Well, first you mustn't. You can't learn to write that way –- by writing directly for the screen. Wait until you're 30. You've got to learn how to write! Screenplays are not writing. They're a fake form of writing. It's a lot of dialogue and very little atmosphere. Very little description. Very little character work. It's very dangerous. You'll never learn to write. You've got to learn to write well and then you can survive. You must write all kinds of things: Essays, poetry, short stories, novels, stage plays, and screenplays. That's what I do. All those things.
-Ray Bradbury, upon being asked, "But let's say a young writer really wants to break into Hollywood, how can it be done?"
Narrative is my drug of choice and I'd take it intravenously if I could. But you know what? It's even simpler than that.
I just love words.
Screenplays are pretty great. They can be pure story (and in some cases, works of art), but for all intents and purposes, they are firstly blueprints for a narrative not told in words, but in images.
And in a world (coughHOLLYWOODcough) where sometimes the best a scribe can do is write a spec that's "fresh but familiar", it will come as no surprise that the most narrative freedom, originality, and evolution of pure story is going to be found in the world of books.
A question for you, dear reader: When you read a book, does the language unspool into a reel of words, projecting a movie on the screen of your mind?
Yeah, me too.
And there are some books, where the unfolding story is so cinematic, where the narrative seems just at home inside the cathedral that is a movie theater as inside of the prosaic Pandora's box that is a novel, that when I finish them, I need to see the movie version immediately.
Here are ten books I would love to see as movies.
1. Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski
Duane Swierczynski is the wheelman for a crew of noir writers that includes the criminal minds of Ken Bruen, Charlie Huston, and Meg Abbott. His sentences pop like strings of firecrackers and his characters are literal time-bombs and human weapons. His plots, which meld noir and espionage, operate like clever traps whose ticking clocks and high-stakes make Crank seem like it moves in molasses-slow bullet-time.
When Jamie DeBroux, a former newspaper man, shows up to his boring PR job at Murphy, Knox & Associates, his boss informs Jamie and his six other co-workers that he's gonna have to let them go.
The fire exits have been rigged with sarin gas, the phones don't work, and the elevator has been set to bypass the 36th floor (where they're located). They are on terminal lockdown.
They are presented with a choice: Drink a poisoned mimosa that will usher them into the Big Sleep, or take a bullet to the head.
Chaos ensues when Molly Lewis, a mild-mannered office girl, shoots the boss in the head, revealing that she is some kind of super-assassin.
In fact, Jamie, the everyman, is surprised to find out that he's the only one who isn't a spy. It's a fight for survival as the spies scatter, forming alliances or going rogue. Also, we notice that the entire floor has been rigged with cameras. Molly seems to be auditioning for a new gig with some type of super-secret spy organization that watches from the other end of a feed in Scotland.
To torture and exterminate all the other spies in the building, exhibitionist-style.
Jamie has to somehow survive all of this so he can return to his wife and new-born child at home.
You don't need any more plot details to know that this is an exciting premise. To mention Diehard, Alias, Hostel and The Most Dangerous Game almost cheapens the experience, but since this is a blog about movies, I guess I should throw that out there.
Severance Package is the ultimate "contained thriller".
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This is a steamrolling behemoth of a tale in the world of YA (Young Adult) Fiction. My twitter feed went apeshit a couple weeks ago when the title and cover of the final and third book was announced. Most of my favorite novels come from the YA Fiction section of the bookstore. And this is without a doubt one of the best.
After the destruction of North America, a nation called Panem rises out of its post-apocalyptic ashes. It is comprised of twelve poor districts and a rich Capitol (which is located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains).
Sixteen-year old Katniss Everdeen is from District 12, which we know is Appalachia because of its coal-rich soil. Her father has been killed in a mine explosion, so Katniss is the sole provider of her family. To feed her sister and grief-stricken mother, she becomes an expert hunter, archer and trapper.
Every year, one boy and one girl are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games, a televised event where the children are forced to fight to the death in a deadly outdoor arena. Its participants are called tributes and the games end only when one tribute is left standing.
When Katniss' younger sister, Prim, is chosen as District 12's tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
And like that, we're off Battle Royale-style.
Things get complicated when Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, publically declares his love for Katniss. The audience goes into a frenzy over the two star-crossed lovers. But is Peeta's declaration of love just a ploy to win over the audience?
The Hunger Games are so competitive, half of the twenty-four tributes die in the first day. Katniss is able to survive because she's like a teenage Ellen Ripley or John Rambo. She's got some skills, man.
The Hunger Games is a four quadrant movie and then some. You've got a badass teenage heroine, a riveting love story, a dangerous post-apocalyptic world and visceral first-person shooter action.
Not only that, it's smart-science fiction with rich allegorical soil.
Let Suzanne Collins write the screenplay, let Kathryn Bigelow direct it.
3. Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
This free verse novel has all my favorite things: the raw-knuckle peril of crime fiction, the somber horror of the werewolf tale, and the quest for redemption required of true noir. All told in a tapestry of multiple story threads. Kinda like a modern day Beowulf, but with werewolves.
Anthony Silvo is lonely. He takes a job as a dog catcher. It's what he perceives to be a simple job, but soon discovers it's a lot more dangerous than he could have ever imagined. The man he's replacing, a catcher that sold a few dogs to a fighting circuit, has disappeared. He soon finds himself in the world of the drug trade. If that's not all, Anthony also falls in love with a mysterious unnamed woman who might possibly be a werewolf.
Lark is leader of the most dangerous wolf-pack on the streets. A lawyer whose pack controls the undercurrents of power in Hollywood (think film agents who are really werewolves), he is ultimately betrayed and finds himself trying to start a new pack from scratch. His motivation is to get revenge against the pack of lycanthrope hitmen who are attemping to take over the LA crime world.
Detective Peabody follows a blood trail and is strung along by a mysterious man who hints that something else has been set loose on the streets besides impending gang warfare. He may or may not discover a race of beings that can change back and forth into dogs.
All these threads are woven together, the story culminating into all-out war on the streets of LA. Consider this tableau: Blackhawk helicopters and snipers unleashing hell on things that are, apparently, more than human.
If there's ever a werewolf story that could work on screen, it's this one. It has the potential to be a supernatural crime epic. It's Traffic, but with fang, fur and claw.
4. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Think John Carpeneter's Escape from New York but set in an alternate Civil War-era Seattle. In 1860, the Russians are searching for gold in the Alaskan ice. Leviticus Blue creates a machine called Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-shaking Drill Engine for the job, but at a demonstration gone awry, ends up drilling through several Seattle blocks, releasing a gas called the Blight. As banks are looted and people are killed, Leviticus and his machine disappear in the chaos.
And the Blight?
It turns people into rotters (zombies)!
Fast-forward to the 1880s and the Blighted remnants of Seattle have been walled off. Briar Wilkes, the scorned widow of Leviticus and outcast of the Great Blight, scrapes by with her teenage son, Ezekiel, in the Outskirts. The rest of America is a dangerous Civil War Zone ravaged by the machines of war (read dirigibles and steampowered tech). On a mission to exonerate his family's name and discover the truth about Leviticus, Zeke dons an antiquated Blight-mask and ventures into the Blighted city. When an earthquake destroys Zeke's only escape route out of the city, Briar sets off in an airship to rescue her son.
It's an American steampunk world ruled by the eerie Dr. Minnericht, who wears a skull-like gas mask of pipes and valves and views the world through glowing blue lenses. The atmosphere is thick with yellow gas and air pirates conduct their trade over the city in giant zeppelins.
It's hard to deny that this novel would make one helluva a movie. In many ways it's a family adventure story about hope. But how many family adventures have zombie chases, cyborg barmaids and steampunk weapons named Doozy Dazer? Not a lot! Sure, it'd be expensive, and many of the actors would be wearing gas masks for much of the screen time, but hell, we can all dream right? At the very least, pick up the book and check it out for yourself. It's worth it for the cool cover alone. And if you can't get enough of Cherie Priest's writing, I recommend her Eden Moore trilogy, the supernatural Southern Gothic novels Priest cut her teeth on.
5. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead...
Gully Foyle is shipwrecked in space. A brute, a mental simpleton, he's been alone on the Nomad for six months, waiting for rescue. When a spacecraft named the Vorga arrives to scope out the ship, Foyle sets off signal flares. The Vorga ignores him and continues on its way.
This is where something interesting happens to Foyle.
This snub triggers his rage and he is driven by only one thing. Revenge. But because Foyle isn't that smart, and doesn't realize that something like the Vorga is piloted by actual people, the object of his vengeance becomes the Vorga itself. This galvanizes him into action and he soon finds his way back to Earth. Through it all, he develops the ability to "jaunte". Which is basically teleporting through the power of the mind. Of course, the thing is, no one has ever been able to jaunte through outer space.
When an attack on the Vorga fails, he is thrown into the Gouffre Martel, a series of underground caves in the Pyrenees. He's tortured by Saul Dagenham, a brilliant scientist who can only be around other people for a limited time because he is radioactive. It's a prison of total darkness, and it's so disorienting Foyle can't jaunte away (he has to be able to form a picture of the location in his mind). It's here that he meets Jisbella McQueen, a woman who educates him and teaches him how to properly hone and cultivate his revenge.
Because this is a retelling of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Foyle escapes the prison and transforms himself into a rich, educated dandy. He's also used his wealth to enhance his nervous system with military tech that allows him to burst into combat at super-human speeds. He uses all resources available to him as he goes after the individual people who were aboard the Vorga.
Do I really need to explain why this would make an awesome action movie? Alfred Bester is kinda the father of cyberpunk, as he was playing with its concepts in 1956 when he wrote this novel. There's fascinating and inventive set-pieces, not limited to kidnapping telepaths on Mars to infiltrating a catacomb fortress where inhabitants live in total sensory deprivation to battles with physically enhanced commandos.
The book is a tour-de-force, and in the right hands, would make a classic revenge-fueled science-fiction thriller.
6. Alabaster by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Caitlin R. Kiernan has been described as the spiritual granddaughter of H.P. Lovecraft. Besides Cormac McCarthy, she is probably my favorite modern day novelist. An amazing prose stylist, her novels and short stories are dizzying, lyrical pieces with powerful imagery that is comparable to the work of someone like Angela Carter. Adapting any of her novels is going to be a tough (but rewarding) gig for any A-list filmmaker, and I remember reading somewhere that Guillermo Del Toro was flirting with her novel Threshold.
I believe her most cinematic work is a melancholy and razor-sharp short story cycle called Alabaster. These five stories, which tick by and fit together like a sinister grandfather clock, are just brilliant pieces of storytelling.
Dancy Flammarion is a thirteen-year old monster killer on a mission. An albino, she has haunting visions that may or may not come from some type of guardian angel, telling her to seek out "the ancient monsters who have hidden themselves away in the lonely places of the world." These spells slowly drive her mad and test her sanity. She sets forth on foot from the swamps of North Florida, armed with only a duffel bag and a very large knife, hunting creatures from Heaven and Hell on the red-clay Georgia and Alabama backroads.
To quote Publishers Weekly, "the fey girl is one of many human avatars fighting small skirmishes on earth that have cataclysmic repercussions across planes of reality. In Les Fleurs Empoisonnées, Dancy is taken captive by a matriarchy of necrophiles whose decaying mansion is a nexus point for perverse and grotesque phenomena. Bainbridge interweaves multiple story lines that cut across time and space to show the far-reaching efforts of Dancy's to exorcise an ancient evil infesting an abandoned church."
It's going to take a genius fantasy and horror filmmaker to bring this to celluloid, but if you've read the stories, you'll agree with me that it's something that needs to be done. There's no doubt in my mind that there's a director out there who was born to make this happen.
If you love monsters and monster hunters, character-driven, mind-bending horror stories, fairytales, rich mythology, and just plain balls-to-the-wall storytelling that sings of pure imagination, then do yourself a favor and order a copy of Alabaster right now. You won't be disappointed.
7. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
My parents have always fed me books. In middle school it was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A few months ago it was Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. And I love filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, and although Abercrombie writes fantasy, it was apparent that he loves these filmmakers, too. It's another case of cinema inspiring an author, and I love that overlap.
Monza Murcatto, an infamous mercenary and general for Duke Orso, is getting a little too influential and respected for her employer's tastes. Orso believes that he can become king of the land by coming out on top of the civil wars raging between the competing city states, but he's scared of Monza. So, he lures her and her brother into his palace and has them killed. Monza and her brother's body are tossed off a balcony and left on a mountainous incline.
Of course, Monza is still alive. She's suffered massive injuries and she's found and nursed back to health by a strange surgeon. She's still pretty fucked up (one arm is pretty much useless), but this doesn't stop her from putting together a fascinating team of death dealers.
There's Shivers, a remorseful barbarian from the Northlands who is kind of the moral compass and foil to Monza and her dark vendetta. There's Morveer, the master poisoner and his ambitious assistant, a gamine named Day. There's Friendly, a Rain Man-like serial killer who is obsessed with numbers and wields cleavers. And there's Monza's ex-mentor, Nimco Cosca who was once the leader of an army known as The Thousand Swords, but is now a drunk who is a savant with a sword.
Monza is fueled by hatred and rage to take down the seven men who plotted and witnessed her betrayal. Yes, this is a Point Blank revenge story set in a fascinating fantasy world that's just as gritty as the best noir settings. There are awesome set-pieces set against the scope of heists, break-ins, cities under siege, and civil war. Not only that, but when Orso realizes that Monza is still alive and is after him, he employs the most feared bounty hunter in the land to take down her team, a guy who can seemingly bend the laws of time and space and who fights in a style I like to call gore-fu. It's scary shit.
It can be adapted into a stand-alone movie, or if you want to capture every nuance and moment, would feel at home as an HBO mini-series. It's a story that will have you laughing maniacally at the sheer spectacle and rage in one scene, to weeping softly in another. If people are looking for the next bloated epic fantasy to adapt, why not pull a hat trick and pick this stand-alone tale that will appeal to fans of not only high fantasy, but crime capers and the cinema of violence?
8. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
With this book, I'm gonna have to quote a titan of YA Fiction, Scott Westerfield.
Zombies have been metaphors for many things: consumerism, contagion in an overpopulated world, the inevitability of death. But here they resonate with a particularly teenage realization about the world –- that social limits and backwards traditions are numberless and unstoppable, no matter how shambling they may seem at first.
And so it goes with Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book that begins seven generations after the zombie apocalypse. Mary lives in an archaic village under a matriarchal religious sect called the Sisterhood. They enforce tradition and everything about Mary's life, from birth to marriage to death. The village is surrounded by a chainlink fence, and no villager is allowed to cross this threshold unless they want to die in the forest, which is populated with zombies.
Mary spends her days dreaming and questioning the traditions of the Sisterhood. She wants to know about technology. She wants to know what caused the Return. She wants to know about romance, about love. Her crazy mother is the one who tells her tales about a mysterious place filled with water, an "ocean" that is free from the danger of the undead. When the Unconsecrated breach the village's defenses, Mary ventures into the forest to find another safe haven, perhaps another village like her own.
And it's weird to say this, but this is a moving story about searching and pursuing your dreams, about following your heart, even if it's in a post-apocalyptic world where zombies are trying to eat you. It's the type of rich novel I imagine only a woman raised on zombie movies and coming-of-age novels could write, and it's all the more powerful for it. Although it's probably unfair to say this, but I think The Forest of Hands and Teeth is the movie M. Night's The Village should have been. With a female teenage heroine, romance, and zombies, what other bases does a movie need to cover? Audiences will eat this up. I promise.
9. Already Dead by Charlie Huston
Let's talk about Charlie Huston for a moment. I think any of Charlie's books could make a great movie. I could write about all of them (except Sleepless, haven't read that one yet, but it's sitting on my desk here), and I'm faced with the problem of only picking one. And in the spirit of picking something that's anti-Twilight, I'll choose the first in his pulp-noir horror Joe Pitt Casebooks.
Huston has created a Middle Earth-like Manhattan, a parallel universe whose underworld is ruled by vampyre clans. There's the largest clan, The Society, corporate suits who rule midtown from 14th street to Harlem. There's the East Village Society, basically a group of progressive liberals. To me, the most interesting is a group called The Enclave, who are the smallest but the most feared. They live in a lower West End warehouse starving themselves to nirvana, whose bodies have found a balance with the raging vampyre virus, giving them super-supernatural speed.
Joe Pitt is a rogue, constantly scrambling and hustling to survive. In true Chandler-esque fashion, Pitt takes two jobs: He's hired by Marilee Horde, a prominent New York socialite whose daughter Amanda has gone missing and may be slumming with homeless goth kids in the East Village; and The Coalition hires him to find and destroy a "carrier", basically a science experiment that's bringing unwanted attention on the undead community because it's spreading an infection that turns people into shamblers (more zombies!).
It's a very entertaining foray into a world populated by Stoker archetypes. There are Renfields (humans who want to become vampyres), Lucys (those who have over-romanticized vampires and dote over them like groupies), Minas (who know the truth and fall in love with them anyways), and the occasional Van Helsings (vampyre killers). It's just a great fusion of Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, and horror. What astounds me the most about it is the moral sophistication of the tale and the exploration into the nature of evil that lies within its pages.
It's no surprise to me that the screenwriter of Johnny Diamond, Scott Rosenberg, bought an option on this book in February 2007. I think it's a good match and I hope they're able to make it happen. Until then, I recommend any of Charlie Huston's books, especially if you like both crime and horror.
10. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
Last but not least is a novel that doesn't contain the usual story staples I'm interested in. Nary a zombie, monster, sword, steampunk setting or action set-piece to be found. I suppose this is something that could be categorized as a "literary novel", in the sense that it's not horror, science-fiction or fantasy, and that it contains beautiful language.
It also contains miracles.
Reuben Land appears to be born still-born, and the first miracle appears when his father, Jeremiah Land commands, "In the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe." And he does. Eleven years later we're in the 1960s and Rube's dad is a widowed school custodian. Jeremiah struggles to raise Rube and his two siblings, Davy, who will become an outlaw, and Swede, a precocious girl who writes poems about cowboys and gunplay.
Our story takes off when Davy shoots down two bullies and brigands during a home invasion. He's put on trial for murder, but he ultimately escapes the jail and heads towards the Badlands. This turns the Land family on its head and it's not long before Jeremiah puts Rube and his sister in a car and they're off to find Davy before the FBI does.
The whole time we're praying that this broken family will be reunited, and through a child's eyes, we watch the father grapple with the concepts of justice, a father's duty, and morality. It's a prosaic and wondrous tale, as beautiful as the worlds contained in the snowflakes Enger writes about.
A simple story told beautifully, not unlike something as heartwrenching and true as Crazy Heart. Because of the lens it brings into the world of hope, love and the supernatural, I much prefer this book to something like The Lovely Bones. I believe this could be a magical movie, a character study in the vein of Southern Gothic stories like A Love Song for Bobby Long, Sling Blade or The Apostle, except the difference here is the setting isn't the South, but the wondrous winter wonderland of Minnesota. The nature and weather are just as important as the characters.
It's a tale about true heroism.