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For as long as there have been movies, there have been stories about the people who make movies. From “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Sullivan’s Travels” to “La La Land” and “Mank,” filmmakers have found the inner workings of Hollywood to be an incredibly fruitful source of creative inspiration. It isn’t hard to see why, as the contrast between the glamorous highs and crushing lows of Hollywood serves as an excellent platform to explore timeless human themes. The film industry is surrounded by a bright sheen, with many people viewing Hollywood as some kind of promised land where dreams come true. This perception is certainly aided by its location in sunny California, as well as the industry’s carefully-curated image. At the same time, it is hard to think of an industry more unforgiving. Fortunes can and often do turn overnight in Hollywood, a theme that appears in countless films.
Filmmakers’ focus on Hollywood (and Oscar voters’ tendency to reward those films) is understandable, as people love to talk about their own lives. But they are far from the only artists to take an interest in starlets and studio heads. Many great novelists have turned their gazes to Hollywood, and the results are often fantastic. Some writers have found success writing trivia-filled novels about the real people who made our movies. Die hard movie fans often find it incredibly rewarding to read about the behind-the-scenes drama that went into their favorite films. Even when authors take artistic liberties, good fiction has a unique way of bringing history to life that few other mediums can match. On the flip side, many authors simply use Hollywood as a backdrop. Their stories about made-up Hollywood nobodies are incredibly powerful works of literary fiction that can resonate with anyone, regardless of how far away from the Pacific Ocean you live.
Spring just started and summer will be here before you know it, so there’s no time like the present to get your beach reading lined up! We’re giving you a head start by compiling nine of our favorite novels set in the film industry. Some of these books have been adapted into equally successful films, while others remain exclusive to the printed page. Some are breezy and fun, but many are quite dark. But they all cover the film industry with honesty, humanity, and an excellent command of prose. Reading all nine of these books is sure to give you a well-rounded, if stylized, view of Hollywood’s inner workings. They are all available on Kindle, but if you prefer books that you can hold (you’re not alone!), you can get many of them in as quickly as two days with free shipping from Amazon Prime.
If you need a break from staring at screens, but still want to spend time in Hollywood, look no further than these nine titles. See below for some of our favorite novels set in Hollywood.
This pitch-black Hollywood story was written in 1939, but still feels completely fresh. It follows a painter who finds work decorating movie sets, and befriends a cadre of struggling people trying to make it in the film industry. Rather than superstars, “The Day of the Locust” focuses on those on the outside of Hollywood. The extras, crew members, and out of work actors that inhabit the work could just as easily be suffering people in any other American city. West brilliantly uses Hollywood as a metaphor for the many strings attached to the American dream, and the result was an instant classic. Plus, the title inspired a highly underrated Bob Dylan song!
If you’ve seen the John Travolta movie, why not revisit the book? This darkly funny novel tells the story of a loan shark who fails up until he becomes a Hollywood producer, and it’s hard to think of a more entertaining read to pass the time on a lazy afternoon. And the book absolutely sings with Elmore Leonard’s conversational style of prose that went on to inspire Quentin Tarantino.
Larry McMurtry is best known for the “Lonesome Dove” series, perhaps the greatest American western novel ever written. But his Hollywood novel, “Somebody’s Darling,” is not to be overlooked. It tells the story of Jill Peel, an Oscar-winning director who, 20 years into her career, still fights sexism on a daily basis in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. The biting book was ahead of its time, and feels painfully, enduringly relevant.
Michael Tolkin’s “The Player” is so closely tied to Robert Altman’s film adaptation that recommending the book is akin to suggesting someone read Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.” But you should do that, and you should read this book as well. Reading the source material that inspired a great filmmaker can illuminate just how unique the director’s vision was. And, in this case, the book is a great read in and of itself. The satirical novel about a studio executive who makes an irreversible decision based on a misunderstanding should appeal to anyone who knows how the studio system works.
Published decades before the #MeToo movement, Norman Mailer’s biting novel is an over-the-top commentary on the hedonistic moral depravity in which those with powerful Hollywood positions love to partake. The book was rejected for obscenity, and it became a free speech lightning rod as Mailer fought to have it published. The truth often scares people, but it is always worth telling, and the novel is still an electric read in 2021.
Gavin Lambert’s novel tells the dark story of a young starlet’s gradual demise, starting from the age of 15. The 1965 film adaptation, directed by Robert Mulligan, was one of the first Hollywood films to feature a gay character, earning Robert Redford a Golden Globe. As you can probably imagine, the character’s sexuality is barely referenced in the film’s dialogue, but the novel does not hold back, painting a much more honest picture of the realities of show biz. Even if you found the film underwhelming, the book is worth checking out.
Ready to switch gears? James Lever’s lighthearted novel covers the extraordinary life of one of Hollywood’s greatest chimpanzee actors. Cheeta the Chimp lived to be 77 years old and used his time well, starring in a variety of movies and sharing the screen with the likes of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle. The book is written from Cheeta’s perspective (he’s technically credited as the author, with James Lever relegated to “as told to” status on the cover). If you have ever wondered what goes on in the minds of those animals you see on screen, this is the book for you!
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel was inspired by his time working as an MGM screenwriter, and is said to be loosely based on real-life producer Irving Thalberg. While we’ll never know what could have been had he lived to finish it, the book certainly contains flashes of brilliance. Fitzgerald shines the same honesty on Hollywood that he previously aimed at the Jazz Age, and the book has been adapted for the stage and screen multiple times.
“The Last Tycoon” is a fictional novel inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood, and “West of Sunset” is a fictionalized account of Fitzgerald during those years he spent writing “The Last Tycoon.” Stewart O’Nan makes Fitzgerald his protagonist, following the legendary author’s final years that were riddled with personal and professional lows. It is a perfect example of the crushing darkness that can follow even the most successful artists around Hollywood, and a great read from fans of movies or literature.