06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go

by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.


  1. Interesting post on how writers dealt with Hollywood and TV. I used to dream someone would stumble on one of my books or read one of the screenplays I submitted, and want to film it.

  2. Well, Rex Stout lost that battle. Personally, I'm dreaming that someday someone will read one of my Laskin stories and decide that South Dakota would be GREAT for a new TV series...

  3. "Well, Rex Stout lost that battle." With the approval of his heirs, I think it important to point out.

    I met Goldsborough years ago, and liked him a lot...the books, not so much.

  4. I would note that the movies made, in the 1930s, based (loosely) on Stout's books, took huge liberties with the books. And are all but unwatchable (in my opinion).

    "Meet Nero Wolfe" (1936; https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027952/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1), with Edward Arnold as Wolfe and Lionel Stander as Goodwin seems totally unrelated to anything Stout wrote, and is awful.

    "The League of Frightened Men" (1937; with Walter Connolly as Wolfe, and Stander again as Goodwin) is (very slightly) better, but still awful.

    I'm betting that the checks (for the rights) didn't bounce.

  5. Somewhere I have a copy of an anthology of short-stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's shows where the authors made comments on the T.V. version. (Somewhere; I have to find it! :)) Me, I think I'd grit my teeth and think of the money! On the other hand, Stephen King has claimed that his story "Children of the Corn" has inspired more bad sequels than anything else he wrote, and has disavowed all of them!

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. Over on Facebook my sister, the novelist Diane Chamberlain, wrote: "I welcome the opportunity to complain about how the powers-that-be change one of my books for the big screen."

    I thought Larry Block wrote (but apparently not in the interview I quoted above): "It's easy to resist a temptation that no one offers."

  7. I forgot to mention that Steve Hockensmith permitted Jonathan Turner to write (and publish) a story about his characters, the Amlingmeyer brothers. https://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-case-of-disapppearing-passenger-by.html


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