The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 1

Charlie Ossining Goes Downtown, Thanks to Alan Parker

by T. Coraghessan Boyle

How many happy novelists are there out there in the evergreen forests, the cornfields, the walk-ups and condos of this grand and spacious country? Not many. Novelists are by nature disaffected, terminally unhappy, misanthropic, and irremediably bitter over their thwarted desire to conquer all before them. That's why they became novelists in the first place--for revenge. Now take this very small set of happy novelists (most or all of whom are drugged) and separate out the subset of novelists who have had one or more of their novels made into films. How many of them are happy? The answer is, one: me.
  Early on, because of my peculiar brand of obstinacy and my own Napoleonic delusions, I refused to have anything to do with the film industry--I wasn't going to carry anybody's jockstrap, by God. Also, I understood something intuitively that seems to escape many of my contemporaries: novelists write novels, and directors direct films. All well and good. As a novelist, you have two options: to sell the film rights of a given book, thereby relinquishing control over the film version, or retain the rights and have your widow toss the manuscript atop your coffin as they lower you into the earth. (No fear: as soon as your seventy-eight years are up there'll be competing film versions of all your books, early and late, and nobody to say different. Look at Wharton. Austen. James. James, for Christ's sake!)
  I did go to lunch, though (I lived in L.A., so lunch was close; plus, I was hungry). I made friends in the industry--Phil Kaufman, among them, who remains a good friend--and I acquired (was acquired by) Evarts Ziegler, the most astonishing and classically exuberant agent in the universe. Typical conversation, regarding the nine- hundredth deal for my first novel, Water Music (which, incidentally, has been under perpetual option since its publication in 1982):
  Zig (in his been-there-and-back rasp): Tom! So-and-so's hot on this, and they really want to get together with you!
  Me: Great. Tell him my demands are simple. I want to direct, star, and play all the principal female roles in drag.
  All this is by way of saying that I'm not a player. Not then, not now. Never have been, never will be. So when Alan Parker made his offer on my 1993 novel, The Road to Wellville, I was pleased to meet with him and his producers for a celebratory dinner, presided over by our mutual agents, Jane Sindell and Sally Willcox, of Creative Artists Agency, because there was never any question of my participation. Alan, at that point, already knew as much or more than I did about the subject (turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Michigan, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's famed sanitarium). The subject lit Alan up, and he is a brilliant and tireless researcher. He liked me because I'd written a book he loved and given him the story and setting for the film to follow The Commitments in his career, and I liked him because he'd made at least three of my all-time favorite movies.
  By way of history, which many readers will know, Alan wrote the script from my novel himself, and Columbia released the picture in the fall of 1994, starring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Kellogg; Matthew Broderick as Will Lightbody; Bridget Fonda as his wife, Eleanor; John Cusack as the hustler-entrepreneur, Charlie Ossining; and Dana Carvey as Dr. Kellogg's deranged, filth-smeared, alcoholic son, George. An amazing cast, really. In my estimation, that is. And, as I've suggested above, I am partisan. Very much so.
  As readers may also know, the movie was not a commercial success in this country. I can't really fathom why. It is very, very funny--and funny in a new and bizarre way. It's almost as if Alan had made his version of a Fellini film, when you consider all the wonderful grotesques he employs, the zany Nino-Rota-on-speed score, and the perverse hilarity supplied by the novel (sexiest enema scene in movie history, but then, of course, I can't think of much competition in that particular category). Or maybe I can fathom why the movie didn't do much business here--it's something new, not at all what the audience, dulled by sitcoms, expects comedy to be. Too hip for the room? On the other hand, I can see that the film may have its limitations, too; it seems too compressed, breathless, as if the filmmaker needed more space (time, that is), and the studio squeezed him. (I don't know if this is the fact--I never discussed it with Alan.) And maybe, just maybe--and you'd never expect a novelist to say this--it's tootrue to the book and its five hundred pages of complications.
  A film is not a book--it's a film. I understand that. Why does everybody else seem to have so many problems with so basic a concept? Eternally, the film critics contrasted Alan's version with mine. This is a fruitless exercise. To my mind, Alan's film is daring, experimental, ballsy--it's something new, for Christ's sake, new!-- and killingly funny. The first time I saw it was at a screening before the premiere (Alan: joyous, sailing, ushering us in), and the audience howled and slobbered and got right down on the floor and chewed the legs off the seats. All right, granted, it was a sectarian audience, but the same thing happened at the premiere and at the two subsequent showings where I saw the film with our fellow real people, men and women, the unwashed and unannointed. This is a funny film, folks, and every time I see it (I think we're sitting at six now) I develop those laughing pains in the back of the skull, twin jabs right there in the cerebral cortex deprived of oxygen from too much laughing. How could anybody criticize that?
  It's difficult to describe to the non-novelist just how thrilling it is to see or hear your work interpreted by someone else, particularly if that someone else is a master like Alan Parker. There have been two short films of my stories--Greg Beeman's The Big Garage; and Damian Harris's Greasy Lake--and both dug into those stories and revealed something new about them. And there have been many, many live performances of my stories and audiotapes, too, and each gives me--the disaffected, misanthropic non-player--a rush of pure joy and connection: somebody else is singing my song. I'm happy. I'm very happy. Of course, talk to me after the first butchering of my work up there for all to see.
  And this is an important consideration, perhaps the most important consideration for the novelist contemplating the film version of his or her book: publicity. The film, good or bad, in most cases will help sell books. We--we novelists--want one thing only, aside, of course, from aesthetic gratification, and that is to get the word out, to get our books across, ours and nobody else's. (And here I have to adduce the case of my hero, the greatest marketing genius of all time, Mao Tse-tung: if you don't have two copies of the little red book, you die.) So I'm happy. Did I mention that?
  On the immediate horizon is the prospect of a film that could make me even happier, and, as with Alan's film of Wellville, I will have naught to do with it. This is the upcoming, forthcoming, as-yet-to-go-into-principal, etc., version of my 1984 novel, Budding Prospects (also continuously under option since publication). Peter Cattaneo of The Full Monty will, I am told, direct, and the hilarious and perverse writers of Grosse Point Blank will write. Like Wellville, this is a very bizarre comedy about a famously and disastrously unsuccessful pot plantation in Northern California, though it's not as complicated as Wellville and a whole lot easier (and cheaper) to film. It's going to be good. I think. I hope. In any case, I look forward to easing back in the semi-plush seat with a bucket of popcorn and a dishpan of Coke or Pepsi and seeing what unfolds up there on the screen, those twin laugh-pain sites in the back of my skull itching to be activated.
  Oh, yes, and then there's TV. In the works--that is, no green light yet but looking good--is a cable series based on my short stories, each to be filmed by a slumming film director. Old friends Tony Bill and Helen Bartlett will produce, and older friends (and dedicatees of Without a Hero) Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green, will write. And the host of the show, doing his Hitchcockian, Serlingian best? None other than the novelist himself. On-screen. A player. At last.