Writing a movie can be a lot different from writing a book. Unlike a movie script, a novel is freeform. The author can take any style or format they would like to convey their ideas. A script, on the other hand, has to be able to be interpreted by the actors, filmmakers, and the audience. Therefore, it is typically structured in a certain way to help people working on the movie do their job and people watching the movie comprehend what is happening. Furthermore, a major difference between writing novels and movies is that movies are (mostly) restricted to the visual realm. It’s not easy to show audiences what characters are thinking, which severely limits plot and character development techniques. Overall, there are unique challenges to each a book and a movie when approaching it from a writing perspective.
What this means is that just because someone can write a novel doesn’t necessarily mean they can write a movie (and vice versa). Throughout more than a century of cinema, many famous authors have attempted to write screenplays, with varying success. This is a look at some of the most prominent working scripts that were written by well-known authors. We’ll look into what made those films scripts successes or failures, and how each of these authors met or did not meet the challenges they faced on their particular film. I tried to select some of the most widely-known authors who had a hand in writing major motion pictures, that way the writing styles and films would be recognizable by as many readers as possible.
Roald Dahl – You Only Live Twice
At first glance, this one doesn’t make a lot of sense, but consider the end product, and maybe it does make a little sense. Roald Dahl today is an internationally-famous author, best known for this children’s books (many of which have, oddly enough, become movies – The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda). Dahl did write novels for adults, but they aren’t necessarily as well known. Still, in 1966, Dahl was approached by the producers behind the James Bond franchise to adapt the Ian Fleming novel of the same name into the 5th Bond feature film. Dahl was actually the second person to work on the script. The job was originally intended for Richard Maibaum, who had written previous Bond films, but he was unavailable. Oscar-nominated writer Harold Jack Bloom made a first attempt, but the producers did not like his version. The studio wanted something more adventurous, and so they turned to Mr. Dahl.
Roald Dahl had actually known Ian Fleming. He said they had met during the war. Fleming passed away two years before Dahl was asked to adapt the screenplay, and this surely impacted his decision. Dahl considered Fleming’s You Only Live Twice to be one of his weakest Bond stories, and so he ended up changing the premise and the plot considerably for his script. If Fleming had been alive, Dahl may have not agreed. The novel was mostly devoid of action, and focused on Bond seeking revenge for the death of his wife in the previous novel. Since the death of Mrs. Bond had not yet been shown in a Bond film, the producers gave Dahl two main criteria: a Japanese setting, and the film had to have three Bond girls. Dahl took these ideas (as well as mixed in some elements of Bloom’s script) and ran with them.
The resulting film may have added to the adventure and excitement of the Bond franchise, but it made some of the first serious missteps in the series (including but not limited to racist tendencies). It’s difficult to know exactly who is to blame, but the film’s push for flashiness over substance definitely hurt its prospects with audiences. Dahl, who had no screenwriting credit, basically reused elements from the previous Bond films. This, combined with corny dialogue ended up making the film feel like a parody of James Bond, rather than the actual thing. It’s also the first time on this list we see how a novelist attempting to write a movie script struggles to see the “big picture”.
Cormac McCarthy – The Counselor
As an author, many of McCarthy’s novels have received praise in literary circles. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Despite writing regularly since the 60’s, none of his writing really proved that popular with readers until the 90’s. His 1992 novel All The Pretty Horses became a hit, and 8 years later, a movie. From this point on, McCarthy’s works received a newfound enthusiasm. This culminated in the 2008 film adaptation of No Country for Old Men by the Coen brothers, which went on to win an Oscar for best picture. From this success, McCarthy’s novels have been turned into several more films, with varying success.
In 2012 he wrote a screenplay called The Counselor, which was eventually purchased to be made into a film by the same people who had made The Road (based on McCarthy’s 2007 novel). The Counselor was McCarthy’s first published script, although he wrote No Country For Old Men in 2005 originally as a screenplay, before converting it to a novel. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, who brought crisp visuals to McCarthy’s dark tale, and featured an all-star cast. Yet, the film floundered in theaters and is widely considered as a disaster by critics. One thing they all point to in unison is the script.
One thing that makes McCarthy’s writing style stand out is his restricted use of punctuation. In prose, he finds a way to make it work, and it gives his writings a unique delivery and pace. A movie script, on the other hand, is not necessarily a format where style is celebrated. Instead it can become an encumbrance, which is exactly what happened with The Counselor. It wasn’t that McCarthy wasn’t able to write an interesting script, it is that it was difficult for him to adapt his style accordingly. A mysterious approach may work on the page, but a movie without explanations, expression, or exposition just left audiences confused.
Gore Vidal – Ben Hur
By the time of his death in 2012, Vidal had become an American figurehead not just because of the novels he wrote, but because of what the controversy of his writings inspired him to do. Gore’s writing career started with military novels after his experience in World War II. His works began to explore sexuality, including homosexuality, which went against social norms of the day. For this, he received much criticism. However, he never backed away from his position due to the harsh words against him. Instead, it emboldened him to speak out against social norms on sexuality and religion. Despite the controversial figure he became, Vidal found a lot of success in writing. He eventually wrote for television as well as film, and was even inspired to run for congress on two occasions.
When you look up the screenwriting credits for Ben Hur, Gore Vidal’s name is not included. This was on purpose. The screenplay for Ben Hur was written by Karl Tunberg, and Vidal was one of a couple of script doctors brought on board to flush it out. The amount of work that Vidal did on the script is a source of debate, but in exchange for leaving his name off of the credits, he was granted a reduction in the length of his contract for MGM Studios. This, if anything, makes it seem like he did in fact have a major influence and because of this required a credit. For one, the film is based on a historical book with biblical setting that was tremendously popular with Christians. Having Vidal’s name in the credits, given his progressive views, would have surely turned away the target audience.
The film, of course, was a major hit. Not only is it still one of the highest grossing films of all time to this day, it won the Oscar for best picture. Vidal was influenced by many classical writers and philosophers, which led him to be fascinated with historical fiction. This devotion made him a good fit for working on Ben Hur, as did his inclination towards politics. During an interview in 1995, Vidal admitted that the feud between the two main characters, which is what the film is focused around, was regarding a homosexual relationship. Vidal claimed that the director, other writers, and even some of the actors were all filled in on this fact. Charlton Heston was not told, because the filmmakers feared he would refuse to work. Heston has since denied this as being the truth. Regardless of the actual truth on the matter (the film leaves the nature of this relationship as somewhat vague), Vidal was the one who was responsible for figuring out a way to clarify and convey the main character’s motivation to the audience, In this regard, his work on the script was largely successful.
William Faulkner – The Big Sleep
As a writer, Faulkner is best known for his portrayal of life in the American South. From a young age, he became interested in the history of his home state of Mississippi. Stories passed down to him by friends and family also would later influence his writings. Faulkner would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and also won two Pulitzer Prizes. During his early years of writing, he wrote frequent sensational stories to pay the bills, but the novels in which he would become best known for didn’t find a lot of success. In these, he frequently used techniques such as stream-of-conscious and rich detailing to describe the complex racial and socioeconomic relationships of his characters. Faulkner actually signed a contract with MGM Studios because of the fact that his novels weren’t that commercially successful at the time. He would work on 22 films to varying degrees, but The Big Sleep was the most notable.
The Big Sleep was based on a crime novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. The film became one of the most acclaimed noirs of the 1940’s. It helped that it starred two of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The two has a tumultuous affair a couple years prior, which had became a phenomenon for contemporary audiences. The film sought to capitalize on this. An initial version of the film was reshot with about 20 minutes of replaced footage that highlighted the chemistry between the two stars. However, this change came at the cost of a coherent plot. Some of the films’ necessary (but “boring”) dialog was cut to make room. As such, the re-release version of the film (1946) was a hit in theaters, even though it was more difficult to follow than the 1945 version.
Faulkner co-wrote the original screenplay along with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The plot of the novel that was adapted was complicated, and it featured many components that would not have been allowed to be filmed due to the censors at the time (pornography, organized crime). Faulkner came up with a strategy to accomplish the adaptation by breaking up the work into the chapters of the book. Each of the writers took alternating chapters and wrote the script without consulting each other. This allowed the production to move along quickly despite the problems they faced with the source material, but because of three different writers contributing different parts, it was not cohesive. By the end of the film, no one knew what was supposed to happen. Director Howard Hawks called an emergency meeting with the writers and Chandler to try and sort out the mess. They looked to Chandler to help them understand how the events in the book were supposed to actually turn out, but he admitted to them that he didn’t know either. Faulkner then came up with a quick solution, an additional scene with another character that helps provide some closure. However, all of this happened before the Bogart and Bacall situation blew up. From that point on the production approach was changed towards what would become the 1946 re-release.
Stephen King – Pet Sematary
Stephen King is of course the famed contemporary author best known for his horror novels. He has found a lot of success in print and also on the big screen (we took an in-depth look at this here). King’s involvement in the film adaptations of his work has run the full range from only really sharing a title to being in charge of an entire production as a director. With Pet Sematary Stephen King wrote his first screenplay. He is one of the few people that has written a screenplay for a film that is based on one of his own books.
One thing that has upset Mr. King over the years when it comes to the adaptations of his films is the fact that the filmmakers tend to take a lot of liberty with the source materials. Movies like Kubrick’s The Shining diverge significantly from King’s writings, much to his chagrin. As such, the films that Stephen King have been involved in tend to stay closer to the source material. Pet Sematary is one of those films. With Stephen King writing the screenplay (and getting a cameo role in the film), Pet Sematary ends up being one of the Stephen King film adaptations that remains closest to the source material.
Part of the reason the film remains fairly consistent with the book is that King was heavily involved. For one, he had a number of stipulations when he sold the film rights. One of the stipulations was that the movie had to be filmed in Maine. It ended up that much of the film was filmed just a few minutes away from where Stephen King was living at the time. This allowed him to attend most of the shoots. Overall the film found moderate success. Many critics noted that the film exhibits many Stephen King trademarks, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good for fans of King, and those who appreciate the quirks of his style. Bad for those expecting something new or unexpected.