From Hecht to Tarantino, a Screenwriter Unspools the Talents and Near-Talents

eyman benhecht1v From Hecht to Tarantino, a Screenwriter Unspools the Talents and Near TalentsWHAT HAPPENS NEXT: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITING
By Marc Norman.
Harmony, 560 pages, $27

There have been thousand of books about actors and hundreds about directors, but you can practically count the number of books about screenwriters on two hands.

This latest is the best—by far.

In What Happens Next, Marc Norman organizes the evolution of the craft (he seems unsure as to whether or not it’s an art) through a succession of paradigmatic talents and near-talents who symbolize their respective periods: Anita Loos, Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Preston Sturges, Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne, Joe Eszterhas, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman. Mr. Norman is no main chance artist; he also pays tribute to largely unheralded writers such as Gene Gauntier and Daniel Fuchs.

Throughout its considerable length, What Happens Next has verve and wit—the things screenplays need but seldom get. In particular, Mr. Norman’s evocation of the formation of the Screen Writers Guild in the 1930’s and of the Red Scare meltdown a decade later are models of storytelling concision.

Mostly, I think this is because Mr. Norman sees the screenwriter’s life from both inside and out. (His credits include Shakespeare in Love—with Tom Stoppard—and Oklahoma Crude.) This real-world experience gives him an invaluable perspective about how the work is shaped by collaboration (read: compromise), know-how that could have come from wise old hacks of Ben Hecht’s generation:

“For all the talk of collaboration in filmmaking, the metaphor is most often battle. The writer is convinced the director doesn’t understand the echoing multiple meanings of his text and subtext and will piss it away, the director is convinced the writer is trying to do with words what he can do much better with pictures and prefers the writer not be on the set. … Actors, on their part, assume the writer and director have conspired to make them look like morons and try to rewrite their dialogue. … Success, if it comes, derives from a random coupling, an ad hoc agreement on goals and intentions plus extraordinary luck.”

Clearly, Marc Norman has spent time in the trenches.

He has an eye for the hack and the trimmer, and blows the whistle when necessary. Erich von Stroheim is “another of those wonderful fakes who never broke character.” Mr. Tarantino is “a feral child.”

The book achieves a remarkable synthesis of both macro and micro. (I was so taken by the early arrival of a manuscript that I even contributed a blurb.)

A cavil: Almost all of What Happens Next derives from secondary sources, artfully rearranged and retold; the bibliography is long and distinguished. But Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets (a favorite ur-text) is also crafted entirely of secondary sources, and is not devalued by it.

In any case, Mr. Norman’s retelling of these lives and movies is often superior in terms of snap, crackle and pop to their original telling, and the unexpected juxtapositions abrade and illuminate in entirely new ways.

Marc Norman understands that movies have always demanded that the con artist and the creative artist walk hand in hand—and he honors both professions.

 

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer.