Many prominent novelists have adapted screenplays from other authors’ books. Given that screenwriting and long-form fiction writing are radically different disciplines, distinguished writers have sometimes faced a rude awakening when they’ve been asked to hammer out a script requiring a three-act structure and actor-friendly dialogue. Others are to the manner born. Here are some examples of unlikely movies penned by literary lions and lionesses.
Pulp-fiction writer Raymond Chandler’s first mystery novel featuring the hard-boiled L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe was adapted for the screen by the future Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett (later to write The Empire Strikes Back), and Jules Furthman. Marlowe is hired by the elderly General Sternwood, father of Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers), to resolve Carmen’s gambling debts. Neither Faulkner nor director Howard Hawks could figure out why the Sternwoods’ chauffeur dies in the novel, or whether he was murdered or committed suicide. But when they asked Chandler, he couldn’t enlighten them. This 1946 version is superior to the 1978 remake.
Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About A Boy, adapted Colm Tóibín’s best-seller about young Irish woman Eilis’s emigration to America. Played in the 2015 film by Saoirse Ronan, Eilis gets a job in a Brooklyn department store and falls in love with a sweet-natured Italian-American plumber, but when her past tugs at her on a visit home, she must decide where her heart truly belongs. The Brooklyn of the 1950s isn’t Hornby’s patch, but his perceptiveness about human nature and his dry humor were well-suited to telling a getting-of-wisdom story in which the selfishness of old acquaintances is no match for the kindness of strangers.
Billy Wilder recommended Paramount hire Raymond Chandler to work with him on adapting James M. Cain’s bleak novella about a housewife who seduces an insurance agent into murdering her husband. Chandler detested Cain’s story and his collaboration with Wilder was fraught, but he later said the director taught him everything he ever knew about screenwriting. The Double Indemnity script, as elegant, adult, and tough-talking as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, transformed Cain’s story into the blueprint for 1944’s canonical film noir.
Surrey-born Aldous Huxley was in his early forties and had completed six novels by the time he moved to Southern California in 1937. Soon to become one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters, he was initially teamed with the veteran Jane Murfin on MGM’s 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular novel; a 55-minute BBC version preceded it by two years. Huxley and Murfin streamlined Austen’s plot by eliminating characters and moved the story of the Bennet sisters from the late 18th century to the 1820s so the studio’s costume department could dress the actors in the later period’s flouncy fashions. The result was decidedly camp – and irreconcilable, of course, with the dystopian vision of Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece ‘Brave New World.’
Though Joan Didion and her husband and follow novelist John Gregory Dunne originated the 1976 screenplay of A Star Is Born, directed by Frank Pierson, they had nothing to do with the project once Barbra Streisand came on board as a producer. Streisand cast herself opposite Kris Kristofferson (negotiations with Elvis Presley having failed) and made the film an ode to her own indestructibility. The film’s feminist theme came from Streisand, not Didion. It was the fourth version (if 1932’s What Price Hollywood? is included) of a story on the theme “a star must die so a new one can be born,” but the first set in the music world. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have been cast in the upcoming version.
Maurice Sendak‘s beloved 1963 children’s picture book, a masterpiece of child psychology dealing with the sublimation and channeling of anger, depicts the young hero’s Max’s flight in a dream to an island inhabited by moody monsters, whom Sendak modeled on his relatives. Spike Jonze’s 2009 film was written by the novelist Dave Eggers, whose first book, A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius, is a partly fictionalized memoir describing his experiences raising his younger brother after their parents died in their fifties. The absence of parents is a key theme in the film, too – Max’s yearning for his mother triggers his departure from the island and breaking of the dream so that they can be reconciled. The movie’s urban scenes are also stamped by Eggers’s sensibility.