Too often we put artists in one category and file them away as masters of a single trade. In reality, though, most artists toy with many different mediums: playwrights dip their toes in acting, actors release novels (some even worth reading) and novelists write for the screen. The cynic in us might like to believe that it’s just to make some extra dough, and, yes, that certainly is the case for some of the people on this list. (Faulkner, Fitzgerald: We’re looking at you.) But many writers find themselves inspired and invigorated by writing in a completely different form than the novel or short story. Take a look at the 11 authors below to learn how screenwriting affected their career and their writing.
1. Joan Didion
Didion is best known for her novels and literary nonfiction, but she’s an accomplished screenwriter as well. She’s written five screenplays, including the film version of her novel Play It as It Lays. In a 2006 interview with The Paris Review, Didion remarked that screenwriting is “not writing,” but rather “making notes for the director.” Her film The Panic in Needle Park, adapted from the book by James Mills and written with Didion’s late husband John Gregory Dunne, is currently available to stream on Netflix.
2. William Faulkner
Though Faulkner is remembered mostly for his fiction writing, the Nobel Prize laureate also had his hand in just about every kind of writing imaginable, including screenwriting. He worked on more than two dozen film scripts — ranging from original work to adaptation to collaborations — throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. Even though Faulkner had already published several novels by this time, including The Sound and the Fury, screenwriting proved to be a steadier income. His most notable contribution to the film community is The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. In 1997, the U.S. Library of Congress added the film to the National Film Registry, citing its cultural and historical significance.
3. Dave Eggers
A Renaissance man if there ever was one, Eggers is an accomplished writer, publisher, philanthropist (his non-profit organization 826 National served over 31,000 students last year alone) and, yes, screenwriter. He and his wife Vendela Vida wrote the screenplay for the film Away We Go, which was directed by Sam Mendes and starred John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. Eggers went on to adapt Maurice Sendak’s classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are with Spike Jonze, turning the 338-word picture book into a stunning film.
4. Michael Chabon
Chabon’s most notable work is his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but he’s also had a long interest in screenwriting. He even turned his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a screenplay, though it’s yet to be bought. Chabon is, however, the writer of two films that did make it to the big screen: He was one of the writers responsible for John Carter, which, yes, was that Disney movie about a Civil War vet who finds himself on Mars; and he also wrote the screen story for Spider-Man 2.
5. Roald Dahl
Many of Dahl’s children’s books were adapted into classic kid films (see: Matilda and James and the Giant Peach), but that’s not the only time his work has been seen on the silver screen. Alongside screenwriter and director Ken Hughes, Dahl wrote the screenplay for the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He also wrote the screenplay for the thriller The Night Digger, the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and, perhaps most notably, the adaptation of his own novel, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
6. Nick Hornby
Nobody knows adaptations like Hornby. His book High Fidelity was turned into both a film and a Broadway musical, and his novel About a Boy had been made into both a film and, as of this year, a TV series. His novel Fever Pitch has been adapted for the screen twice, once by Hornby and once as an Americanized version starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. All this experience with adaptation made Hornby the perfect candidate to adapt Lynn Barber’s autobiographical memoir for the screen. The result? An Education, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, for which Hornby was nominated for an Oscar.
7. Ray Bradbury
Yes, Bradbury wrote a screenplay, and yes, it was an adaptation, but no, it was not for Fahrenheit 451. In 1953, director John Huston hired Bradbury to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The film was released in 1956, and Bradbury went on to give a fictionalized account of the Moby-Dick screenwriting process in his 1992 novel Green Shadows, White Whale.
8. Stephen King
The novelist has worked on 19 screenplays, including one that he also directed, the 1986 horror film Maximum Overdrive. In a 2012 Q&A at UMass Lowell, King opened up about the art of screenplay writing, saying, “I had been writing novels full time for a year and a half, and I said to myself, ‘I want to learn how to write movies. I want to try, anyway. … It wasn’t for anybody except for me.” King admitted that “for a long time [he] felt movies were a lesser medium,” but that he “came to realize that films have a language of their own.”
9. Truman Capote
Though Capote did write the short story responsible for inspiring the classic movie by the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Audrey Hepburn film isn’t what gave him his screenwriting credit. He co-wrote the screenplay for the John Huston film Beat the Devil with the director and wrote the screenplay for the 1961 horror film The Innocents alongside William Archibald.
10. Aldous Huxley
Huxley is best known for writing the dystopian novel Brave New World, but he also adapted classic novels for the screen, including the screenplays for Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943).
11. F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the summer of 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood. He was broke and in debt, and threw himself into screenwriting, which yielded far more money than writing novels. Chances are that you haven’t even heard of most of the films he wrote, the vast majority of which he was uncredited for. A Yank at Oxford, Madame Curie, Winter Carnival, Red-Headed Woman — these films have a screenwriter whose a classic American writer, and yet they’ve managed to become long forgotten. Fitzgerald was only credited for one film during his life, the 1938 picture Three Comrades.
What do you think authors gain from dipping their toes in the pool of screenwriting? Do you agree with Didion that screenwriting is “not writing,” or do you side more with King, who believes that “films have a language of their own?” Let us know in the comments below.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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