In the late 1920s, newspaper columnist, reporter, playwright, and Algonquin wit Herman J. Mankiewicz moved from New York, the hotbed of American literary activity, to Hollywood. A few months later, he sent this cable to his writer friend Ben Hecht: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Sooner or later, though, it did. Since their inception, the moving pictures have offered scribes the opportunity for comparatively easy money — a few weeks’ work dashing off a screenplay or a punch-up job to subsidize the year it’s going to take to write The Great American Novel.
Yesterday’s news that Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon will take a pass at the script to Disney’s Magic Kingdom movie (in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean, that studio will not rest until every square inch of its theme parks have been turned into films) wasn’t a huge shocker — and not just because Chabon has done previous work for Disney, or worked on the script to Spider-Man 2 . He is simply the latest respected author to take Tinsel Town up on the offer of a generous paycheck. Join us after the jump for a look at ten other literary figures that did the same.
Mankiewicz’s Algonquin Round Tablemate, noted poet, satirist, and raconteur Dorothy Parker, moved to Hollywood in 1934 with her new husband Alan Campbell. Her quick wit was perfect for the talkies, and she was quickly signed by Paramount for $1,000 a week. Her fee rose quickly over the next several years, as she worked (often with Campbell, an actor-turned-screenwriter) on over a dozen films, including Hitchcock’s Saboteur and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (that script was one of the film’s nine Oscar nominations). Parker’s most enduring work as a screenwriter, though, was William A. Wellman’s 1937 film A Star is Born , which was nominated for Best Screenplay and begat several remakes: the first in 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason), the second in 1976 (with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), and a forthcoming fourth version, this time reportedly with Clint Eastwood directing Beyoncé in the leading role.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Though the Great Gatsby writer wanted nothing to do with the movie business, he turned to Hollywood on more than one occasion to dig himself out of financial trouble. He did uncredited work on the great 1932 pre-Code Jean Harlow vehicle Red-Headed Woman, but he spent his longest period in the business in the late 1930s, working for MGM. His only credited script was for the Robert Taylor/Margaret Sullavan picture Three Comrades, but he did uncredited work on several other films, including The Women and Marie Antoinette ; like every other writer on the MGM lot, he’s also rumored to have worked on Gone with the Wind . His time at the studio provided more than paychecks, though — it gave him plenty of fodder for his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon (which, of course, was turned into a film decades later).
Chandler is best remembered for creating Philip Marlowe, the quintessential American private detective and protagonist of nine Chandler novels and several short stories. However, when Chandler went to work in Hollywood in the 1940s, he didn’t pen any of the Marlowe adaptations (though other writes of note did — see next page). His first screenwriting assignment set a pretty high bar: he collaborated with Billy Wilder on the iconic film noir tale Double Indemnity . That script was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1945; two years later, his solo script for The Blue Dahlia garnered him a second nomination. In 1951, Chandler co-wrote one more immortal picture: Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train , from the novel by “Ripley” series author Patricia Highsmith.
The celebrated author of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying was invited to Hollywood by none other than the great director Howard Hawks, who engaged Faulkner to work on the film versions of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not . (The famous story goes that Faulkner contacted Chandler to help him puzzle out part of the labyrinthine plotline; Chandler realized that Faulkner had found a hole he was unaware of.) Faulkner spent several more years in California, turning out such scripts as The Road to Glory and Today We Live; his years there (and his affair with Hawks’s secretary and script girl Meta Carpenter) inspired the character of W.P. Mayhew in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink .
Like Chandler, Nobel Prize-winner Steinbeck was willing to work in Hollywood, but wasn’t interested in adapting his own work — he mostly let others write the screenplays to Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden (his sole adaptation of one of his own novels was 1949’s The Red Pony , directed by Lewis Milestone). His didn’t write many scripts, but what he did write was choice: the ingenious Hitchcock picture Lifeboat and Elia Kazan’s 1952 Brando-starrer Viva Zapata! (which nabbed Steinbeck an Oscar nomination).
The name might not ring a bell, since Hunter was better known by his pseudonym; as “Ed McBain,” Hunter was one of the most successful crime novelists of the modern era. But he also worked as a writer for television and movies, penning several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which led to Hitch hiring Hunter to write the script for his 1963 effort The Birds . Hunter focused on his McBain novels in the 1970s and 1980s, though he did write the adaptation of his novel Fuzz for Burt Reynolds, as well as the 1979 film Walk Proud, the story of a Chicano gang member (played, of course, by Jewish Robby Benson).
The prolific King has been one of the most-adapted novelists of all time, though the results vary wildly — from the highs of The Shawshank Redemption and Misery to the lows of Dreamcatcher and The Mangler. Few of the films made from his books, good or bad, have been penned by King himself, though his own adaptations (Pet Semetary, Maximum Overdrive) and original scripts (Sleepwalkers) haven’t fared much better. His best film work came early, with the 1982 screenplay to the George A. Romero-helmed anthology horror/comedy Creepshow , and the 1985 anthology Cat’s Eye (which featured three stories, two pulled from short stories in Night Shift). Since the failure of Sleepwalkers in the early 1990s, King has focused most of his non-prose energy on the television miniseries, penning new stories for the medium (Storm of the Century, Rose Red) and lengthy adaptations of his novels (The Stand, The Shining).
Like most of the authors on our list, McMurtry has often let other writers rework his novel-to-film adaptations (which have included The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove). McMurtry’s screenplay work has been a bit more unpredictable: he wrote the 1992 film Falling From Grace for director/star John Cougar Mellencamp (don’t laugh — it’s rated “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), the 2002 TV movie Johnson County War (taken from the same historical story that inspired the notorious film Heaven’s Gate), and Brokeback Mountain , adapted from an Annie Proulx short story — which won McMurtry and co-writer Diana Ossana the 2006 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The ever-busy writer, philanthropist, and McSweeny’s founder made a decisive step towards expanding into cinema in 2009, when two film bearing his name appeared in theaters: Away We Go , a light comedy/drama written with wife Vendela Vida, and Where the Wild Things Are , an adaptation of the immortal children’s book, written with director Spike Jonze. In a twist of adaptation, Eggers then wrote a novelization of that screenplay called The Wild Things , which incorporated the considerable expansions that he and Jonze made to the slender original book.
Nick Hornby’s novels of young men stuck in perpetual adolescence have been Hollywood favorites for years, providing the genesis for High Fidelity and About a Boy, among others. Hornby write those screenplays, though he did write a film version of his “football memoir” Fever Pitch , released in 1997 with Colin Firth as Hornby’s alter ego (the resemblance to the “Americanized” version, the 2005 Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore vehicle, is passing at best). When Hornby next tried his hand at screenwriting, it was to adapt another writer’s work: British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education . Hornby’s sensitive, funny, and heartbreaking script ultimately nabbed him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
These are just a few of our choices. Who are your favorite author-turned-screenwriters?