T.C. Boyle

Cinemaphile/Cinemaphobe: Me and the Movies

I love movies, of course I love movies. I knew movies before I knew books, grow­ing up in a work­ing class fam­i­ly, as I did.  With us, the TV nev­er failed, switched on when we got home from school and work respec­tive­ly, switched off when we went to bed.  The ear­li­est movies I remem­ber were the old black-and-white flicks of the thir­ties and for­ties that played night­ly on the lit­tle screen, over which my par­ents, for­ti­fied with their high­balls, waxed nos­tal­gic.  Back then I nev­er real­ly under­stood the appeal of the lead­ing ladies—Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and the like—who were just old women from a bygone era to my way of think­ing (which has now, need­less to say, been adjust­ed by the pas­sage of the years).  I was more attuned to the net­work prime-time line­up than to the old stuff, but every once in a while “The Million Dollar Movie” caught my atten­tion, espe­cial­ly when “King Kong” or “Mighty Joe Young” played over and over for a week at a time.  Then too, like most kids of the era, I went reg­u­lar­ly to the movie the­ater, secret­ing myself among my cohorts in the dark recess­es of Peekskill’s ven­er­a­ble Paramount Theater to won­der over the rich­es of mar­vels like “Rodan” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”

As I grew into my teens and my tastes enlarged (whether as a result of the advent of books or not, I can’t say), I saw some tru­ly great films there, “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Night of the Iguana,” to name two that have held up bril­liant­ly over the years.  Still, I didn’t think so much in eval­u­a­tive terms, of the movie-mak­ing process or of direc­tors or even stars.  I was just there for the ride, and some films—like books, like music—appealed to me in an indi­vid­ual way I would have been hard-pressed to describe.  It wasn’t until I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that I began to get some­thing of an edu­ca­tion in film, and not as a result of any for­mal class­room analy­sis or any­thing like that, but through the stu­dent union’s Bijou Theater (a bunch of seats in a drafty room all point­ing towards a big screen).  There, for a dollar—cheap date—you could expe­ri­ence the films of a sin­gle direc­tor over the course of sev­er­al weeks, so that I worked my way through the oeu­vres of mas­ters like Bergman, Kurosawa and Renoir, as well as the films of neo­phytes like Scorcese, whose “Mean Streets” blew me away.  In lat­er years, once the VCR craze hit, I was able, like every­body else, to see what I want­ed when I want­ed.  (Hallelujah to that, Netflicks notwith­stand­ing.)

So I love movies.  But when I found myself in L.A. on grad­u­at­ing from Iowa for the very good rea­son that USC had offered me a job to teach cre­ative writ­ing, I nev­er gave even the slight­est thought to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the indus­try, though innu­mer­able over­tures came my way.  I pub­lished my first col­lec­tion, Descent of Man, and field­ed queries from peo­ple at stu­dios who, after the Lucullan lunch, just want­ed to know if I might want to adapt one of my sto­ries for film or per­haps even write a screen­play or adapt some­body else’s work.  I didn’t.  Not then.  Not now.  Not ever.  Shortly there­after, my first nov­el (Water Music) came out to some smat­ter­ing of acclaim and the phone began ring­ing all over again.  I was very for­tu­nate in those days to have as my rep­re­sen­ta­tive one of Hollywood’s leg­endary agents, Evarts Ziegler, Jr., who was a fix­ture at the Polo Lounge and had been around since the first film came out of its can.

We lunched.  We chat­ted.  And Ziggy got var­i­ous peo­ple inter­est­ed in Water Music (still to this day, one of them keeps his hand in, though the option—which went on for twen­ty years, has final­ly dropped).  Ziggy’s voice was very distinctive—high, hoarse and excitable—and he called me half a dozen times to report that so-and-so was inter­est­ed and won­der whether I’d take a meet­ing or have lunch with the guy and his agent or just, well, hang out.  I demurred.  Until final­ly, one day when Ziggy called to say that a new and even grander so-and-so was inter­est­ed, I acqui­esced and made a for­mal state­ment of my demands: “I want to write, direct, star in it and play all the prin­ci­pal female roles in drag.”  Funny.  But now that I think of it, that would have made a hell of a movie, even if I would have had to shave my goa­tee and put on an extra two hun­dred pounds to play one of the book’s minor but tru­ly larg­er-than-life hero­ines, Fatima of Jafnoo.

Why did I turn my back on any and all offers of par­tic­i­pa­tion?  Was I crazy?  Didn’t I want to be rich?  Well, yes and yes.  But I am devot­ed to what I do, to the mag­ic of lit­er­a­ture, of words and com­po­si­tion, and there is no way, in this solar sys­tem at least, that I could make an artis­tic deci­sion in coöper­a­tion with any­one for any rea­son, no mat­ter what the mon­e­tary rewards were.  I am a writer of fic­tion, not a col­lab­o­ra­tor on a script for some­body else’s ver­sion of one of my books or sto­ries.  This is called rigid­i­ty.  Pig-head­ed­ness.  Stick-in-the-mud­ism.  But it’s also called seren­i­ty.  My books are on the shelf.  I am respon­si­ble for them, for every slash and dot and nuance.  Go read them if you like.

I am not, how­ev­er, ful­ly mad and I do under­stand and appre­ci­ate what a good film can do for a book’s sales—and, one hopes, readership—and, as I say, I do love the movies.  So, as I see it, I have two choic­es: allow peo­ple to make films of my work by their own lights and accept the remu­ner­a­tion that comes along with that, or have my wid­ow toss the man­u­script on top of the cof­fin as I’m low­ered into the grave.  As most of you read­ing this now will know, I’ve cho­sen the for­mer mod­el.

Many films have been made of my work and I have been thrilled, stunned and hap­pi­ly amazed by a num­ber of them.  (By the way, instead of writ­ing papers on an author’s work, nowa­days many stu­dents are assigned to make short films of giv­en scenes—go on the inter­net and type in “The Tortilla Curtain films” and you will dis­cov­er innu­mer­able attempts both here and abroad, and these for the most part do not thrill, stun and amaze me.)  There have been ter­rif­ic stu­dent films, like Greg Beeman’s “The Big Garage” and Jamieson Fry’s “Killing Babies,” and equal­ly fine pro­fes­sion­al films, like Damian Harris’ “Greasy Lake,” but to date, there has been only one major Hollywood pro­duc­tion of my work, and that is Alan Parker’s 1994 ver­sion of “The Road to Wellville,” a movie so unique and true to the vision of the nov­el that I still shout in won­der over it.  But then, Alan is a mas­ter, utter­ly pro­tean, able to make you swal­low your shirt with pulse-pounders like “Midnight Express” and “Angel Heart” and yet pro­duce a movie as sweet­ly beau­ti­ful as his ver­sion of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments.”

I’ve been lucky so far.  So far there have been no major stinkers made from my work, but when you let the work go as I believe a writer must (think of the late Leonard Michaels and how he came to town think­ing he would have the final say—any say—in “The Men’s Club”), then you have to brace your­self for the worst.  But who knows, mir­a­cles may hap­pen.  Joshua Leonard has just wrapped his ver­sion of “The Lie,” and while “The Tortilla Curtain” lies fatal­ly wound­ed and the “Drop City” and “Talk Talk” projects are begin­ning to bleed around the edges, one nev­er knows.  There’s always a chance, slim though it may be, that some­thing will be made and made well.  And if not, then you (I) can dream of the after­life, when Water Music or World’s End or Drop City will play thir­ty years down the road as a 13-part minis­eries on “Masterpiece Theater.”  Just think of all those PBS view­ers rush­ing the book­stores … if such a thing as a book­store exists in that dim, image-haunt­ed future.  What can we do?  Die.  Collectively.  And catch it all on film, for the delec­ta­tion of the next species to come along, walk upright and peer into a flick­er­ing lit­tle box.

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