Sunday, March 28, 2004


If only Act One would fire me, I would have no excuse NOT to be the screenwriter I originally set out to be when I went to film school and then moved from New "land of Emily Dickinson" England to Los "land of the Osbornes" Angeles. Just to keep the dream alive, I keep collecting project ideas that I am going to write as soon as I can get out from under, you know, saving the planet.

Most of my projects are based on previously existing stories. I am not an original storyteller. I always marvel at the people I meet who seem to be an endless font of original characters and story ideas. (Although, I should note that MOST people who think they have a good story sense do least not a good movie story sense...still, I think it is wondrous that people actually come up with original stories at all.) I am very good at finding a movie in an existing story, that is, if you hand me a book or a piece of history, I can pretty much "find" four or five movies in it. So, most of the scripts I want to write are based on books.

It is worth noting that not every book is going to be the stuff of a good movie. Frankly, in so far as a novelist has created a masterful work that utilizes all the power of the novelist's palette, it won't work on screen in the same way. You just can't dump one art form into another.

What you can preserve from one art form to another is the sweep of the story and what some scholars call the "distributional elements" of character, place, plot. In taking a book to the screen, you can also preserve one or two themes.

Now, a great novel is characterized by the fact that it has several themes, possibly many themes. A great movie can usually only handle one or two. It is the job of the adaptation to pull out the theme that is the most important in the novel, and build the movie around that. (I say all this with the codicil that fleshing out the theme is a polish phase stage in cinematic storytelling. Story and character have to come first.)

So, what I am saying is, this isn't a list of my favorite books, because my taste in books runs toward the psychological epic, and brilliant psychological novels that play out over sixty years almost never work on screen. Books that have defined my life - like pretty much anything by a 19th Century Russian (The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina), and most of what Taylor Caldwell was best at (A Pillar of Iron, Dynasty of Death), Don Quixote, anything Homeric - none of these are going to "work" on film. That is, they might work as something else, but they won't work as themselves because their complexity will be lost in the translation.

Secondly, I am very aware that most of the things I want to write are not commercial enough in the contemporary Hollywood studio landscape. They would all be tough to impossible sells, and the industry would have no idea how to market them. But I don't tend to get really excited about commercial movies as a matter of taste, so it makes sense that i wouldn't want to write them either. Of course, this mainly means that I probably would ridicule any of my students who wanted to write any of the following.

1) With God in Russia - I have wanted to do this movie since I read the book back in high school. Fr. Ciszek's Gulag story in this book, and then in the companion book He Leadeth Me which details his psychological/spiritual journey, has had me brooding for years. I see the main drama - and the industry necessary "universal" - in the piece revolving around how a man who wants to do God's will, keeps ending up in messes because of his inability to discern God's will. And then, he finally realizes that (to state the theme directly) "God's will isn't out there somewhere in the great things beyond the obstacles in our way today. God's Will is in the obstacles."

I also have a strong compulsion to tell some stories of the other sufferings that happened in the 20th Century, besides just those connected to Hitler. The fact is, communism a la Stalin, and Lenin and Mao and Castro -- and face it - EVERY SINGLE FRICKIN PLACE IT HAS BEEN TRIED! - is just as evil as Nazism and has ended up killing tens of millions more people. The attrocities of the Gulag - the hugest part of the "pile of corpses" (JPII) that defined the 20th Century - have been unexplored territory in Hollywood cinema. And we desperately NEED to hear the stories of the failed promises of Marxism. We need to have it driven into our collective brains, that alongside the Holocaust, "Never again Atheistic Communism! Evil! BAD, BAD, BAD!"

This story also has some kind of commerical hook in that it is an American story - albeit an underground American Jesuit who eventually gets freed from the Gulag by his family back here.

2) A Severe Mercy - by Sheldden Vanauken - I came to Hollywood thinking that this was the movie that I was supposed to see get made. Very cool and very cinematic love story based on two real pagans who met each other in the wake of WWII and then met C.S. Lewis and Jesus at Oxford. The woman dies, offering her life for the guy in such a way that his being saved is "a severe mercy" for him. Lovely stuff.

The main stories here would be the two main character's respective journeys toward God. Davy, the woman, makes her way to God because of her experience of sin. Van, on the other hand, has an aestethic and intellectual attraction for Christianity. In the end, Davy's way is the more real, and ends up saving them both.

3) Till We Have Faces - I don't care what all of you think, this work dwarfs the Narnia chronicles, and is arguably, the greatest thing C.S. Lewis ever wrote. I know that, because it is the one thing he wrote that makes me nuts because I just can't understand it -- the way there are poems of Emily Dickinson's that I don't understand. That is, great art announces itself with the disconcerting certainty that it is measuring you, and not you it.

Whatever. This work is all about how the journey to identity is bound up in our openness to love. And that our ability to see the world correctly is all bound up in whether we look at the world with love or fear. I think anyway. Today...

This story - based as it is on a mythical ancient Greekish kind of kingdom - would probably best be told in animation. It would either be great, or very silly. I don't think there would be any in between.

4) Silence, by Shushaka Endo. Again, this is one of those fabulous pro-Jesus stories, that - like The Mission - could end up seeming to be anti-Catholic in the wrong hands.

Set in 17th Century Japan, it tells the misadventures of a group of Jesuit missionaries who are sent to evangelize, two of whom apostasize against a background of many peasant martyrdoms. The theme of the peice has to do with the problem of pain: basically, the book argues that it isn't that God stays silent in the face of evil, but rather that God only falls silent after all his warnings to us have been ignored.

It's an amazing piece. Somebody has to do it. Please let it be me.

5) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn. I know, I know. Imposssible sale in the U.S. But I have long loved this book. Another Gulag story, but digestible because it goes close in on one man in one day.

The story basically shows that the sacrifice of even just one person's individuality "for the good of the State" is just too big a price too pay. A brilliant, compassionate piece that has some strong spiritual themes in it as well -- as do all the Gulag stories.

6) Memoirs, by Cardinal Mindzenty - Yet another Communism story, this time set in Hungary. Tells the true story of the Cardinal who lived for nine years in the U.S. Embassy because the Communists had him on their hit-list. For nine years he ran the church, exiled from his See, and having to avoid any windows lest the ever-present government snipers picked him off. It's a cool, true Cold War story with lots of terror, murder, faith, intrigue and oh, yes, an American angle.

7) Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset - Just starting this one, but it surely seems to me to be doable. The ideas, while profound, come through in the parable - not alongside as in the Russians. I think it could be translated to the screen - although in three movies like the three books, eh?

After these, I think I could die happy.

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