Academy Award–winning screenwriter Norman (Shakespeare in Love) enthusiastically traces the peculiar history of screenwriting in Hollywood.
The author begins with a brisk outline of the early history of cinema, which existed as an almost purely visual medium. Stories were taken from literature, theatrical plays and other written sources—copyright laws regarding film were yet to be established—and shot on the fly, with static titles inserted later to clarify exposition when necessary. The advent of sound pictures changed movies instantly and profoundly—the actors now needed something to say. Writers with classy pedigrees from the East were brought in to supply the dialogue and scenarios, at great expense, sneering all the while at the déclassé nature of the work and the unsophisticated moguls writing the (enormous) checks. Thus was born the fractious, bruising state of affairs that persists in large part to this day. Norman makes extensive use of interviews with and letters written by luminaries from Ben Hecht to Charlie Kaufman to illuminate the deep ambivalence endemic to writing movies. Considering themselves serious artists, these men and women were and are seduced by easy money and treated like factory workers, their creative offerings subject to the whims of unlettered men concerned only with the bottom line. Norman offers accessible histories of the blacklist and the formation of the Writers Guild, evoking the radicalism and paranoia of the ’30s and ’40s. He also comprehensively analyzes the ways in which screenwriting changed and evolved—or failed to evolve—to address the fallout from television’s new mass popularity in the ’50s, the emergence of youth-driven films in the ’60s, the “movie brat” auteurs of the ’70s, the marketing-driven ’80s, the indie revolution of the ’90s and the spectacle-happy blockbusters that dominate contemporary cinema. All this makes for an entertaining and useful book, but the author’s greatest strength is his empathetic portraits of such forlorn Hollywood casualties as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who were devoured and forsaken by the endlessly hungry maw of the movies.
Not just a masterful and engaging piece of film scholarship, but a gripping cultural and social history of the United States in the 20th century.