There’s an old joke of sorts -- attributed to Norman Mailer, or maybe it was Hemingway -- about how writers should respond when studios start sniffing around their work. “Drive to California,” the punch line goes, “throw your book over the state line, and wait for them to throw the money back.”
Here we have a cautionary tale, about the corrupting influence of Hollywood, the way the industry will take first your art and then your soul. Yet it also offers a more philosophical message, having to do with the ambiguous place writers hold in the movie business, the century-long push and pull between words and film.
For the last few months, the relationship of writers to Hollywood has been a loaded subject, no matter what side of the picket lines you were on. It’s telling, however, that even during the height of the WGA strike, book writers remained somehow marginalized.
In a Jan. 28 post on the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass, former San Francisco Chronicle Style Editor Paul Wilner lamented that at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, “almost no actual writers were acknowledged for their contributions” to the winning films. “I waited in vain to hear . . . Cormac McCarthy mentioned in conjunction with the multiple honors for ‘No Country for Old Men,’ ” Wilner wrote, “or a nod to . . . Alice Munro for the short story upon which ‘Away From Her’ was based. . . . Daniel Day-Lewis’ tribute to Heath Ledger was moving, but somehow Upton Sinclair’s role as the progenitor of ‘There Will Be Blood’ was not noted. [The film was inspired by his 1927 novel ‘Oil!’]”
This is an old story; Ken Kesey, Wilner notes, went unacknowledged when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” won the best picture Oscar in 1976, and 19 years later, Winston Groom was similarly slighted after “Forrest Gump” took the top prize.
Such a disconnect is particularly ironic this year because so many films, nominated and otherwise, have roots in literary work. Not only is there “No Country for Old Men” and “Away From Her” but “The Namesake” and “Atonement”; not only “There Will Be Blood” but “Persepolis.” Literature figures even in “The Savages” and “Margot at the Wedding,” which deal, in part, with the struggle to come to terms with writing, its odd and at times parasitic connection to the world.
What does this signify? I have a friend who believes people tend not to trust something that lacks an established lineage, that there is a cachet -- for producer and audience -- in a film that comes from an iconic book.
Sure, movies have been inspired by books since the beginning: Georges Melies’ 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon” was based on Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and H.G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon.” But how many times has a great book been made into an awful movie? Or a mediocre novel fueled a classic film? Think of “The Godfather” or “Being There,” both of which were transfigured brilliantly by adaptation. Then consider all the literary masterpieces (“Under the Volcano,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Naked Lunch”) that have died on-screen.
That’s what makes the current crop of books-to-movies so compelling, the idea that Hollywood may be developing a more consistent approach to literature. For me, this is a matter of sensibility, of complexity and nuance, the way these works take on bigger issues, the uncertainties and irresolution that mark our passage through the world.
“No Country for Old Men” has been criticized because one of its main characters is killed in the middle of the movie. But isn’t this like real life, where the only thing we can count on is that we never know what’s coming next?
Yes, the movie has its flaws -- a diffuse narrative, too many loose ends, far too casual a relationship with violence -- but these are also the flaws of the novel, which is far from McCarthy’s best. More important is how both book and film reflect a moral ambiguity, a sense that the universe is if not cruel then utterly indifferent, that evil is real and if it finds us all, our faith and fantasies will never be enough. Such stark truths have long been the territory of the novel, but Hollywood has traditionally turned away.
The same is true of “There Will Be Blood,” which transforms Sinclair’s socialist passion play (the novel’s final lines deride capitalism as “an evil Power which roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor”) into something far more elemental, a vision of one man’s desperate determination to break existence to his will.
“I have a competition in me,” explains the film’s protagonist, oilman Daniel Plainview. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. . . . This is serious stuff, fundamental human material, raw and irreconcilable. It gets to the heart of our experience, our petty jealousies and ambitions, our insecurities and our weaknesses, our bravado and our lies.
“We all take from life,” notes the character Margot, herself a fiction writer, in “Margot at the Wedding,” although one of the film’s key tropes has to do with her inability to determine whether it’s her life or the lives of those around her that she’s taking from. As we watch her interact with her family, we observe the border between reality and illusion grow porous, until what she believes and what she sees are indistinguishable in her mind.
That’s a highly subjective vision -- fluid, personal, interior. It’s also literary in the broadest sense, since these are the dynamics that mark our relationship to books.
And yet, if these kinds of movies have anything to tell us, it’s that interiority can sometimes play itself out on screen. Is this an indication that Hollywood has finally become more sympathetic toward writers, that we might move beyond a century of misunderstanding and disdain? Not very likely, the settlement of the WGA strike notwithstanding.
But what it does suggest is equally unexpected: that good books can indeed make thought-provoking movies, which means there may be less difference than we imagined between a successful novel and a successful film.
Ulin is The Times’ book editor.