by James Maxey
My first novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, came out back in 2003. It was released by the now defunct publisher Phobos Books, run by people who had a background in the film industry. I went to the release party on the roof of a trendy Soho apartment building in NYC and literally felt like I was on top of the world. A very common compliment given to me that night was, “Your book would make a great movie!” I probably heard it a dozen times that evening. I’ve since gone on to publish three more novels (Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed) and with the release of each one, I’m approached by well-meaning fans who ask, “When’s the movie coming out?”
My normal response is to smile and thank people for their compliment. I know that they intend their words as praise. But, deep down, even at that first launch party, I’ve always felt the sting of an unintended insult. No longer is writing a novel considered to be an artistic achievement with its own inherent value. Now, writing a novel is merely the first step toward the higher goal of having your story turned into a movie.
This is hardly a new development. Books have been adapted into films since the earliest days of the genre. Conan Doyle published The Lost World in 1912 and in 1925 it became one of the earliest special effects blockbusters. There was a time when movies adapted novels because film was still considered a low-brow art form, and they could gain a bit of intellectual respectability by associating themselves with the more noble art of books.
But, at some point, the question of intellectual respectability became moot in the face of a much more obvious truth: Movies could rake in money that book publishing can only dream of. Many books are considered successful if they sell in the tens of thousands. Sell a hundred thousand copies of a book, and you’ve got a best-seller. On the other hand, if your novel gets adapted into a successful movie, tens of millions of people can wind up viewing it. And, there will be a spillover to sales of the actual book. If you care about having your work reach the widest possible audience, there’s little doubt that a movie release will connect you to new readers. Television and radio talk shows that would never invite on an author to discuss his or her latest work will gladly feature an author who’s there to talk about a book that’s soon to be released as a movie. No author can afford to turn down a promotional opportunity like this.
That said, there’s something kind of sad about the current state of affairs. Original works of art aren’t considered complete until the film has been made. Alan Moore’s Watchmen wasn’t even fully released back in the 80’s before I heard fans talking about how great the movie was going to be. And, after cringe inducing adaptations of Moore’s concepts like Hellblazer, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the Watchmen movie was relatively faithful to its source material. But, watching the film, I felt pangs of guilt. Moore hadn’t set out to write a great movie. He’d set out to write a great comic book, and succeeded. But we live in a world where it’s not enough of an accomplishment to write what some would argue is the best comic book of all time. You haven’t reached the apex of fame, wealth, and respectability until your story has hit the big screen.
Since none of my books have been adapted to film, I suppose I can be accused of crying sour grapes. So, let me admit outright that if I were offered any sum of money for the movie rights to my books, I would cash the check without the least twinge of guilt. But, also let me state that if I were interested in writing movies, I’m certain I have the necessary story-telling skills and could master the mechanics of writing scripts with a practice. The same is true of comic books: Nobody Gets the Girl was a novel about superheroes, and early on people have been telling me it would make a great comic book. Maybe, but I didn’t set out to write a comic book. I chose to write a novel because I think there are still truths of the human condition that are best conveyed via prose fiction. Films (and comic books) are visual mediums, where the story is conveyed primarily through pictures. Novels, on the other hand, are an art form that comes hauntingly close to telepathy. I’m placing thoughts rather nakedly onto the page, and another human being is able to come along and fill her head with these thoughts. Good writing is said to invoke the senses, and I do strive to fill my works with sights, sounds, and scents, but in truth good writing leap frogs right over the physical senses to engage the mind directly. In a movie, you can watch people on screen as they laugh and cry and eat and make love. With a book, you can, for a moment, become the person doing these things.
There’s an intimacy, a connection between the author and the reader, that no other medium can accomplish. I have my favorite films like anyone, but the greatest moments of artistic connection I’ve ever felt have come from reading. I didn’t just watch Winston being torn apart by Big Brother, I lived it. I didn’t just listen to Huck Finn explaining why he’d choose damnation over betraying his friend Jim; I was there inside his soul, feeling the full weight of the consequences. These were moments of connection for me, moments when I felt like I’d been freed from the prison of my own self to catch a glimpse of the world through another person’s eyes. These are the moments I’m striving to create every time I sit down to write another novel or short story. I can’t imagine even the most faithful adaptation of my work to the big screen ever achieving this.
Of course, maybe I’ve got a distorted picture of the world, living here in a small town in the American South. Maybe out in Hollywood, screen writers, directors and actors feel a certain sting as they come out of their movie premiers and fans walk up, shake their hands, and say, “What a wonderful film! Maybe one day they’ll make a novel out of it.”
You can listen to the audio from when James was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here: https://www.audioacrobat.com/play/WsGGTZ94