Replay: Up in the air

This post originally ran on March 25, 2010. Apologies for it coming on the heels of yesterday’s post. I try to avoid that, but yesterday’s was an impromptu thing and today’s was previously scheduled months ago.

Supposedly John Updike had this advice for a writer tempted by Hollywood: “Take the money and run.”

I thought of this recently in the wake of the excellent film Up In The Air, starring George Clooney and directed with great taste and restraint by Jason Reitman. He and writing partner Sheldon Turner adapted the screenplay from a not-very-well-known novel by Walter Kirn.

—Except, you’d barely know that from the press the film has gotten. Kirn’s name is hardly ever mentioned. Now, I haven’t read the book, but I understand the script makes a lot of radical departures from its source; still, it’s Kirn’s story ultimately, and Kirn’s idea that they used.

And if you need an indication how important ideas are for quality movies, if you need to be persuaded how much the writing supremely matters, just look at most of Hollywood’s original efforts today: great poster concepts, nothing more. (Two words for ya: Jennifer Aniston.)

William Goldman, the famed screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) and novelist (No Way to Treat A Lady, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) talks in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade about how writers tend to get no respect in Hollywood. But novelists whose works are bought up by producers seem to be especially disregarded; indeed often I will be surprised to find that a movie I loved so much was not an original work, but based on a literary work. The novelist is rarely if ever part of the DVD commentary or publication interviews; his or her thoughts are not considered. This is remarkable to me when you consider he or she gave birth to the idea that inspired the script and film, not to mention the paychecks and awards of the tuxedoed and gowned folk smiling at us at the awards shows. (Goldman tells a story of a time he went to a premiere and was asked at the entrance, “Why are you here?” Goldman’s wife said in disbelief, “He’s the writer.” “Yeah,” replied the flunkie. “Why are you here?”)

I’m not picking solely or particularly on Reitman or Up In The Air, by the way. I’m just using it as the latest example I’ve seen of this practice. How many times does the producer or director or actor who wins an Oscar thank the author of the book? Not often enough. Somehow parents, siblings, spouses, agents, colleagues and peers always get a mention. (I guess the creator of the whole effing thing isn’t considered a colleague or peer. Or even a fellow-traveler.)

It’s been this way since the days of Jack Warner and Samuel Goldwyn. Writers were at the bottom of the food chain. They got no respect, and, with few exceptions, were among the lowest-paid employees, with little say about how their product was treated after they finished their job. They got little attention—unless the picture flopped. Then it was all their fault.

I’ve heard speculation that it’s because writing is ephemeral. Few who aren’t writers understand what writers do, and some people are afraid of them, as they’re afraid of anyone they don’t understand.

I’m not sure I buy that. Few people understand what the IT department in large companies does, and without them productivity often goes to zero. Yet they aren’t treated with the disdain that writers are. I think most people don’t respect writers because they think writing is just slapping down words, and anybody who’s got a tongue in their head can do that, right? Therefore, anyone, include them, is a writer—they just “don’t have time for it,” but they could do our jobs if they did. They don’t understand that writing is about conception, structure, weight, velocity. It’s a lot like being a musician. But until someone’s really tried it—and I don’t mean slapping words down, I mean conceiving, planning and executing a complete written work themselves—they have no idea what writing even is, past a shopping list. But they know they can’t get off the ground without it, and that frustrates them.

Not that I feel sorry for some writer whose moderately-selling book is turned into a hit movie. Not that I wouldn’t be thrilled to be one of them. Maybe Updike was right.

But as a member of the audience, I’d sure like to hear more insights from the writer. After all, if the Bible had a commentary track, who would you rather hear from: God, or whoever did the book’s stitching and binding?

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2 responses

  1. Maureen Owen

    John, great points. There’s definitely this fascination with all the window dressing more than with the actual process of creating something. Maybe it’s at least partly because writing is, at heart, dull work. Nothing glamorous to talk about. But the writer is often the most overlooked, as you say. Not being a creative person myself, I can’t say I can relate, but I do notice that at the Academy Awards the writers are talked about the least of anyone, and that even includes costumes and sets!

    March 26, 2010 at 6:53 pm

  2. Yes. yes. yes. Your line about John Updike reminds me of a time in my life when a big client of the company I worked for sent me a short note that can only be described as a love letter. I was young, he was not. To me, it felt slimey at best. I realized then I was not in the same mindset of others around me, not even on the same page. They all suggested I go for it, that, after all, he has lots of money. Like it’s acceptable to do odious things for the sake of it.

    The Updike example is a different category altogether, but strangely similar.

    On another note, what you say about the recognition of a writer and how one is treated carries over into the literary world as well. It’s shocking what writers’ journals or publishers offer as not only acceptable but normal compensation to upcoming writers,tokens of payment like a magazine copy or the big sum of $50 for pieces most writers struggle over for months. For that, writers get to wait six months for a response to know if they’ll get that $50 even, at the same time promising they’ll keep their product off the market until they know that it’s been rejected.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:03 pm

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