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.
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.
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.
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.
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 direct “The 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 “Hobgoblin” was 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.
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.