Adapting books for the screen has been a common practice since the beginning of film. More rare, however, are authors who choose to cut out the middleman and write screenplays themselves. The clash of sensibilities between authors and the bottom liners of Hollywood can be a big one, but authors occasionally write screenplays that make it through the tortuous channels of preproduction onto the big screen. Here are ten authors* who dabbled in screenwriting.
Martin Amis comes from a writing family—his father was famed novelist Kingsley Amis. No surprise, then, that Martin makes a living with the written word. What’s a bit shocking, however, is that a man best known for his acerbic, experimental novels has a screenwriting credit to his name for a film like Saturn 3. A futuristic tale that only the 1980s could produce, the movie deals with robotics, exploration and the human heart. Directed by Stanley “Singin’ in the Rain” Donen and starring Kurt Russell and Harvey Keitel, the film is an oddity. Neither critics nor audiences took to the film, and Amis never wrote another screenplay. Still, the enterprise wasn’t a total wash: Amis used his experiences as fodder for his caustic novel Money.
American treasure Maya Angelou is perhaps the preeminent spokesperson for the experience of African American women in the U.S. A poet and a memoirist, she has become famous enough to read at Presidential inaugurations and even be parodied on Saturday Night Live. A few years after her breakthrough work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou became a cultural ambassador to an unlikely place: Sweden. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, takes place in the chilly climes of Stockholm, yet the story is classic Angelou. An African American singer on tour falls for a (white) American expatriate, but their romance cannot last. Though the movie made little noise, it marks an early stop on Angelou’s path to prominence.
Truman Capote boasts a long history of ties to the film industry in one form or another. He turned his most famous novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, into a beloved film. He was the subject of not one but two biopics, portrayed by both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones. Capote even dabbled in acting, notably playing the villain in the mystery farce Murder by Death. His best and strangest contribution to film, however, came in the form of a screenplay he wrote for legendary director John Huston. Beat the Devil, a comic take on film noir where nothing really happens and everyone enjoys themselves, is full of quirky character actors (including the inimitable Peter Lorre) and a great change of pace performance from Humphrey Bogart.
Of all the authors on this list, Raymond Chandler had the most straightforward foray into Hollywood. One of the great crime authors of the 20th Century—and the creator of Philip Marlowe, no less—Chandler stuck to his guns when the movies came calling. Along with director Billy Wilder, Chandler created the par excellence film noir script Double Indemnity. Starring Fred MacMurray as the hapless schlub, Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale and Edward G. Robinson in a rare, heroic turn, the film screams iconic—no surprise coming from a master of the genre.
Dave Eggers does a little bit of everything. A memoirist and a novelist, he founded the publishing company McSweeney’s and is an important voice in literary circles most easily described as “hipster.” Eggers also tried his hand at screenwriting on several occasions. He teamed up with another 20-something icon, director Spike Jonze, for Jonze’s adaptation of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He also worked with his wife, author Vendela Vida, on the screenplay for the low budget dramedy Away We Go. Neither film broke box office records, but both gained a fervent following, leaving many to hope Eggers writes more screenplays in the future.
The story of William Faulkner’s stint in Hollywood is captivating, both because of Faulkner’s status as an author and his rocky history with film studios. Amidst hangovers, Faulkner wrote screenplays for two of the greatest Humphrey Bogart films: To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Howard Hawks, with whom Faulkner had a good working relationship, directed the films, which were both adaptations of novels (by Hemingway and Chandler, respectively). And both paired noir trappings with the devastating chemistry between Bogart and a young Lauren Bacall.
From 1938 to 1951, Graham Greene churned out a series of four books, dubbed his “Catholic novels”, cementing his reputation as one of the literary giants of the 20th Century. Near the end of that impressive run, Greene added a flourish to his resume by penning one of the greatest screenplays ever written. So fruitful and imaginative that Greene subsequently went back and novelized it, the screenplay for The Third Man paints a bleak picture of life in post-WWII Vienna. Noir with a satirical subtext, the film centers on an oafish American searching for an old friend among the rubble of Vienna only to discover that life in the city deviates from his strict sense of right and wrong. According to legend, the most famous dialog in the film—the “cuckoo clock” speech—was improvised on the spot, but the rest of Greene’s script remains on par thanks to equal parts biting wit and grim resignation.
Stephen King writes with such dogged speed that his body of work would make even Anthony Trollope jealous. Given his pacing and the thrilling nature of his books, King is a goldmine for producers looking to put some brand-name window dressing on a horror film. Counting adaptations would take all day; heck, even the book The Running Man released under his pen name Richard Bachman became a sci-fi Schwarzenegger vehicle. Most of King’s involvement in filmmaking takes the form of herding one adaptation or another to the big screen (or, in the case of Kubrick’s The Shining, fuming with righteous indignation when one goes astray). King flexed his muscles for the silver screen on two occasions, however, and things got a little hairy. Technically, only one-third of the horror anthology Cat’s Eye is original; the first two stories in the film started out in the pages of a King short story collection. All three stories feature an appearance by a tabby cat, and cats (errr, make that werecats) play an important part in King’s only full-length original screenplay, Sleepwalkers. Maybe it’s best King mostly stuck to the sidelines of the film industry.
Cormac McCarthy’s literary output resulted in one indisputably great adaptation (No Country for Old Men) and a few mixed ones (cough The Road cough). McCarthy’s prose is so muscular and distinctive that fans were excited when it was announced he’d pen the screenplay for a Ridley Scott movie titled The Counselor. The film itself, however, proved divisive. It garnered a lowly 34% rating from Rotten Tomatoes—a rating it shares with the Steven Segal prestige pic Under Siege 2—and one critic called it the worst movie he had ever seen. Yet the film’s supporters are as vocal as its detractors, championing it as a complex and provocative meditation on power. Only time will tell if The Counselor will undergo a critical resuscitation in the future or if it is doomed to be remembered as that “one terrible movie where Cameron Diaz has sex with the hood of a car.”
Dorothy Parker, a public figure as well known for her social life and wit as for her writing, might be the closest the U.S. ever gets to an Oscar Wilde. Though her reputation has faded, perhaps because she produced no long works of fiction, Parker is famous for both her savage work as a critic and for contributing to the launch of The New Yorker. She’s equally famous as one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York writers who daily ate lunch together to trade quips and barbs. As tied as she was to New York, she moved to Los Angeles to write screenplays in the 1930s. Parker’s time on the West Coast was fruitful, as she penned many films over the next few decades. The most famous of these is 1937’s A Star Is Born, which went on to become even more famous 15 years later when it was remade with Judy Garland in the lead.
*This list excludes playwrights, who appear to have a special affinity for crossing over into film (sorry, David Mamet). It also excludes authors whose only screenwriting credits are for adaptations of their own works (here’s looking at you, John Irving).