famous writers have been enticed to Hollywood and left, either in disgust or after being chewed up and spit out. Of course, like everything else, it has become grist for some writers–the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink is one fictional example. Young writers, be careful before you decide to become the next F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.