American Movie Classics'
Blocked: The Novelist's Experience in Hollywood
is a soothing experience for anyone who's ever written a story, a poem or a trade-show presentation, only to have one's readers look up and say, "I don't get it."
The documentary depicts many of the brilliant literary minds who have bashed their heads against the walls of studio cubicles in frustration while trying to translate their prose into a film script. The list is jaw-dropping: Aldous Huxley, James Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann, among others.
At the birth of the film industry, the craft was so new that there were no writers, just "idea men" who got $15 for a concept sans dialogue. Filmmakers then started to dip into popular fiction, without compensation for the originator.
The U.S. Supreme Court stopped that practice in 1919, forcing studio bosses to deal directly with professional writers. Samuel Goldwyn tried to form "Eminent Authors" in 1919, a collective of great authors who would sell their works for $10,000 plus a third of the gross of the movie. He was unable to attract talent: invited writers like H.G. Wells responded that they "couldn't write to order."
But some writers did answer the siren call of potential wealth. The only writer detailed in the hour who had a degree of success was W.R. Burnett. (Give up? He wrote the novels
Little Caesar, High Sierra
Asphalt Jungle.) He also wrote more than 50 great screenplays, but received so little respect that his obit was buried in the Hollywood trades.
One writer who demanded respect-and received it begrudgingly-was Ayn Rand. But even she was left unhappy by the screen adaptation of her novel
After dictating the director, cast and screenplay, she trashed the final product, stating the principals "were not worthy of the assignment."
Current writer-screenwriters interviewed for the documentary get the best lines, summing up the relationship between writers and Hollywood, and the disdain to which a "serious writer" is subjected if he tries the movies.
"The New York literary scene will more readily forgive you for selling drugs on a play yard than writing for Hollywood," opines novelist Thomas McGuane.
Despite the fact there's little footage of the classic writers under discussion, the documentary makers keep this film moving, interspersing clips from the spirit-killing Hollywood plot lines of
The Last Tycoon,
The Big PictureandThe Player.
They've also made an inspired, ironic choice of actress-novelist Carrie Fisher as the narrator.
The documentary will screen on AMC Nov.18 at 8:05 p.m. ET.