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Most people worry about losing their jobs. The higher up the cooperate ladder they climb, the worse it becomes. The farther they can fall. You hear people say: “What if I lose my job?” “What can I do if I am laid off?” “I’m too old to start another profession.” It’s a concern, and one that most people must face. What if they lose their jobs?
That is one of the rewards of writing. Writers don’t lose their jobs. They just change editors.
One of the toughest decisions I had to make in my life was to give up my government job in Washington to become a full-time writer. I knew once I made that decision there would be no turning back. I had to be honest with myself, and above all, sincere. I could not compromise the truth. No matter what else I had to do, I had to adhere to these principles for, without, I would be just a hack. I had to turn away and completely make a break. And I had to go as far away as possible, and to use the cliché, I had to “bum all my bridges behind me.” I decided on the South Pacific, and to get there, I took a bus from Washington to Mexico City, hitchhiked my way down through Central America and caught a freighter in Panama to the Pacific. When I climbed aboard that bus in Washington, one world ended and another began. I called it my rebirth. No longer could I make excuses. No longer could I blame others. It was totally up to me now. I had made up my mind. I would not burden myself with regrets. The die was cast. I was going to be a writer.
After I made up my mind what direction I would go, I discovered that freedom from the nine-to-five, with no boss telling me what do, didn’t mean freedom from work. I would have to work harder than ever. And now, instead of one boss telling me what to do, I had as many as the publications I wrote for. The saving grace, however, was that not all of them would fire me, as long as I produced. I made sure I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. A writer need not ever be out of work. The world always needs writers.
Doors open to writers that wouldn’t normally open to the average person, the businessman or vagabond, the scholar or the bystander. The reason becomes quite obvious in a very short time. People, or most people, love to see their names in print, and they are aware writers can do this for them. On the other hand, there are those who perhaps fear the writer, for they might have something they don’t want known, and it’s these people who treat writers kindly, false as it may often be.
Indeed, one of the big rewards of writing is meeting people, people you wouldn’t normally meet. That could be bank presidents, Hollywood stars or even a hit man. True, I even interviewed a hit man.
I found it fascinating to be a writer for the Bangkok Post. I received my assignments from editors to interview new faces in town, everyone from Hollywood actors to entertainer and from noted authors to bureaucrats. It was most interesting for I knew if I met these same people on the street and said hello they would probably look the other way. But when I appeared in a hotel lounge with notebook and pencil in hand they mellowed. Some of these celebrities I found interesting; others not. Some completely threw me off guard, like novelist Han Suyin, author of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. At lunch at the Lord Jim at the Oriental Hotel, instead of me interviewing her, she interviewed me. She was fascinated with my living in Bangkok and had question after question to ask. When lunch was over and we parted, I thought, “What an interesting person she is.” It then came to me that I hardly knew anything more about her than I did before.
Writers’ rewards can be many if we want to take advantage of them. As I mentioned, authors get invited to parties and social functions not because they might have a storming personality or that they are interesting conversationalists. They get invited because they are authors. That’s it. Party givers like to have an artist or a writer hanging around. Artists and writers add color to a gathering. They don’t even have to say anything, which makes them even more interesting. Normally I don’t like parties but I have to remind myself that parties and social gatherings are what provide me with material to write about. Thomas Wolfe wrote some of his best prose from material he gathered at parties, parties that he disliked.
Then there is the supposition that writers ‘have power, another reward. But power in this case must be used wisely. When a writer has readers he then has influence. And influence can become power, positive or negative, depending upon how we use it.
We have all heard the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. A writer can make or break a person. Take Bob Woodward as an example. Remember him? He was an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. While delving into a story, along with co-journalist Carl Bernstein, he helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. President Nixon was out and Bob Woodward was in. Now with his name behind him, Woodward wrote twelve best-selling non-fiction books and has twice contributed reporting to efforts that collectively earned the Post and its National Reporting staff a Pulitzer Prize. Bob Woodward realized the power of the pen and he used it to his advantage.
Writers may not be aware of their power and influence. They can be that part that becomes greater than the whole. I don’t think Karl Marx fully realized the impact his writing would have on the world. He wrote and published (with Friedrich Engels) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848), commonly known as The Communist Manifesto, the most celebrated pamphlet in the history of the socialist movement. He also was also the author of the movement’s most important book, Das Kapital. These writings and others by Marx and Engels form the basis of the body of thought and belief known as Marxism. Indeed, Marx and Engels used writing to air their grievances, proof that the pen can be as sharp as a knife and just as destructive.
Writers can create images and, if they are powerful enough, readers will believe them. I remember the marvelous promotion the Beatles had. I was teaching school in Washington when newspapers began running ads for what was to turn out to be the world’s most popular singers. The ad was so simple at first-four wigs and the words THE BEATLES. Those same wigs appeared time and time again, and I couldn’t help wondering what they represented. Before long, we were all booked. Who were the BEATLES? You didn’t have to ask.
In 1960, Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote a book called Child Care and changed the next generation of parenthood. It was translated into 42 languages and sold almost 50 million copies. His philosophy, as stated in Child Care, was that parents should not spank or discipline their children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem. Children should be free to express themselves. (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). His writing is alleged to have created a generation of misfits and delinquents. We can ask ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves. That is what the power of the pen can do.
Call it a reward, or perhaps the antithesis of a reward, an anathema perhaps, but a writer can shape the world. They can do this not only by their printed word but also from adaptations of their work, and this we call cinema.
Without the writer where would the cinema be? Actors get the credit, directors get the awards, the cameramen and the costume designers are lauded, but it’s the writer that is often the last on the list to be mentioned, if not forgotten all together. The scriptwriter is the one who will get the credit. And who, after all, is a scriptwriter but someone who feeds on writers.
Nevertheless, writers want to see their work made into movies. It’s their ultimate recognition, and it’s every writer’s dream, whether they want to admit it or not. For certain it’s these movies that have a profound influence on the public. Directors and producers look for good material and they turn to novels and short stories for that need. Somerset Maugham was one of the first writers to set the pattern. In 1928, his short story “Sadie Thompson” was adapted to the silent movie screen and starred Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. It was retitled as Rain. The following year, Hollywood took his short story “The Letter” and with stars like Jeanne Bagels and Herbert Marshall, it became a hit. Maugham couldn’t fail after that, especially after 1932 when Rain became the first sound movie to be made and starred Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. Others of his to follow were Of Human Bondage in 1934, The Painted Veil in 1934, The Vessel of Wrath in 1938, The Moon and Sixpence in 1942 and The Razors Edge in 1946.
The remake of Maugham’s movies continues to this day. The Letter appeared three times more, Of Human Bondage and The Razors Edge twice and only recently in 2006 The Painted Veil hit the big screen again. In the British movie industry, J. Arthur Rank applied an unusual technique to movie making by taking several of Maugham’s short stories and collectively turning them into movies. These were Quartet in 1948, Trio in 1950 and Enore in 1952. Maugham appeared as himself in the introductions.
Oftentimes, sadly, the public is not aware of who the authors are in movie hits. Being Julia, released in 2004 and starring Annette Bening was based on Maugham’s novel Theatre. And as I mentioned, there was The Painted Veil in 2006 that starred two top performers, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Maugham was hardly mentioned.
Ernest Hemingway died more than forty years ago and Hollywood continues to make movies from his books and short stories. It began in 1932 with adapting A Farewell to Arms to the silver screen. The movie starred Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s good friend. Cooper did Hemingway the honors again when For Whom the Bell Tolls was filmed with Cooper taking the lead role. His leading lady was Ingrid Bergman. The Old Man and the Sea was filmed three times: in 1958 with Spencer Tracy; in 1990 with Anthony Quinn; and in 1999 there was an animated version with the voices of Gordon Pinsent and Kevin Delaye. There were many others that became movies taken from Hemingway’s novels-To Have and Have Not, The Sun Also Rises and Islands in the Stream, and from his short stories-“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Killers.” Hollywood wasn’t short of big names to play Hemingway’s characters–Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Lee Marvin and George C. Scott.
And no writer was more loved in Hollywood than James Michener. Michener’s book Hawaii was so big they had to break it down and take chapters for the film by the same name. The first film Hawaii was in 1966 and starred Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews. The movie focused only on the book’s third chapter, “From the Farm of Bitterness,” which covered the settlement of the island kingdom by the first American missionaries. A 1970 sequel, The Hawaiians, starring the late Charlton Heston, covered subsequent chapters, including the arrival of the Chinese and Japanese and the growth of the plantations.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a novel about a Korean War pilot assigned to bomb a group of heavily defended bridges, was made into a motion picture in 1953 by Paramount Pictures. It won the Special Effects Oscar at the 28th Academy Awards.
Centennial was made into a popular twelve-part television miniseries of the same name that aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979.
Sayonara is a 1957 film which tells the story of an American Air Force flier who was a fighter “Ace” during the Korean War. Directed by Joshua Logan it starred Marlon Brando. Michener handled very well the problems of racism and prejudice. Brando certainly got carried away with his role. He went back to America and took up the fight for the plight of the American Indians.
And certainly one of the most successful Broadway plays turned into a top run movie was the musical South Pacific with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Broadway play and the movie came from Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
Now the million dollar question, how do books become movies? I recall some of those how-to-do books I read when I dreamed of becoming a writer. They told hungry authors how for $29.95 they could sell to the movies. The writers of these books applied every trick in the trade to dupe young writers into buying their books.
There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Imagine the countless books a movie producer receives each year. He hardly has the time, nor takes the time, to read but a few, if any at all. But film scripts do reach them. That’s obvious for there wouldn’t be movies if there hadn’t been scripts. Nevertheless, it takes a special skill to write a script, and even then it’s a gamble that it will ever be bought up. Writers have to ask themselves, do they want to spend months preparing a film script with the likelihood it may never be read?
Writers like to see their works become movies, if not for money for recognition. But it’s a sad tale when writers count on it. The late Mario Puzo had his opinion, both humorous and honest, on the subject of selling to the movies. Puzo certainly was a writer with movie experience, an author who wrote a number of bestselling novels, including The Godfather, Fools Die, and The Last Don. He warned aspiring scriptwriters that the only way to get a fair deal in Hollywood is to go into the studio with a mask and gun. Sounds harsh but it’s true. You need a gun to get them to listen. But don’t ever try it.
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