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SHUTTERSPEED - Lincoln and the Adulteration of the Great Writer

Lincoln Top Image.jpg

The Oscars have come and gone, and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln – once considered a sure thing by industry bloggers – lost out, in more or less every matchup, to Argo. Argo is a competent thriller and directed pitch-perfectly, but I must admit I am disappointed Lincoln did not win one particular Oscar. That would be the adapted screenplay award.

Despite all the dusty amber prestige film lighting, solemn looks, and swelling scores – dare we say, overtly Spielbergian touches - Lincoln has a life and a currency that other awards-baiting pictures do not. It is talky and smart, and while there is a appropriate amount of reverence for the nation’s 16th president, it focuses primarily on his doubts and prevarications as he shepherds the thirteenth amendment into law. It lives in the nitty-gritty of legislative procedure, in calculated breaches of ethics. It reminds us that the ugliness of lawmaking is integral to accomplishing of grand things. Premiering as it did in the midst of a presidential election in which the nation seemed to collectively agonize over whether a would-be-transformational president could achieve any modicum of success in the real vulgar political world, Lincoln tapped into an immediacy most Hollywood forays into history have no business attempting. Before Zero Dark Thirty began its screenings in December, Lincoln was that subject of an unseemly number of newspaper columns.

And what pleased me most about that rapturous response to Lincoln was how much of the rapture was directed at the film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner. Still best known for his watershed play cycle Angels in America, Kushner is a fierce, uncompromisingly political writer, one capable of turning political discourse into poetry. Only watch the scene in which Lincoln tangles himself into knots explaining the legal conundrums involved in emancipating slaves as a wartime measure – can one commandeer them as property in war if one asserts they are not property? Can one simultaneously commandeer property from an aggressor nation and insist the Confederacy is not a separate nation? – and you can appreciate the razor-sharp mind that adapted Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s imposing tome Team of Rivals. He can latch onto complex dicta and make them sing.

Lincoln is Spielberg’s second collaboration with Kushner; they partnered for 2006’s Munich, the story of Israel's response to the 1972 murder of its Olympic athletes by a Palestinian terrorist group.  It is a bleak, Brechtian exploration revenge and nationhood told over the course of 164 hopeless minutes. Both are profoundly intelligent films, though Munich will never find the love Lincoln has. Both are examinations of a nation taking extraordinary, perhaps illegal, measures to assert its values, and both marry the cinema’s dominant formalist with Kushner’s madly discursive characters. And at the end of each film, you wipe your eyes and consider how great minds contend against great evil.

When many of my friends sat unimpressed with the early trailers for Lincoln, I remained excited. Sure, the initial teaser reeked of awful Hollywood biopic-ing, but anytime a Pulitzer-prizewinner many consider to be America’s finest living playwright declares a still-unproduced screenplay to be his best work, my interest is piqued.

Spielberg is brave to engage twice a writer with such an unmistakable voice. Indeed, Spielberg is one of the few directors with strong enough visual assurance and industry credit to ferry Kushner’s language intact onto the screen. This got me thinking about other great writers, writers who have been honored with, say, the Pulitzer prize[1], who have dabbled in screenwriting. What happens when one of these writers transitions to screenwriting as Kushner has with Spielberg? Does the authorial voice pierce through beyond rewrites, directorial choices, and editing? How often does a filmgoer get to experience a work written by a Pulitzer prizewinner, anyway?

Well, in 2012, two other films penned by Pulitzer winners were released. Michael Chabon[2] adapted (with Mark Andrews and director Andrew Stanton) A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs into the ill-fated John Carter; he previously contributed to Spider-Man 2, unsurprising given his love and fluency for fantasy, science fiction, and comic books. The acerbic, off-kilter playwright David Lindsay-Abaire[3], meanwhile, wrote the screenplay for Rise of the Guardians; before, he worked on Inkheart and Robots, and this year we can look forward to his Oz the Great and Powerful[4]. Evidently, someone saw his adult-stage fairy tales like Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo and decided he was a good fit for children’s fare at Dreamworks.

This underlines a fissure between the types of screenplays prestige writers produce. On the one hand are works like Lincoln and Munich that seem to burst forth out of a need to be told well. On the other are those that smell a bit of the paycheck ink. I’m not saying Mr. Lindsay-Abaire wasn't dedicated to working on any of the films above (to intimate that would assign a fair amount of cravenness to both writer and studio), but I doubt he wrote a 500-page initial draft of Rise of the Guardians, as Kushner reportedly did with Lincoln. It’s seriously difficult to find a serious author or playwright’s opinion on his or her screenwriting projects. Film publications generally dismiss any other writing as incidental, and literary/theatre journals seem to view any film or television work as an adulteration of a great writer[5].


[1] Which, like all prizes, is imperfect and compromised (see: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but in the interest of establishing a filter to explore a theme, we’re going with it.

[2] The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, 2001 Fiction

[3] Rabbit Hole, 2007 Drama

[4] And an upcoming remake of Poltergeist. He also adapted his own play Rabbit Hole into an Oscar-nominated film, just as Kushner adapted Angels in America for Mike Nichols and HBO.

[5] And the film community is not always inclined to reward a playwright or novelist for an occasional screenplay. In the last decade, Kushner was nominated for Munich and Lincoln and Shanley was nominated for adapting Doubt. Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, 1986 Fiction) won in 2005 for his adaptation of Brokeback Mountain. That's the only Pulitzer/Oscar crossover in ten years.

Naturally, the Fiction and Drama categories tend to draw most screenwriters[6], though film critic Roger Ebert[7] did co-write the camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Russ Meyer. Some playwrights in particular, have a regular sideline in film. David Mamet[8] has been plumbing the depths of male impotency/chauvinism/systemic corruption/general awfulness in such films as House of Games, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and Heist, all of which he directed. In fact, he’s written a fantastic book on directing which breaks down the grammar of film to its most basic level and forces the reader to consider the value of each image. Mamet has also penned fine screenplays for other directors like The Verdict, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog, and not-so-fine ones like Hannibal.

[6] To clarify, I’m focusing on Pulitzer-winning writers who produce original work for the screen or adapt another author’s writing. Certainly, plenty of Pulitzer-winning texts – The Road, The Hours, Wit, Rent, ad infinitum – have been adapted to the screen with varying degrees of success.

[7] 1975 Criticism

[8] Glengarry Glen Ross, 1985 Drama

Neil Simon[9], too, has a second career in film with such classics as The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl. John Patrick Shanley[10] has turned out some of Hollywood’s most wonderfully off-kilter romances like Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano, as well as, Alive, the adaptation of Congo, and – yes - We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.

Still, if one were to identify the most revered film scribe among Pulitzer winners, it would likely be Horton Foote[11]. His laundry list includes Tender Mercies, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Trip to Bountiful, and all his screenplays have the genteel Texas’s distinct voice – decorous, colloquial, and emotionally acute. In Mockingbird, Foote crafted Harper Lee’s words into scenes that resonate even today as the prototype for perfect familial love in a sinful world.

[9] Lost in Yonkers, 1991 Drama

[10] Doubt: A Parable, 2005 Drama

[11] Young Man from Atlanta, 1995 Drama

Surveying Pulitzer winners of the postwar era reveals a filmography that spans Oscar juggernauts, cinema giants and noir classics. James Agee[12] adapted The African Queen with director John Huston. Robert E. Sherwood[13] knocked out two Best Picture winners: Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and Rebecca in 1940. William Inge[14] penned Splendor in the Grass for Elia Kazan.

Most notable is William Faulkner[15], who collaborated with Howard Hawkes twice in the 1940’s for To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. The latter, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, was so daunting that the (probably apocryphal) anecdote has emerged that Chandler himself idly admitted to Faulkner that he did not know whether one of the novel’s deaths was a murder or suicide. These films are among the best of their era, but authorial voice is not readily apparent. No one watching The Big Sleep – great though it is – would naturally peg it as a work adapted by the author of The Sound and the Fury.

[12] Death in the Family, 1958 Fiction

[13] Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1939 Drama

[14] Picnic, 1953 Drama

[15] A Fable, 1955 Fiction; The Reivers, 1963 Fiction

These films of the 1940’s inspire deep reverence, but my heart generally lies with the wild horses of cinema, the everything-on-the-court cinematic experiences that self-destruct as often as they succeed. When thinking of bold film auteurism, one normally thinks of the 70’s and the 90’s, but the most compelling cross-pollination of Pulitzer scribes and visionary filmmakers was, oddly enough, the 1980’s.

In this decade, we find Sam Sheppard[16] teaming with Wim Wenders in 1984 for Paris, Texas. This quiet, heartbreaking exploration of regret and redemption in a run-down Texas town features one of the most harrowing scenes of confession and forgiveness ever written in the climactic interchange between Harry Dean Stanton and Natassja Kinski. The film unerringly marries the raw-nerve masculinity of Sheppard with the quiet humanism of Wenders (for added surrealism, consider that the co-writer is L. M. Kit Carson of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).

[16] Buried Child, 1979 Drama

In 1986, too, Beth Henley[17], that pitch-perfect recorder of unbalanced souls in heartland America, paired with everyone’s-favorite Stephen Tobolowsky to write True Stories, a film directed by and starring none other than the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Byrne’s paean to modern suburbia and the over-development of America defies description, but any film that features John Goodman, Spalding Gray, Swoozie Kurtz, and something in the vicinity for 50 pairs of twins is worth a look. There’s a wicked satire to True Stories that recalls something like Five Easy Pieces or Henley’s oft-produced play The Miss Firecracker Contest.

[17] Crimes of the Heart, 1981 Drama

For its sheer kinesis, I also have to mention 1985's Runaway Train. Paul Zindel[18] (with Djordje Milicevic and thief-turned-writer Edward Bunker) adapted the film from an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. As bleak as an action flick can get, the film sends Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay careering through a frozen deathscape in Alaska aboard the titular locomotive. Brutal action sequences seem almost incidental to a more-brutal rumination on how much sacrifice can redeem a soulless man. It is the progenitor of existential actioners like The Grey and Drive. The archness of Zindel’s other work is less noticeable in Runaway Train than the nihilism of Kurosawa, the survivalist reverie of Milicevic or the hardscrabble of Bunker. It mystifies me that he was involved in it, but I cannot very well not mention it when it fits within the parameters and is such a damn good piece of filmmaking.

[18] The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, 1971 Drama

Were I to name my favorite screenplay from this substratum of screenwriters, it would have to be Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films. Released in 1943, this small-town psychological thriller was penned by Thornton Wilder[19], that most spiritual of American playwrights.

[19] The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1928 Novel; Skin of Our Teeth, 1943 Drama

A master of the New England provincial vernacular, Wilder encompassed life and eternity in his classic play Our Town. He enacted the full scope of human history through the story one post-war suburban family in Skin of Our Teeth. In Shadow of a Doubt, his purview seems narrower: an exploration of unadorned evil in a modern Eden. Evil comes in the form of Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie, a suave serial killer on the run from the police. He travels to the Californian hamlet of Santa Rosa to the hide out with his sister. There, he reconnects with his beloved niece, also named Charlie and mesmerizingly played by Teresa Wright in a performance that agonizingly tracks the progression from innocence to experience.

Shadow of a Doubt is a perfect film because it is entirely Hitchcock and entirely Wilder. Hitchcock had a tendency to mock and torture his characters. That tendency is tempered by Wilder’s deceptively wholesome voice. The cat-and-mouse plot is heightened to an unbearable level by the fact that characters are so damned polite and cheerful. The injection of malice into this world proves all the more perverse was it unsettles the American perfection of Wilder’s town.

As such, the film serves not as a footnote to the great playwright’s career. Like the best entries in this article, it is a worthy companion to Thornton Wilder’s better-known work. I stated that film’s focus seems narrower than Our Town or Skin of Our Teeth. In truth, Shadow of a Doubt explores nothing less than the fall of man. It is totally of a piece with the grand themes Wilder addressed throughout his life.

This is what we hope from a film: for all parties – writer, director, photographer, actors – to be working to the peak of their abilities and for all this work to coalesce. I understand why a studio would be hesitant to engage a Tony Kushner or a Thornton Wilder, a visionary accustomed to working in the less commercial arts. I can also see the doubt a great writer would have that his or her work would be appreciated or even understood.

Nonetheless, you should be excited whenever such a writer crosses over to film. And you should be excited for 2013, which brings The Counselor, starring Michael Fassbender. That would be Cormac McCarthy’s[20] first foray into screenwriting.[21]


[20] The Road, 2007 Fiction

[21] Okay, lightning round – here’s a list of movies you probably didn’t know were penned by Pulitzer prizewinners: Girl 6, The Ice Harvest, Jaws 2, The Lake House, Mystic Pizza, The Object of My Affection, Original Sin.