Why Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Other Literary Luminaries Hated Hollywood
In February of 1932, William Faulkner finished the manuscript for his seventh novel. He had spent the past three years writing the works that would make him immortal — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary. Faulkner told his agent to try to sell the serial rights to his new novel, Light in August, for $5,000. As if attempting to make the bargain even more unpalatable to magazine editors, the writer stipulated that he wouldn’t change a word.
It was a gutsy move. At the time, Faulkner was broke. His bank account was minus $500. When he tried to make a $3 dollar purchase at a sporting goods store, the owner refused to take his check. When she asked him to pay in cash, Faulkner said his signature would be worth more than $3 dollars.
Around that time, Faulkner received a letter from a Hollywood producer that included a screenwriting contract. The novelist was to report in California in May. According to Joseph Blotner’s biography, Faulker “asked if it was legal....He was confounded that mere scribbling could earn five hundred dollars a week.”
Faulkner wasn’t the only literary icon who went to Hollywood to make a bundle writing for the movies. In 1933, Nathanael West moved to California on a contract for Columbia pictures, as did Dorothy Parker the following year. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Parker said she wasn’t capable of talking about her Hollywood experience: “It’s a horror to look back on. When I got away from it, I couldn’t even refer to the place by name….”
Still, Hollywood income was money that compelled writers like Faulker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Aldous Huxley to try their hands at screenwriting. But Fitzgerald had problems with the studio system of the 1930s because he virtually had no control over what happened to what he wrote. As an employee at MGM, he was just another scenario-writing cog in the massive machine built and operated by Irving Thalberg, the wunderkind producer who oversaw the production of more than 400 films in 12 years. A screenwriter must relinquish a significant amount of control. The novelist, whose craft is largely defined by the vibrancy and specificity of detail, is naturally resistant to surrendering their right to micromanage.
Fitzgerald visited Hollywood in 1937 — a place he said he hated “like poison with a sincere hatred” — because he was running out of options. “Part of our fascination with Fitzgerald involves his fall from grace,” noted Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker in 2009. “The man who commanded between $3,000 and $4,000 for a short story as late as 1930 was forgotten by the reading public six years later; in 1936, his total book royalties amounted to just over $80.”
Fitzgerald was hired to do a rewrite of a script called “Three Comrades” for producer Joseph Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz asked for a second draft and partnered the novelist with a more experienced screenwriter. When Mankiewicz rewrote the script himself, Fitzgerald was “so utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week” that he said so in a letter to the producer. “Take this letter as it’s meant — a desperate plea to restore the dialogue to its former quality,” he wrote. “I’m a good writer — honest.”
In an interview with Cahiers du Cinema in 1967, Mankiewicz said “I personally have been attacked as if I had spat on the flag because it happened once that I rewrote some dialogue by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it needed it! The actors...absolutely could not read the lines. It was very literary dialogue, novelistic dialogue that lacked all the qualities required for screen dialogue.”
It’s a surprising discovery that there are significant differences between dialogue in prose and dialogue onscreen. The surfacing of Fitzgerald’s MGM notes in 2004 confirms that the author had very little understanding of how screenplays functioned. At the time (and, in some ways, even now) screenwriting was a craft in progress. Fitzgerald’s sensibility clogs up the pages of his screenplays with elaborate character descriptions involving peripheral flashbacks, and painstakingly specific directions for camera angles and movements.
After a week-long stint rewriting “Gone with the Wind” for David O. Selznick, Fitzgerald’s contract inexplicably evaporated. He spent the last year of his life writing short stories about a hack screenwriter named Pat Hobby and fragments for a novel tentatively titled The Love of the Last Tycoon. In his preface, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli wrote that “even in its preliminary and incomplete condition, The Love of the Last Tycoon is regarded as the best novel written about the movies.”
Unlike Fitzgerald, William Faulkner had a keen understanding of the fundamental differences between writing for the screen and writing for the page. He grasped the concept of collaboration. “A moving picture is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise,” Faulkner told The Paris Review in 1956. He also admitted that improvisation is crucial when it comes to filmmaking, saying the best parts of any film he was involved with was accomplished “by the actors and the writer throwing the script away and inventing the scene...just before the camera turned on.” That’s why he said screenwriting “will never have the urgency for me which my own medium has.”
In the 1940s, Faulkner co-authored screenplays for “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” for director Howard Hawks. One famous story involves Hawks, Faulkner, and Clark Gable dove-hunting together in Imperial Valley. When Hawks and Faulkner began discussing books, Gable, doubtlessly the least well-read of the three, posed a naive question: “Mr. Faulkner, what do you think somebody should read if he wants to read the best modern books?” Faulkner named Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and himself as the best living writers. “Oh,” Gable said. “Do you write?” Faulkner’s response: “Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?”
Faulkner found Hollywood to be a shallow, uninspiring place. He once told a friend “this is a place that lacks ideas,” Blotner’s biography reports. “In Europe they asked me, what did I think? Out here they ask, ‘Where did you get that hat?’”
Occasionally, even European novelists were seduced by the motion picture industry. One of the main reasons Aldous Huxley moved to Los Angeles in 1937 was because he heard how much money the studios were willing to pay successful novelists.
According to David King Dunaway’s book Huxley in Hollywood, Huxley’s experience had less to do with movie-making than with his absorption of West Coast culture. During the quarter century that Huxley lived in California, he wrote a handful of screenplays, including a peculiar adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Disney Studios. Because his family had known Lewis Carroll, Huxley planned to use the Alice story to explore Carroll’s life and the “long-drawn struggles between Tory High Churchmen and liberal Modernists,” he wrote in a letter. Huxley also replaced the iconic rabbit hole with a hidden door in the wall. Carroll, a major character in Huxley’s version, warns Alice that “You’ve got to find the little door inside your own head first.” Disney made no use of Huxley’s draft in their 1951 cartoon.
As Huxley fell in and out of screenwriting work, he steadily produced novels (Ape and Essence, Island) and philosophical treatises (The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell) while gathering a collection of famous friends. Huxley and his wife had picnics with expatriates like Charlie Chaplin, Christopher Isherwood, and Bertrand Russell. At a dinner with Harpo Marx in 1938, Huxley suggested they make a film about the real Marx Brothers with Groucho as Karl Marx, Chico as Bakunin, and Harpo as Engels. Harpo, perhaps under the impression Huxley was serious, tensely replied, “They don’t do films like that here, Aldous.”
The private, personal goal of the novelist in Hollywood is to successfully adapt their best prose for the silver screen. Huxley dreamed of adapting Brave New World, but RKO pictures owned the rights. Two of Fitzgerald’s novels received silent film adaptations without his assistance, and Faulkner oversaw the production of only one of his books: 1948’s Intruder in the Dust, a atmospheric study of racial injustice and murder — it was filmed in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, with the novelist playing the dual role of script doctor and location scout. (“Intruder in the Dust” was released in 1949, the same year Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few major authors who was given the opportunity to write a screen adaptation of his most famous work, 1955’s Lolita. His lone screenwriting effort is worth mentioning not merely because Lolita is a cornerstone of postmodern American literature, but because his screenplay is probably the most baffling adaptation any author has written of his own novel.
In the foreword to the published script, Nabokov, a noted lepidopterist, recalls the uneasiness he felt when he was contacted by Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris in 1959. However, “a certain lull” in butterfly gathering suggested he and his wife “might just as well drive on to the West Coast” for a meeting with the filmmakers. The meeting didn’t go well. “I was told that in order to appease the censor a later scene should contain some...hint to the effect that Humbert had been secretly married to Lolita all along,” Nabokov wrote. Unlike Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Huxley, it wasn’t the money that persuaded Nabokov. “The honorarium they offered was considerable, but the idea of tampering with my own novel caused me only revulsion.”
He declined the offer and left for Europe, where he claims to have “experienced a small nocturnal illumination, of diabolical origin, perhaps, but unusually compelling in sheer bright force, and clearly perceived an attractive line of approach to a screen version.” Almost “magically,” he received a telegram from Hollywood urging him to revise his earlier decision. He agreed to write the script.
One can only imagine what Kubrick thought when he read one of the strangest adaptations ever written. There are impossible stage directions, like “The taxi driver is strangely erratic” and “The Lecturer is now shown clearly except for a ripple or two of optical interference.” Page-long quotations from the novel are recapitulated as stage directions. Nabokov scripts lines for the dog (“Woof, woof.”), and even provides a parenthetical suggestion (perfunctorily) as to how the dog should bark. The novelist also writes a cameo for himself into the script. Lolita points to “that nut with the net over there.” The stage directions title him “The Butterfly Hunter” and then identify him: “His name is Vladimir Nabokov.” He catches a butterfly and has a brief, irrelevant exchange with Humbert.
Also, Nabokov’s draft was 400 pages. When Kubrick explained that the movie would be seven hours long, they respectfully parted ways. “He saw my novel in one way, I saw it in another” Nabokov said.
Kubrick pulled snippets from within the massive tome of a screenplay — reworking and rewriting and adding in Peter Sellers’ inspired improvisations to create a brutally funny black farce. When Nabokov saw the premiere of Lolita (in “horrible seats” he remembers), he concluded it was “a first-rate film with magnificent actors.” In a 1967 interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov lamented, in faux innocence, “I shall never understand why [Kubrick] did not follow my directions and dreams. It is a great pity.”
Faulkner, Nabokov, Huxley and Fitzgerald were novelists in the postmodern tradition. They used prose to play with time and space, which is what filmmakers have been doing for the past hundred years. Innovators like Joyce, Beckett, Dos Passos, Woolf, and Proust used words to explore the dream-like experience of conscious — and unconscious — thought.
If Faulkner was in his prime during the rise of independent film, one wonders if he wouldn’t have become a filmmaker, working with epic, fragmented palates like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s difficult to read about iconic novelists in Hollywood without entertaining the idea that they were born in the wrong time period to write for the movie industry. This was eras before Scorsese, Coppola, and De Palma. The early days of Hollywood were unkind to experimental ideas. That’s why Faulkner had to write screenplays for movies like “God Is My Co-Pilot” and “Land of the Pharaohs.” As Faulkner once told his literary agent, “In some ways Proust was lucky. He didn’t ever have to contend with Hollywood for his bread and butter.”
Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Wikipedia; Flickr (Creative Commons).