RARA-AVIS: respecting source material

From: DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net
Date: 14 Feb 2007

We've been talking a lot about respecting (or not) Chandler's source material for movies. Well, Chandler himself adapted a couple works for the screen.

As for the notion that only someone who respects an author and his work should work on adapting him, here's Chandler on the author of Double Indemnity, which he adapted with Billy Wilder:

"But James Cain -- faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billy goat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with the smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door. . . . Hemingway with his eternal sleeping bag got to be pretty damn tiresome, but at least Hemingway sees it all, not just the flies on a garbage can." (p. 23, letter from 10/22/42, all quotes taken from F. McShane (ed.), Selected Letter of Raymond Chandler)

While that may make me want to read Cain, Chandler clearly didn't mean it as an endorsement. And he continued in this estimation, even while adapting Cain:

"What you said about me and Cain is very nice. It has always irritated me to be compared with Cain. My publisher thought it was a smart idea because he had a great success with The Postman Always Rings Twice, but whatever I have or lack as a writer I'm not in the least like Cain. Cain is a writer of the faux naif type, which I particularly dislike."
(p. 26, 1/26/44)

A month and a half later, Chancler wrote Cain a polite letter thanking him for an inscribed copy of a novel (I'm assuming Double Indemnity, since they discuss the already completed, but not yet released adaptation). In the letter, Chandler discusses how Cain's dialogue seems natural on the page, but not when spoken aloud. (p. 27-28, 3/20/44)

Ten years later, Chandler is still bashing Cain:

"Some crazy idiot at Little Brown sent me a book called Freak Show. I haven't the slightest intention of reading it nor have I the faintest idea why they published it. So it may easily be a bestseller. I would say the guy might be a road show James Cain except that James Cain is a road show James Cain." (p. 363, 5/6/54)

Pretty clear that Chandler did not respect the author or the work he was adapting. Made a pretty great movie, though, one even Cain thought improved upon his novel.

Most of Chandler's correspondence on Strangers on a Train seems to be concerned with money and how he was not paid for a week he had food poisoning. However, he does make one passing reference to Patricia Highsmith's novel in his collected letters:

"Even if my script was not as perfect as it might have been with more discussion of knotty points, he got it pretty cheap, considering how little there was to go on. The book had one idea, and that was all."
(p. 224, 9/28/50)

And a letter about writing the screenplay strongly implies he did not think much of the thriller genre, in general:

"For the most part the work is boring, unreal, and I have no feeling that it is the kind of thing I can do better than anybody else. Suspense as an absolute quality has never seemed to me very important. At best it is a secondary growth, and at worst an attempt to make something out of nothing." (p. 222, 9/13/50)

There are a number of letters of complaint about Hitchcock's (even one to the director himself) being threatened by Chandler's distinctive style, ignoring the plausbility the author had tried to inject into the project in order to make a "Hitchcock film." Chandler considered having his screenwriting credit withdrawn, due to his script's being

As for his own work in Hollywood, Chandler worked on a screen treatment of The Lady in the Lake:

"Am working on a screen treatment of The Lady in the Lake for MGM. It bores me stiff. The last time I'll ever do a screenplay of a book I wrote myself. Just turning over dry bones." (p. 53, 8/18/45)

Chandler begged off the project, leaving it to someone else to adapt him.

And Chandler was well familiar with Hollywood changing his endings. He was even complicit in it. The story of his work on The Blue Dahlia is well know, how he had to entirely change the ending of his original screenplay, writing a ridiculous trick-shooting scene to change whodunnit. Yes, he may have grumbled about it, but he did it.


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