Saturday, May 31

Mostly Nothing Happens

"But mostly nothing happens, except in the sense that novelists and short-story writers understand. For them moving a character from not knowing that he’s unhappy to sort of acknowledging it qualifies as a pretty momentous event."

This comes from a New York Times article about the film "Smart People," which is about a depressed professor of literature who has an affair with a former student (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and lives with his precocious daughter (played by Ellen Page of 'Juno' fame), a good for nothing brother. It was written by Mark Jude Poirier, a fiction writer who now has to reluctantly call himself a "professional screenwriter."

I haven't really seen the movie. Just found the review because I clicked the links related to the reviews of the Sex and the City movie. Apparently, the "depressed academic" is a character that has surfaced in American film in the last few years, with the bar set high by Michael Douglas' portrayal of Gordon Tripp in Wonder Boys and Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. I saw both of these films and they both happen to feature frustrated academics-slash-writers. If these are the models, then maybe Smart People isn't too far off.

But what really got my attention is Poirier's shift from fiction writing to screenwriting, where generally, things have to happen. The article says that Hollywood had always wooed the big name literary writers--Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Truman Capote--but all these writers just go away puzzled. Hollywood asks them to write stories where a lot of things happen. But what about the epiphany? Epiphanies can be so subtle, if you wink you'll miss it. Poirier is from this school of writing: the only visible change is that the main character now recognizes that he *is* depressed, but acknowledging it doesn't make it any easier. No big transformations, no miracle happy endings.

What the article also makes known is that there really aren't too many fiction writers who can hack the writing of screenplays. Oh there's Larry McMurtry (whose script to Brokeback Mountain I have yet to finish reading), but there's just so few of them. Playwrights have a better batting average. So if the fictionists are having a hard time transitioning to the big screen, what about the reverse: do screenwriters make for successful fiction writers?

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