Mostly Men, Mostly White, Mostly Crime Authors Tell All
“But what is it really like?” is a question we’ll never tire of asking. In the case of Hollywood, the answers are legion. One version lies in the tabloids, and another in the tell-alls. But what it’s really like for writers is a different set of questions. A new anthology from Rare Bird/Barnacle Books, Hollywood vs. the Author, sets out to answer the question for the morbid and the curious, specifically regarding where writing and the movies collide.
Although it’s a collection worth reading, the book doesn’t range wide enough to be more useful than a handful of articles recommended by Google. Nearly all the authors who contributed work are crime writers, and nearly all of them are men. A large percentage of them are, in fact, white male mystery writers above age 55. Lee Goldberg, Max Allan Collins, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Alan Jacobson, Jonathan Kellerman. Not all of them tell the same story, but demographically, all of them are similar. Four of the eighteen pieces in the collection are by women, and two are by non-crime writers. Two of the female authors are Asian, and that’s the end of the collection’s diversity.
The editor, Stephen Jay Schwartz, clearly asked around his network to source the anthology, and that’s fine, I guess. But I’m certain that adapting a novel like The Book Thief has a very different story than adapting Bosch. Moreover, these stories split into only a few categories: the “I’m very lucky and thus cool with my adaptations” mood, the “Hollywood is mean and terrible and they treated me like I didn’t matter when I’m clearly a genius” mood, and, rarest, the “here’s what I learned” mood.
The latter includes essays like Tess Gerritsen’s. She wrote a novel called Gravity in 1999, which was meticulously researched and fairly successful. It clearly served as the basis for Alfonso Cuarón’s film of the same name, but was never credited. She sued the studio unsuccessfully. It’s a heartbreaking tale and well worth reading. Then there’s Diana Gould, who condenses decades of work as a television writer and producer into a pointed narrative of both successes and disappointments. Her essay was by far the most helpful and experientially authentic, and I’m baffled by its placement near the end of a volume filled with samey, bitter recountings.
However, Hollywood vs. the Author succeeds in its aim, which is informing its readers what it’s really like to work in Hollywood. Namely: It sucks. Producers are impossible to satisfy and uninterested in art. Studios are hilariously corrupt and powerful, bleeding the creative spirit dry. Time is a little unreal, as it could take two weeks to sign a lucrative contract and ten or twenty years to see a film get made.
“Hollywood can mangle an author’s work, turning it from a masterpiece into toilet paper with the sleight of hand of a stage magician, but without any of the majesty or charm,” says Peter James. “No one’s gonna believe you. You’re just a writer,” says Gerritsen. “I know a number of successful screenwriters. I don’t know if I know a happy screenwriter,” says Schwartz. All the authors agree that the money is good, and the smartest thing to do is take it and don’t look back, even if you’re treated unfairly.
Only Gregg Hurwitz has discovered the secret: act like you don’t need them, and they’ll treat you just fine. Which is fucked up, and exactly what I’ve learned after six years of living in L.A. myself. That’s what it’s really like.
(Rare Bird Books, September 18, 2018)