Sorry, It’s Just Not True That ‘One Writer Fits All’

In bouncing between movies, novels and sitcoms, there is some crossover in the required skill sets, but the bulges that don’t intersect lead lots of writers to their real-estate licenses

Someone suggested making a novel of my screenplay that started out as this sitcom idea:

Sigmund Freud is reincarnated as a co-ed in rural Alabama. She remembers her past life as miserable, wants no part of psychology in this life but can’t help talking depressed students off ledges.

The sitcom was for network TV, so the dumbed-down sales pitch ended: “It’s 'My Favorite Martian,' except instead of Ray Walston, it’s a super-hot girl!”

The networks loved it. And rejected it. Why? They didn’t feel viewers would know who Freud was.

At that moment, pitching the show to Al-Jazeera seemed a good idea, but an executive said, “You should write it as a screenplay.”

Two years later, director David O. Russell, actress Jessica Biel and producer Lynda Obst were “on-board” with the screenplay. “On-board” sounded positive in a nautical kind of way, but when the project blew up on dry land, an executive said, “You should write it as a novel.”

That’s when the insanity hit home: This was like failing at color-by-numbers and having someone suggest, as a fallback position, painting the Sistine Chapel.

Somewhere in the annals of American Letters, some very big forms of writing became interchangeable. The division of labor for novels, screenplays, sitcoms, hour dramas…gone. It doesn’t matter that screenwriters turn out maybe eight full sentences in a year; or that novelists put more description onto Page 1 than you see in a decade of network pilots; or that sitcom writers don’t actually write so much as shout jokes in a sugary room until their 22-minute personalities are paroled at 3 a.m. every night. "Huckleberry Finn," "Chinatown," "Two and a Half Men" … welcome to one-writer-fits-all.

Truthfully, this is all pretty embarrassing. When people with power and money tell writers they have the talent to write something — anything — most writers hug the flattery and jilt the truth.

In bouncing between movies, novels and sitcoms, there is some crossover in the required skill sets, but the bulges that don’t intersect lead lots of writers to their real-estate licenses.

Look, blaming this modular view of writers on corporate suits is way too whiny, cheap and easy, but it’s their fault. When the same company produces books, movies and TV shows, all writers blend together.

Lorrie Moore is funny. Can we vertically integrate her? Since these companies own record labels, too, “sampling” is bound to invade manuscripts. “Iron Man believed in the green light…”

FADE OUT.

Maybe, on the surface, this cross-pollination is old news. After all, adaptation was the afterbirth of film, and when it works it’s a beautiful thing. Exhibit A: "M*A*S*H": A hit novel became a bigger hit movie and an even bigger hit TV show. (It’s amazing there was no musical. What rhymes with viscera?)

But three different writers wrote the novel, screenplay and pilot. No one told Richard Hooker, “Delete those baggy paragraphs, keep the stuff in quotes and we got a movie.” Just as no one told Ring Lardner Jr., “Punch up that tracheotomy and have Radar lose his virginity before page 30.”

Just as no one told Larry Gelbart, “Bag the jokes and make it a little more like 'A Farewell to Arms.'"  (Although, 'A Farewell to Arms' with a Venus de Milo joke might make a nice sitcom … Just kidding. Lighten up, baby.”)

Historically, adaptation occurred after there was an original piece of work. Now the prevailing view is, when a writer gets a great idea for a story, Step 2 isn’t research or plotting. Step 2 is choosing between Microsoft Word and Final Draft. (Software idea: Micro Draft Epic Poem Pro to clear the way for "Paradise Lost in Spaceballs.")

In a way, there’s something sweetly un-snobby in bunching these varied writing talents in such ecumenical disrespect. Don DeLillo and Joan Didion may not love the grouping, but they’re not pulling in adult dollars, so no one cares. Sorry, Salman, writing is writin g…

… Except when it comes to writers, who (down deep) know better.

On the DVD commentary for "The Wire," the writers often (justifiably) refer to the five-year arc of the show as “a novel.” Implied is that The Wire transcended TV to a higher art form, namely the literary novels of someone like Richard Price who, not coincidentally, wrote several episodes of "The Wire."

In theory, it’s understandable how a novelist could flow easily into script writing. The diminished need to come up with, say, adjectives must feel great. And yet, few job descriptions feature a slash beside novelist. Aside from Price, writers who elegantly flit between literary fiction and screenwriting are…

Wait a minute, there’s …

Oh! You know what rhymes with viscera? Farbisseneh.  

Actually, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald all wrote screenplays with varied results but common disdain: They stooped for the money. If they’d had access to book tours and lecture circuits, chances are they’d have never entered a studio lot.

It’s possible Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even know what’s supposed to happen by page 30 of a screenplay, yet somehow he seems to get by.

In terms of talent levels, going from sitcoms to screenplays seems like a slightly inclined lateral move. One of the bigger differences between the two comes down to culture: If writers are cows, the movie business is America and TV is India. Nevertheless, movie studios woo top sitcom writers who make the move because, well, the screen is so much bigger.

It’s all so heady. but with the inevitable doubts about quintupling one’s usual page count, it’s hard to escape feeling like someone who’s been accepted into law school on an athletic scholarship.

One sitcom writer friend was fired off a romantic comedy because his script had too many jokes. Another because his dialogue was “too sitcomy.” Apparently, sitcoms and movies are not only different forms, they’re different dialects. And yet, even though winning a sitcom-writing Emmy is often like being named valedictorian at a reform school, the award will almost assuredly lead to a romantic comedy script offer on one of the next 75 Kate Hudson movies.

When the writer drearily slinks back to sitcoms, it becomes clear that Hollywood is the one place where you can have absolutely no expectations and still wind up disappointed.

Not that the move never works: Charlie Kaufman wrote on some blah sitcoms for a while. But he’s such a brilliant screenwriter, he should have just started out there. OK, Alan Ball did it with "American Beauty." Fine, you can throw in James L. Brooks. Then again, they wrote screenplays on their own. As far as naming successful screenwriters recruited from sitcoms, there’s…

And then there’s …

In hopscotching between writing forms, the kazoo-to-philharmonic leap from scripts to literary fiction is where gravity kills. Even genius screenwriters like Robert Towne and Pedro Almodovar rarely make the move to full sentences. Paul Thomas Anderson is young; maybe (or maybe not) he’ll take a crack at a novel someday.

Then there’s Woody Allen. It’s possible Allen has had the greatest career in American history. Not just in entertainment — the greatest career, period. He’s a four-field Hall of Famer: stand-up comedy, TV sketch comedy, filmmaking and humor essays. By the time he finished "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (top two screenplays ever? top one?), it was easily assumed a novel was right around the corner.

That was 22 years ago, and you get the feeling Allen would trade "Annie Hall" for having written any one of 10 Philip Roth novels. He might even throw in "Broadway Danny Rose" and a "Zelig" to be named later. And maybe, knowing how difficult both forms are, both writers would think they got a great deal.