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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December 20, 2013 - 11:00am
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