Rewrite

Continuing my exploration into the world of Carson McCullers, I’ve just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her first novel, which instantly launched into literary fame. I was surprised, after all I’d heard about it, and after having just re-read Member of the Wedding, and after having seen the movie version twice, at how sloppy a book it is. A great big rambling scattershot sort of a thing. Any number of scenes ought to have been deleted. Characters speechify about Karl Marx for pages at a time. And there are other sorts of problems, too. Characters are sometimes ill-defined, as they are stand-ins for ideas instead of being examples of people. Characters have a very bad habit of filling in the reader on reams of background material while supposedly engaged in normal conversation with their friends and family.

But the idea behind the book is brilliant.

When they made the movie, they took this idea, boiled it down, jettisoned one absolutely unnecessary major character, added a missing essential one, tightened up all the relationships and motivations, and polished the resulting gem until it shone. The movie is fantastic.

I could say almost exactly the same things about Little Big Man, another brilliant idea that has trouble shining through in a kitchen sink of a book. I could even say those things about To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so it occurs to me that, although the list of movies I prefer to books is still quite short, one huge advantage that the screenwriter has is that he gets to do the rewrite. I know from my own experience of putting Great American Desert together that sometimes the idea behind a story can take a while to become clear in a writer’s head. And how hard it can be, once that has finally happened, for the writer to sit back and take a critical look at what has already been written, and jettison what muddies the picture. Whereas the screenwriter, starting from the finished novel and without the baggage of emotional attachment, can start fresh with the diamond in the rough.

(The opposite can of course also occur, and a good example of that is Of Mice and Men. The story there is already so concentrated that when it gets padded out to movie length the results are dreadful. Several people have tried. I did get quite excited the last time around, in ’92, when I heard that John Malkovich would be in it. What a clever choice, I thought, for George. Shockingly, he played Lenny. In a fat suit. Fatuously. Have I mentioned this before? If so, sorry. Some day I’ll get over it.)

I’m happy to report that McCullers, after Heart is a Lonely Hunter, seems to have learned to do her own rewrites. A comparison between Heart and Member of the Wedding is instructive. The former is 359 pages long, the latter only 132. In Wedding, all the characters speak like human beings, and they show more about themselves in three words than the Marx-spouting Dr. Copeland in Heart does in three thousand.

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