Book Review--William Faulkner in Hollywood: Screenwriting for the Studios


William Faulkner in Hollywood: Screenwriting for the Studios
Stefan Solomon
University of Georgia Press, 2017

William Faulkner was different from literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck who came to Hollywood chasing a big paycheck and then struggled to adapt. The novelist not only adjusted well to studio life, but thrived. In a new book, Stefan Solomon examines Faulkner's Hollywood experience and how it colored his creative output.

While Faulkner's time writing screenplays took him away from more personally satisfying literary pursuits, it also gave him the financial resources to continue that work, in addition to providing inspiration for its development. His practicality on that front, and his adaptability and ability to understand the demands of cinema worked enormously to his benefit. He was able to write in the style of different studios, finding success at RKO, MGM and Warner Bros, collaborating on fixing and conceiving projects, looking upon the whole enterprise as a job, though it was not without its artistic inspirations.

In fact, the inspiration ran two ways when it came to Faulkner's writing during his Hollywood years. The rich world of his literature colored his screenplays and sometimes that day work inspired his novel writing in the early morning hours, before he headed to the studio. Hollywood was never the dream. Faulkner always preferred his Mississippi home, but the writer embraced the opportunities movie money offered while reaping those creative benefits.

Faulkner was unusual among novelists in his grasp of the visual and aural language of movie writing. He was adept at integrating stage direction and sound into his scripts, creating a world to accompany his dialogue. On the other hand, the power of dialogue impressed itself upon the novelist, and he would begin to insert more of it in his literary works.

As a script fixer, Faulkner had a knack for adding dramatic tension, pumping life into literary sources so that they could live on the screen. He understood the needs of the cinematic form as well as he did their differences from literature. For example, director Jean Renoir felt Faulkner's small, but significant contributions to the script of The Southerner (1945) helped to translate its literary source to the screen. When the writer created a scene about competition over catching a desired fish, it both added dramatic tension and resolved an important plot thread.

The book examines both Faulkner's credited and uncredited work, demonstrating how, as with the Renoir film, the writer could significantly affect a movie with as little as a single scene or a few lines of dialogue. These efforts include work on films as diverse as Gunga Din (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It is interesting to note that while Faulkner was more often contributor than lead, he tended to work on films that would become classics.

This is a highly accessible academic work, appropriate for the casual reader. It goes deep into the details, and reader interest will depend on whether or not that kind of analysis is appealing. The focus is on craft, with very little personal detail. Faulkner's methods and the way he navigated Hollywood take center stage.

Perhaps William Faulkner belonged in Mississippi, writing novels and eating watermelon on his back porch, but he made the most of his time in Hollywood. William Faulkner in Hollywood captures the unusual combination of vision, industry and practicality that made that so.

Many thanks to University of Georgia Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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