Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How movies benefit literature

More people watch movies than read novels, yet the movie industry still benefits novelists. Let us count the ways.

1. The sale of movie rights keeps writers writing.

It can take months, even years to write a novel. For full-time writers, that can mean a long time between publishers' advances (if any) and royalty checks (if any). When authors can sell movie rights to one of their novels for a good sum, that can be enough to feed their families while allowing them time to write their next book without having to look for a job.

Graham Greene hated most of the movies made from his novels, but he took a philosophical view. "You take the money, you go on writing for another year or two, you have no just ground for complaint. And the smile in the long run will be on your face. For the book has the longer life." Greene wrote this before Turner Classic Movies, DVDs and Netflix made it possible for movies to live forever, but even so his viewpoint is sound. When an author sells the rights to his novel, the director then has the right to change the plot, change the characters and even change the title as desired. Whether the movie succeeds or flops, the author still has the money to continue writing. And the quality of the movie does not affect the quality of the novel.

2. Novelists are in demand as screenwriters.

This is another way Hollywood provides writers with income to supplement their writing careers. Sometimes authors are asked to write the screenplays for their own novels. Other times they are asked to adapt someone else's novel or to write original screenplays. They may be invited to revise another person's screenplay or to collaborate with other screenwriters. This can be a frustrating life for a writer, who feels Hollywood is pulling him away from his novel writing even as it is giving him the money to do it.

Among the many novelists who have spent time as screenwriters are William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, William Goldman, James Agee, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Michael Crichton, Nick Hornby, Raymond Chandler and John Steinbeck. Some have begrudged their time spent in the film industry, while others, like McMurtry, treasure it for it has given them money to pursue their first love, while in some cases providing them with ideas for new novels. (Consider McMurtry's Loop Group, set in Hollywood.)

3. Movies can help sell more books

Not that movies adapted from novels always boost sales of those novels. I suspect that the long ride of The Girl on the Train at the top of the best-seller lists will soon end now that the movie version is out. Those who haven't already read the novel may feel less inclined to do so after seeing the movie. They already know what happens. But the sales of other novels, those that never became best-sellers, can jump when the film is released and a movie tie-in paperback edition is published. Popular movies can also prompt fans to seek out other novels by the same author on whose work the film was based. I suspect the other novels by Charles Portis, to cite one example, sold much better after True Grit became a hit movie. I know I bought several of them.

4. Some movies celebrate writers and their work.

Consider the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris in which a fictional contemporary writer finds himself magically transported to Paris before World War II, where he meets Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. Or consider Shakespeare in Love, The Jane Austen Book Club, Becoming Jane (also about Jane Austen), Miss Potter (about the life of Beatrix Potter) and any number of other movies about writers and books. Even the romantic comedy You've Got Mail could be placed in this group.

Whether or not films about books and about writers increase the sales of books, they nevertheless do honor the world of literature. And that can't be a bad thing.

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