Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:


You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

Writing Lessons from Gene Roddenberry

Writers are often asked who their influences are.  The most literate of us will rattle off a multitude of the classical masters – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust; others will offer more contemporary choices like Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Marquez.  Still others will rely on the latter half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st:  DeLillo, Morrison, Franzen, even J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer.  You’ll of course have the hipsters who will proclaim their allegiance to some underground deconstructionism theorist you’ve never heard of.  But for all of us, inspiration is where we find it, even if it’s in a dime-store potboiler by a forgotten hack that you simply can’t put down.

I’ve decided to devote a few blog posts to talking about the influences on my writing.  I’ve wanted a career in writing of some form or another ever since I was young.  As a junior reader I devoured Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, and my first effort at a “novel” was a forty-page hand-written knockoff called A Champion is Born.  I had great plans for that little book.  It was going to be published and make me a literary sensation at the tender age of 9.  I even had five or six sequels plotted out before puberty set in and my interest in horse racing abated in favour of a fascination with those far more mysterious and wonderful creatures, girls.  There is probably still a copy of A Champion is Born packed away in a box somewhere, best left as a memory of a simpler time.  Not to be too hard on a 9-year-old, but the biggest problem with that story, aside from its lack of originality, was that it wasn’t about anything.  It was the story of a rich kid with no problems who inherits a horse and ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.  You’re asleep already.

About the same time girls were becoming less icky and more ensorcelling, I discovered Star Trek.  An English writer named James Blish had novelized most of the episodes of the original series and these adaptations were bound into four “Star Trek Readers” that had been the property of my uncle and fell into my hands when my grandmother decided to do some spring cleaning.  I had flipped past the show without any great interest, thinking it “weird.”  But I loved those books.  That image of the kid under his bed with the flashlight?  That was me reading the tales of Kirk and Spock.  It wasn’t long before I decided I should see what these books were about.  At that time the only opportunity to see Trek on television was on CBC, Saturday mornings at 11.  You couldn’t tear me away.  Great screaming matches resulted if the parents attempted to insist on grocery shopping or other meaningless errands.

The story of the creation of the original Star Trek is a fascinating one.  Former police officer Gene Roddenberry wants to do a television series addressing topical issues like racism and the Vietnam War.  In the 1960’s, network executives want nothing to do with that.  Roddenberry’s solution is brilliant – set the show in outer space and tell those same stories as allegories and parables.  Instead of whites oppressing blacks, make it about blues oppressing greens.  Cast it with minorities in roles other than houseboy and comic relief.  Sneak the relevance past the network suits who can’t see beyond the weird makeup and special effects.  In ways that seem obvious to us now, Roddenberry breaks new ground and creates a series whose message resonates with millions of people so deeply that five spinoffs, eleven movies and hundreds of episodes later it has become far more than its creator ever could have imagined.  Why?  Well, the simplest answer is that it was about something.

Fundamentally, the purpose of all literature in whatever its form is to answer the question of what it means to be human.  Whatever I’m writing, I’m always mindful of that question – if I’m not, all I’m contributing is background noise.  Gene Roddenberry’s eyes were on the stars but his feet were on the ground.  That’s what made Star Trek work, and why it and not say, Lost in Space, became the classic it remains.  The lesson I take from him is that no matter what you are writing, no matter how out there the setting or how bizarre the characters seem, the story should always be about something.  The trick, as he showed with Star Trek, is to veil that “message” beneath a frame of entertainment.  People don’t want to be lectured.  They want to enjoy themselves.  To reach that audience then, there should be two levels to every story – what happens in it, and what it is about.  The two should be closely intertwined, but the latter should be hidden away, a treasure that must be unearthed, the nutrients beneath the sweet taste.  That, I believe, is what separates greatness from hackery and feasts from mere snacks.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t the first person to figure this out, but it was his work that revealed it first to me.  For that I’m eternally grateful.  So if you read something here that you like, a tiny part of it is thanks to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Live long and prosper.