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12 Famous Novelists Who Became Hollywood Screenwriters

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Just because an author can write a best-selling and critically acclaimed novel doesn’t necessarily mean he can make the transition to screenwriter. Some novelists who take the leap find success in Hollywood, while others are defeated. Here are 12 popular novelists who tried their hands at screenwriting—and how their attempts fared.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald / Screenplay: Three Comrades (1938)

In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, just one in a mass exodus of novelists trying out a new career in screenwriting. He ended up with just one screenplay credit to his name, for the 1938 film Three Comrades (and even then, the script was heavily rewritten by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). But the Great Gatsby author produced a large number of treatments, re-writes, and screenplay polishes in the Hollywood movie studio system. Fitzgerald’s work was either not used or recognized; most producers and directors considered his work not suitable for the big screen.

Most notably, Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, but ultimately, the pages he turned in to the film’s producer David O. Selznick were not used or filmed. It was reported that he was instructed to only use the text that was featured in Margaret Mitchell’s novel and not stray away from the original source material. 

2. William Faulkner / Screenplay: The Big Sleep (1946)

In 1932, critically acclaimed author William Faulkner signed a screenwriting contract with MGM Studios that would give him financial stability after his breakthrough novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary failed to gain commercial success with a mass audience. While he worked on more than 50 films during his 22-year career as a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox and then Warner Bros, Faulkner’s work with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is his most notable. The big-screen adaptation of fellow novelist Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, the movie is a seminal and important work in the film noir genre.    

3. John Steinbeck / Screenplay: Lifeboat (1944)

Regarded as one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, John Steinbeck took up a career in Hollywood as a screenwriter after he returned from World War II. He wrote the film Lifeboat for director Alfred Hitchcock in 1943. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Steinbeck demanded his name taken off of Lifeboat because he felt that Alfred Hitchcock introduced an underlying racist quality into the film and he therefore didn't want to be associated with the project.

4. Dave Eggers / Screenplay: Away We Go (2009), Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

New Sincerity movement author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers started a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter in the late 2000s. He co-wrote the Sam Mendes-directed film Away We Go with his wife Vendela Vida, and penned the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are with director Spike Jonze, both in 2009. As he wrote and edited highly acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, Eggers also continued to write screenplays for small independent films, including Promised Land with co-screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski for director Gus Van Sant.

5. Nick Hornby / Screenplay: An Education (2009)

British novelist and essayist Nick Hornby is mostly known for his heart-felt books High Fidelity, About A Boy, and How to be Good. In 2009, Hornby took a stab at screenwriting, penning the British coming-of-age film An Education for director Lone Scherfig. The movie stayed close to its source material, a memoir from journalist Lynn Barber about her early life attending Lady Eleanor Holles School. An Education garnered three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Nick Hornby.

Currently, Hornby is working on adapting Cheryl Strayed‘s bestselling memoir Wild for Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée.

6. Cormac McCarthy / Screenplay: The Counselor (2013)

Cormac McCarthy's novels were the basis for some of the best films produced in the last 10 years, including All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and the Academy Award-winning film No Country for Old Men for directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Earlier this year, the author made his first attempt at an original screenplay, The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott. Although the film was mostly critically panned, The Counselor saw moderate box office success with $60 million in worldwide earnings.

7. Kazuo Ishiguro / Screenplay: The Saddest Music in the World (2003), The White Countess (2005)

Although two of his novels—The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go—were adapted for the big screen, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro didn’t have a hand in writing their screenplays. He did, however, write the original story for Guy Maddin’s masterpiece The Saddest Music in the World in 2003 and the James Ivory film The White Countess in 2005. Though Ishiguro found moderate success as a screenwriter, the 59-year-old author is better known as a well-regarded novelist.

8. Joan Didion / Screenplay: Up Close & Personal (1996), A Star Is Born (1976)

Novelist and literary journalist Joan Didion started a career in screenwriting when she moved to Hollywood with her husband, screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, in the early '70s.  Didion and Dunne worked extensively on the rock musical version of A Star Is Born, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, in the '70s, and also adapted journalist Jessica Savitch’s memoir Up Close & Personal in 1996. In an interview with The Paris Review in 2004, Didion said of screenwriting, "It's not writing. You're making notes for the director—for the director more than the actors." 

9. Truman Capote / Screenplay: Beat The Devil (1953)

In 1953, novelist and playwright Truman Capote teamed up with director John Huston to make a loose film adaptation of Claud Cockburn’s novel Beat the Devil. While John Huston wanted the film to be a parody of The Maltese Falcon, a film that Huston directed a decade earlier in 1941, Beat the Devil was met with a poor critical reception upon its release. However, the late Roger Ebert praised the film, as he put it on his “Great Movies” list. Ebert also recognized the film in the year 2000 as the first “camp” film.

10. Michael Chabon / Screenplay: Spider-Man 2 (2004), John Carter (2012)

Michael Chabon took the plunge into Hollywood screenwriting after film producer Scott Rudin bought the film rights to the Pulitzer Prize and Hugo Award winning novels Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union in the early 2000s. While he was only a consultant on the film adaptations of his novels, Chabon was an author on an early version of Spider-Man 2 for director Sam Raimi in 2004 and Disney’s John Carter in 2009. He once described his attitude toward Hollywood filmmaking as "pre-emptive cynicism.”

11. Raymond Chandler / Screenplay: Double Indemnity (1944)

Crime author and pulp fiction writer Raymond Chandler made the transition from novelist to screenwriter when the critical and commercial success of film adaptations based on his work redefined the film noir genre. Although Chandler’s work on the films The Blue Dahlia and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train are of note, his collaboration with Billy Wilder on the film noir Double Indemnity earned the pair an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing in 1944.    

12. Ray Bradbury / Screenplay: Moby Dick (1956)

In 1953, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury joined forces with director John Huston to adapt Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick for the big screen. Famously, Bradbury and Huston did not get along during the film’s production due to Huston’s attitude towards the science fiction pioneer’s work. In fact, Bradbury was so traumatized from how he was treated while making Moby Dick that he wrote two fictionalized accounts of the contentious encounters in the novel Green Shadows, White Whale and the short story “Banshee.” Moby Dick would later go over budget and fail to gain an audience when it was released.

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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