I want to thank David Liss for taking a page in my notebook today to share some of his thoughts.
Based on the Disgruntled Writer’s Book
There was a time when Hollywood film options were a nice – sometimes very nice – supplemental income for novelists. I still recall with both amusement and delight the late-into-the-night duel between two studios for the rights to my first novel. I recall with less amusement and less delight how, after throwing money at the wrong (not bad, just wrong) screenwriter and wrong director, the studio ended up with an unworkable project and walked away. Now that novel has been revived as a potential film, thanks to the free options, an increasingly common arrangement in economic-downturn Hollywood. In the past few weeks I’ve agreed to a free option and a free option renewal for two books. The bad side is that no one is paying me money up front. The good news is that, absent the power-brokering that goes on with the big money deals, producers aren’t taking the time to develop projects unless they actually want to make them.
Right now I have three novels and a short story in various stages of production. One of those is fairly likely to get made, the others – who knows? And while it would be nice if someone were to make a good movie based on something I’ve written, and thereby introduce my work to more readers, the process leaves me with very mixed feelings. There are writers I know of who are celebrated simply because they won the Hollywood lottery. People read their books because they associate these books with a movie experience they enjoyed. As a novelist, that seems fundamentally wrong to me, particularly since the number of good films based on good books is cosmically dwarfed by the number of bad films based on good books. Frankly, I think books are terrible source material for films. Novels are, in Henry James’ words, loose, baggy monsters. Films are sleek and streamlined, so it is very difficult for the thing that made the novel work not to get lost in translation. And while it is rare for a bad movie to actually damage a writer’s career (the V. I. Warshawski debacle is the only example that comes to mind), it still makes me wonder why novelists work so hard for the chance to see their efforts ruined in the hands of shallow Hollywood committees.
In part it is the lure of money, but I also think it is a function of the world we live in. When I speak to family members about my career, usually the first thing I am asked is about movie deals. One of the most common emails I receive from readers says, “I loved your novel. I think it would make a great movie.” Of course these readers are being kind, and what they mean – I think – is that they enjoyed the novel enough that they want to re-experience it in a different form. Of course, you can cynically ask how their experience will be enhanced by seeing a movie they enjoyed turned into a film they did not, but I usually just make a joke about casting.
There is a more vexing question, however. When you visit an art museum and see a painting you admire, you probably don’t say, “What a great painting. It would make a terrific symphony.” It is rare that you watch a ballet and wish it could be a sculpture. In other words, novels are probably the only art form universally viewed as fodder for another art form. It is as though novels are but embryonic films, waiting to be born. Surely it is enough for a novel to be a novel.
When I was a child, my parents read novels, as did my friends’ parents. Now most of my daughter’s friends’ parents read fiction rarely if ever. Reading has shifted from a common middle class entertainment to a marginalized hobby, on the order of spelunking or amateur ichthyology. Yes even in the 1970s – or the 1930s, for that matter – novels were often viewed through the lens of their film potential. And just like today, the overwhelming majority of films based on novels did not work out very well. Perhaps it is because, like today, novels were often optioned for the screen less because they seemed like they would make good movies than because lazy studio execs enjoyed having their stories and characters come to them already developed and with at least some kind of audience built in. From there, the Hollywood snowball kept on rolling downhill, picking up speed and momentum without much thought to quality. Is it possible that the rise of the free option will mean better movies based on novels? Possibly. It is extremely unlikely that it will induce many people to wonder if novels are the best source material for films in the first place.
David Liss is the author of five novels, with more on the way.
His debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) with its hero, the pugilist turned private investigator Benjamin Weaver, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won him the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First Novel.
David’s second novel, The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember.
His third novel A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, became a national bestseller. David’s fourth novel, The Ethical Assassin (2006) is his first full-length work that is not historical fiction.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, David is, in fact, a one-time encyclopedia salesman. He received his B.A. from Syracuse University, an M.A. from Georgia State University and his M.Phil from Columbia University, where he left his dissertation unfinished to pursue his writing career.
David lives in San Antonio with his wife and children. You can visit his website at www.DavidLiss.com.