The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, Oh, the book is better.
Very often, people will lament that a film inspired by a beloved and/or bestselling novel did not live up to their reading experience. Seldom, however, is the opposite complaint lodged: a movie that exceeds its life-giving book in appreciation. But it does occur. For example, many believe Jaws, the Steven Spielberg cinematic classic, eclipses what Peter Benchley created with his typewriter. And Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption and The Shining, undisputed masterpieces of fiction, are considered to reach far greater heights on the screen.
Of course, not all movies derive directly from books. Many are adaptations of theater productions, short stories, or screenplays written specifically for film. While each of these, along with the novel, requires of the writer different skills and presents different creative challenges, one consistent, and perhaps the most important, element for any genre to have in order to make a successful transition to a “second act” are strong, relatable, defining characters. As William Faulkner, the standard-bearer of great novelists who struggled (and drank quite a bit) in Hollywood, opined: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
A writer today who embodies the embracing of character as integral to the work is Burt Weissbourd. His soon-to-be-released novel, his fifth, Danger in Plain Sight (Blue City Press), is a Callie James thriller set in Seattle that is as fast-paced as Mission Impossible with the pulp and psychological soul of Raymond Chandler’s Trouble is My Business.
It is not surprising that Burt’s fiction has these divergent aspects. He is one of the rare artists who has made a successful alternative journey when it comes to books and film. Before he began penning thrillers, he spent over a decade in Hollywood developing screenplays and producing iconic movies, such as “Raggedy Man” and partnering with legendary stars like Sissy Spacek, Fred Astaire and Robert Redford. During this time, he worked with writers whose work grabbed viewers viscerally, not with explosions but with multi-dimensional characters that would draw you into a deeply moving story. He has carried this focus, or it has carried him, into the craft of writing novels. As he states, “I love to write well-drawn, complicated people who eventually are able to do unexpected things. I learned to do this from working on screenplays and studying movies.”
What he also gleaned from his years in Hollywood was the need to embrace the idea of trial and error, to not let discouragement deter, but rather propel. He says, “I saw how hard it was for even the most talented writers to get it right. How many missteps, how many rewrites, how hard it was to set the bar at perfection and how difficult it was to reach it. I learned that as you got more experienced, you grew more confident that you could reach what you were going for and, as importantly, know when you had it. It was invaluable when I began writing to believe and finally know that if I kept at it, rewrote and then rewrote again, I could get where I wanted to go, know when I got there, and happily move on to the next project.”
It is good advice in writing, and in life. Particularly as we make transitions and changes, when we go against the grain and do not do as is expected, we can never go wrong by welcoming, accepting and learning from setbacks.
I have long adhered to the adage that “adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” But in turbulent times, it is not just others who get a chance to see our truth, but ourselves as well. We get the opportunity to connect with our character, and to develop it just as a talented writer like Burt might do in a novel. So that one day, it will lead the way, putting you on the right track and guiding you to a happy ending….just like the movies.