The Telegraph has a fascinating story today about development of Ben Hecht’s unproduced screenplays for CASINO ROYALE…which eventually morphed into the comedy debacle that starred David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. Here’s an excerpt:
The fact that Ben Hecht contributed to the script of Casino Royale has been known for decades, and is mentioned in passing in many books. But perhaps because the film Feldman eventually released in 1967 was a near-incoherent spoof, nobody has followed up to find out precisely what his contribution entailed. My interest was piqued when I came across an article in a May 1966 issue of Time, which mentioned that the screenplay of Casino Royale had started many years earlier “as a literal adaptation of the novel”, and that Hecht had had “three bashes at it”. I decided to go looking for it.
To my amazement, I found that Hecht not only contributed to Casino Royale, but produced several complete drafts, and that much of the material survived. It was stored in folders with the rest of his papers in the Newberry Library in Chicago, where it had been sitting since 1979. And, outside of the people involved in trying to make the film, it seemed nobody had read it. Here was a lost chapter, not just in the world of the Bond films, but in cinema history: before the spoof, Ben Hecht adapted Ian Fleming’s first novel as a straight Bond adventure.
[…] these drafts are a master-class in thriller-writing, from the man who arguably perfected the form with Notorious. Hecht made vice central to the plot, with Le Chiffre actively controlling a network of brothels and beautiful women who he is using to blackmail powerful people around the world. Just as the theme of Fleming’s Goldfinger is avarice and power, the theme of Hecht’s Casino Royale is sex and sin. It’s an idea that seems obvious in hindsight, and Hecht used it both to raise the stakes of Fleming’s plot and to deepen the story’s emotional resonance.
UPDATE: You can read excerpts from one of those terrific lost scripts here.
I've been having some creative problems with the spec script I am writing, which is loosely based on an unfinished novel of mine. But then, in my moment of darkest despair, I got this life saving tweet from Brien Jones at Jones Harvest, an obscure vanity press:
Have you ever wanted to see your novel as a movie? Contact us about about our screenplay writing services!
Wow. What a great opportunity! I had to learn more. So I immediately went to their site, and saw this under their services tab:
Screenplay – One of our professional editors will write an industry standard screenplay from your provided manuscript.
They don't offer any more details, but even that little bit filled me with confidence. I could just send them my manuscript and their editors would make it into a script. What other publisher offers that great service?
I was curious what makes the "professional editors" at Jones Harvest think that, just because they can edit a book, they can also write a script. Aren't they very different skills?
So I looked up the screenwriting credits of Brien Jones, the publisher and editor of Jones Harvest, to see if he's a member of the Writers Guild of America or if he's had any produced screenwriting credits. He's not a WGA member and I couldn't find a single movie or TV credit to his name…but according to his site and photos, he has visited Los Angeles and taken a studio tour, so he probably knows his stuff.
Hank Phillippi Ryan interrogates me today at the Sisters-in-Crime blog. Here's an excerpt of what she beat out of me:
HANK: When you watch TV now, or read a book—can you just relax and, maybe, enjoy? Or is your editor-writer brain always assessing? What do you see as the flaws and gaps and missteps? The successes?
LEE: With a mystery, no, I can't just read or watch. I am always very aware of the construction of the mystery.
But you're not supposed to be passively entertained by a mystery. You are expected to track the clues. Part of the fun is that the mystery is there to be solved, and if the author (or writer/producer) has played fairly, then you can and should participate along with the detective.
If a movie is really good, I can stop looking at the construction of *the story* and just be swept up in it. But if the movie is flawed, it pulls me out, and I start seeing the work/structure/component parts and then it's hard to be entertained by what I am watching. I begin to watch it like a producer watching a director's cut and thinking about what he's got to go into the editing room to fix…
We've cast my short film REMAINDERED, which I wrote and will be directing in Owensboro, Kentucky in early September, thanks to Zev Buffman, Roxi Witt and all the other terrific folks at the RiverPark Performing Arts Center.
Eric Altheide is Kevin Dangler, a once-bestselling author trying to get back to the top…
And Todd Reynolds is Detective Bud Flanek, Owensboro's answer to Columbo (as he also was in my buddy David Breckman's film MURDER IN KENTUCKY). Robert Denton and Lisa Baldwin play supporting roles. I can't wait to start working with these terrific actors, who were found thanks to the tireless efforts of our casting director Lori Rosas and our producer Rodney Newton.
I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II"[…] they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible…and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.
So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was "classified". In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone's ever seen before – drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn't it?
…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously.
I've adapted a few novels for the screen over the years, and it's always a difficult task. You've got to capture what made the book great, but you've also got to change a lot of things in order to make it work as a screenplay.
I always watch movie adaptations with a close eye, hoping to learn from the ones that work and even those that don't. Speaking of learning, I thought I'd pose the question about how to go about adapting a novel for the screen to Richard Walter, who was my professor at UCLA and who has written Essentials of Screenwriting, a fantastic new book that incorporates and expands on his earlier classic, Screenwriting. His response wasn't quite what I expected….
My own screenwriting teacher, USC’s late and legendary Irwin R. Blacker, used to ask his classes the following: “When adapting a novel for the screen, what do you owe the original material?”
He demanded a one-word answer.
The answer: Nothing.
What every writer owes–and it is all that he owes–is the best movie he can write. To whom does he owe that movie?
To the audience.
My first bit of advice to writers contemplating adapting a novel to the screen: Don’t do it.
Instead, write an original screenplay.
I’ve opined in my books and lectures and elsewhere that in my view the most depressing aspect of Hollywood is its refusal in recent years to produce original screenplays. Everything seems to be a remake, a sequel, a prequel, or an adaptation from a novel, a board game, a video game, a comic book, even a toy from Hasbro or Mattel.
When writers ask me about adapting novels, I ask them why they want to do that. Wouldn’t they prefer to create characters and stories of their own invention rather than use another writer’s? Inevitably they tell me that they were hugely, vastly touched by the particular novel, that they found it transporting and transforming.
Consider, however, that if it has so profound an effect upon readers, perhaps that’s its ideal form. Write it as a movie and it’s almost guaranteed to be disappointing.
It’s revealing to consider that many among the finest adaptations have come not from great books but from mediocre ones. The Graduate has to be among my favorite films. How many people have read the Charles Webb novel upon which it is based? Others may disagree, but it is not highly regarded as a piece of timeless literature.
Consider also Kramer Versus Kramer. It’s another brilliant film from a less-than-brilliant novel. How many people have read the Avery Corman novel? Those who have testify that it does not hold a candle to the film.
If a book is really, truly great, then that’s what it wants to be: a book.
Extraordinarily worthy books tend to make lousy movies. Catch 22 or Angela’s Ashes are only two examples.
There is another important reason for writers to avoid writing adaptations: copyright. Why speculate on a script when you do not own the underlying rights?
Some writers option the rights to books they’re adapting, but options eventually expire, don’t they? A studio, impressed with the notion of a particular adaptation, can simply wait out the option period, and then move in and take it over, eliminating the spec writer and bringing in the current hot writer de jour.
Writers can do what nobody else in the business can do: write. From nothing they can create something: a screenplay. Actors can’t do it. Directors can’t do it. Producers can’t do it. Writers alone can do it, and it’s all that they should do.
Notwithstanding any of the above, if you’re nevertheless writing an adaptation, perhaps on assignment for a producer or studio or network, the key is to remember what Professor Blacker preached all those years ago. Your debt is not to the original material but to the audience watching (and paying for) the movie. Remember that you can’t really ruin a novel. If you adapt one into a trashy, useless script, the book still remains unchanged; the letters do not rearrange themselves on the page.
Adaptors should feel free to delete scenes and entire chapters from the book; they should feel equally free to create wholly new material, even invent new characters, if in doing so they create a finer script. They should try at most to capture merely the spirit of the book, if that, and avoid becoming a slave to the facts and data contained in the original pages.
I've been in both positions…I have been assigned books to adapt by a studio or network and I have optioned books myself and written spec adaptations. So far, both scenarios have worked out very well for me (though Richard Walter's cautions about the pitfalls of optioning books yourself are very true and valid concerns).
When I take on an adaptation, I basically follow the advice that Richard just shared…I make whatever changes are necessary to stay true to what worked for me in the book but to make it play as a movie. That often means stripping out subplots, compressing events (the classic example is Six Days of the Condor becoming the move Three Days of the Condor), removing characters or "merging" them into a new one (one example: James L. Brooks took three boyfriends in the book Terms of Endearment and made them into one wholly new one, played by Jack Nicholson), adding new characters (or sparing those who died in the books), and changing the third act (as Scott Frank did with Get Shorty).
As an author myself, I also feel a need to make the author happy, which is not something I should really be thinking about in the adaptation process. Most likely, you are bound to piss them off with your changes. So far, though, I've been lucky. All the living authors whose work I've adapted have been very pleased with the results…in many cases, they've told me they wish they could go back and make the same changes in their books, which is enormously flattering.
While I was off over a month trying to generate my story, fixed in stone — all the other targets were moving, and moving rapidly. Earlier scripts were going through production drafts…characters were changing and evolving. Casting, and then shooting, revealed actors' strengths that meant that they got written to more. I had only the barest, fuzziest hold on some of the secondary characters. In a new show, things change rapidly in production, and when you're in the room you absorb those changes in small increments on a daily basis.
Eventually, I begged for more scripts, and got them, and being able to digest six or seven scripts, and see the characters on the page helped me writing my drafts.
It's hard to believe that freelancing was once the rule in TV, and still is in some places. It just packs more pressure on the one or two people who have to make all the stories line up. As a freelancer, my job with my SGU script was to get it to a point where somebody else could "take it over," and see it through production. The better I did, ideally the less they'd have to rewrite.
Except of course it never works out that way, especially in a show's first season. When you're three thousand miles out of the loop of the show that's developing on those soundstages, you just do the best you can, and hope that you don't cause somebody too much work.
It's always hard freelancing an episode of a brand new series, since nobody is entirely sure what the show is or who the characters are…not the showrunners, the studio, or the network. It's trying to hit a constantly moving target. I've done it a few times… on SLIDERS, PSYCH, and on an upcoming summer series I can't talk about yet. There's no question about it…freelancing is hard, but it's not that much easier writing a script for a show that's been on the air for a season or two. Yes, everyone knows the show (including you!)… but it's harder coming up with a story or character conflict that they haven't already done or have in development.
Mystery, crime and detectives are a recurring element in your writing. What do you find so appealing about this type of writing?
I guess on a basic level, the great thing about mysteries is they have a lot of conflict and forward momentum. The story is driven by a need to solve the mystery — that gives you somewhere to go, a ticking clock, and built-in conflict.
You have written for TV and written novels. What do you think are some of the major possibilities and limitations of these different forms of writing?
As you say, they are very different kinds of writing. In scripts you have to show, not tell. Character and story have to be revealed only through action and dialogue. A screenplay is a blueprint, a working document for other professionals, like costume designers, location managers, and of course actors and directors. A book is very different. You can go into people's heads to tell stories and reveal character. You have to set the scene in great detail all the time. You are the director, the location manager, the actor and the director. You're creating a complete world with no limitations all by yourself. That can be exciting and daunting at the same time. I've encountered many screenwriters who simply can't write a book and many authors cannot write scripts. I've only met a few who can do both. They are different ways of telling a story and also different ways of thinking of story.
I need your invaluable expert advice. I'm going to pitch to a network in several weeks. It's my first time doing this so while I have the treatment ready, how would I present and package the actual treatment in terms of putting each copy in binders, have covers on each copy, etc. Thanks Lee.
I never do anything fancy. I just print out the pitch, black-and-white, no fancy graphics or fonts, with a cover page that has the title and byline centered, and the date and my contact info (or agent, or studio, depending on the auspices the meeting was arranged under) in the lower right. I staple the upper, left hand corner of the document and turn it in.