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Famous Authors Who Ventured into Screenwriting

By Kristin Masters. Jul 25, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Legendary Authors, Movie Tie-Ins

On July 26, 1942, legendary author William Faulkner started a five-month stint as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers. By this time Faulkner had already made a name for himself as a prominent literary figure, thanks to The Sound and the  Fury (1929), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). But Faulkner had yet to attain any financial stability from his writing, so he turned to screenwriting to generate additional income. He penned two screenplays: To Have and Have Not (based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway); and The Big Sleep (based on the eponymous Raymond Chandler novel). Both movies starred Humphrey Bogart and met with critical acclaim. 

Faulkner has hardly been the only author to "go Hollywood"; the practice was particularly common in the 1930's through the 1950's, and plenty of modern authors have made their way to screenwriting. 

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

In 1943, Tennessee Williams' sister, Rose, underwent a lobotomy to treat her schizophrenia. The procedure left Rose only a shadow of her former self, which devastated her family. Williams' agent Audrey Woods decided that Williams needed a change of scene--and a new opportunity. She got Williams a position as a screenwriter for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. He penned a script for a movie about a troubled Southern family, but the script was rejected. The studio allowed Williams to keep the rights to the story, so he adapted it for a stage play; The Glass Menagerie debuted in Chicago on December 26, 1944 to glowing reviews. More on Tennesee Williams>>


John Steinbeck

Perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception."

Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his documentary The Forgotten Village (1941). When Alfred Hitchcock was searching for a screenwriter for his Lifeboat (1944), he first considered Ernest Hemingway and a few others before awarding the project to Steinbeck. More on John Steinbeck>>



Ayn Rand

Only two days after arriving in Los Angeles in 1926, Ayn Rand had quite a stroke of luck. She met director Cecil DeMille, who hired Rand to write screenplays for $25 a week. Rand mostly worked on Hollywood fluff. After a few years, Rand left for New York. She returned to Los Angeles after the success of The Fountainhead (1943), which was adapted into a movie starring Gary Cooper in 1949. More on Ayn Rand>>


F Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald did two short stints as a screenwriter in 1927 and 1931--both times spending more then he made. The author returned in Hollywood in 1937, broke and desperate to overcome alcoholism. He signed a contract with MGM for $1,000 a week (quite a tidy sum in those days), later renewing for $1,250 a week. Fitzgerald would stay there, working as a screenwriter, for over two years--longer than most "serious" writers. He wrote prodigously during his Hollywood years, leaving behind thousands of manuscript pages.

But the vast majority of Fitzgerald's films, like "Madame Curie" and "A Yank at Oxford," have fallen into obscurity. He picked up only one screenwriting credit, for "Three Comrades" (1938), based on Erich Marie Remarque's novel. Fitzgerald was also invited to work on the screenplay for Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, but he was forbidded to use any words that Mitchell hadn't used in the text, and the project ended disastrously. More on F Scott Fitzgerald>>


Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter's career as a playwright began in 1957 with the first production of The Room. He went on to become one of England's most influential dramatists, and to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Pinter added screenwriting to his list of accomplishments with "The Servant" (1963), an adaptation of Robin Maugham's novel directed by Joseph Losey. The two also collaborated on "Accident" (1967), based on Nicholas Mosley's novel, and "The Go-Between" (1970), based on the novel by LP Hartley. 

Pinter penned a total of 27 screenplays for television and cinema. He adapted some of his own works, like The Caretaker, along with a number of works by prominent authors like John Fowles, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Franz Kafka. Pinter was commissioned to write screenplays of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tail, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. But none of these projects was completed. More on Harold Pinter>>


Gore Vidal

Legendary author Gore Vidal signed a contract as a screenwriter with MGM and enjoyed early success with an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer. But Williams took all the credit. Vidal's contributions also went without official acknowledgement in 1959 with "Ben-Hur." Vidal says that there were twelve different versions of the script, which is part of the reason he wasn't listed as the film's screenwriter. But Vidal claims he introduced the homosexual undertone to the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. 

Later Vidal wrote the screenplay to "Caligula," which was directed by Tinto Brass and co-founded by Penthouse magazine. Roger Ebert called the film "sickening, utterly worthless, shameless trash." Vidal disowned the film altogether. He was more enthusiatic about his adaptation of the award-winning play, "The Best Man." More on Gore Vidal>>



Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman's career in cinema began in the reading room at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, where Hellman earned $50 a week reading potential screenplays. Meanwhile, she worked on her own authorial interests. Her play The Children's Hour premiered on Broadway in November 1934 and ran for an incredible 691 performances. When Hellman returned to Hollywood from New York, it was as a screenwriter--at $2,500 per week. Screenwriters of the era frequently went uncredited for their work, and Hellman passionately took up that issue after she joined the struggling Screen Writers Guild in 1935. 

Hellman flourished as an author. But all that came screeching to a halt when she was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Hellman denied that she was a Communist and refused to answer the committee's questions. But Hellman's politics were patently obvious, not least because she was involved with left-wing writer Dashiell Hammett. Hellman was blacklisted by the government and found herself unwelcome in Hollywood thereafter. More on Lillian Hellman>>


Raymond Chandler

British-born novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler turned to writing after he lost his job as an oil company executive. Chandler published seven novels during his lifetime, and all but one (Playback) was turned into a movie. Thanks to Chandler's success both on and off screen, he enjoyed demand as a screenwriter. 

Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on "Double Indemnity" (1944), based on the eponymous novel by James Cain. The screenplay earned Chandler an Academy Award nomination. In 1946, "The Blue Dahlia" made its debut.Chandler originally hadn't written an ending for the movie, and he told producer John Houseman that he'd only do it drunk. Houseman acquiesced, so Chandler finished the screenplay--which earned him a second Oscar nomination. 

Chandler worked     with Alfred Hitchcock on "Strangers on a Train," based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Chandler found the story implausible, which caused friction with Hitchcock. The two eventually stopped talking, especially after Hitchcock found out that Chandler had called him a "fat bastard." But Chandler still got credit for the screenplay! 



Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton started his writing career during his undergraduate days at Harvard University, as an editor for the Harvard Crimson. After taking a creative writing class, he also started writing fiction. Crichton went on to medical school, and he decided to publish his first book pseudonymously. His first five books would be published under the names John Lange or Jeffrey Hudson. It was in 1969, the same year that Crichton completed medical school, that Crichton won an Edgar Award for A Case of Need. The honor convinced Crichton to pursue a career as an author and publish under his own name. 

Since then Crichton has written a prodigous number of bestsellers, most famously Jurassic Park. Many of his books have been adapted for film. Meanwhile, Crichton directed a number of films himself, including "The Great Train Robbery" (1979), "Runaway" (1984), and "Physical Evidence" (1989). He wrote the screenplays for "Extreme Close-Up" (1973) and "Twister" (1996). More about Michael Crichton>>


Cormac McCarthy

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy has written ten novels in a wide variety of genres, from Southern Gothic to post-apocalyptic. His No Country for Old Men (2005) was adapted for film and won four Academy Awards. All the Pretty HorsesThe Road, and Child of God all also made their way to the silver screen. It was only natural, then, that McCarthy would eventually try his hand at screenwriting. In October 2013, McCarthy's first produced screenplay, "The Counselor" made its debut. Directed by Ridley Scott, it featured a star studded cast: Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. On reviewer said of "The Counselor," "McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life"--and he meant it as a compliment. More on Cormac McCarthy>>

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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