It could be argued that the primary mode of creative writing in our time is the movie or TV script. One of the earliest signs that the jig was up for the novel was John Updike’s admission, in his Paris Review interview of some two decades ago, that in writing Rabbit, Run he ”wanted to make a movie.” In the early ’60s this would have been a bold, even an avant-garde, move. Today it would seem like the simplest common sense.
But there’s life in the novel yet, if Michael Herr’s new Walter Winchell (Knopf) — a book that challenges the screenplay form on its own ground, and wins — is any indication. Herr, the author of Dispatches and the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, talked with me recently about the genesis of his latest work, in which he has hit on a strange new mode: The book is something between a novel and a screenplay. There are occasional references to the camera and nods to screenwriting protocol — the names of new characters are printed in capital letters; the prose is spare, telegraphic. But it is writing, in paragraphs and chapters. This is a text to be read; it is screenplay as dream, and it has a dream’s power.
Walter Winchell is a serious novel about show biz — a short, powerful, disturbing book about a kind of American Ozymandias, a man who for 30 years in the early to middle part of the 20th century was one of the most influential and famous people in this country, and who now is almost completely forgotten. Winchell was a vaudeville performer-turned-newspaper columnist and radio personality, a trader in gossip. He had a harsh, rasping voice (both on the air and in print), and he could make and break celebrities, and even affect the stock exchange if he happened to speak well or ill of a product.
Winchell’s dominion was that physical and spiritual segment of midtown Manhattan known, in simpler times, as Broadway. As the influence of television grew in the 1950s, Broadway’s influence waned, and so did Winchell’s. (Unlike his fellow columnist Ed Sullivan, he couldn’t figure out how to work the new medium.) In the homogenizing machine of the TV culture, no one as rough-edged and unpleasant — and naively patriotic — as Winchell could ever gain lasting power.
Walter Winchell’s stock-in-trade was words, when words had a power they seem to have lost in our image-laden era. And there may be those who find rich contemporary irony in the fact that Michael Herr’s slim novel not only pays homage to the screenplay form but deals with a man who lost his kingdom to pictures. Nevertheless, it is a novel, and it succeeds as a novel.
How did Herr — who tells us in the book’s preface that the project began as a commissioned screenplay but failed to satisfy Hollywood — manage to stay with it? And, staying with it, why and how did he lift the work from a skeletal medium to one that is, of necessity, fully fleshed?
Screenwriting is a strange profession, and an odd medium. If you saw the shooting script of a favorite movie, you would smile fleetingly at familiar dialogue, but your eye would halt at the many camera angles and stage directions, and ultimately you would feel frustrated. You would long for the thing itself: the movie, with its lush sound and silken visuality. The screenplay is, finally, a business document — a kind of balance sheet by which a shooting schedule and a budget can be figured out. It is the recipe for product.
It is probably fair to say that all screenwriters write under the delusion that they will have more power than they actually end up with. It is an unavoidable tic left over from prose writing, in which the author is responsible for the whole production. Since movies mean more to many people these days than books, it is a rare screenwriter who doesn’t want to direct the movie that comes from his script. Even children see movie directors as more powerful than writers.
Michael Herr never bought into this notion. He was already a successful prose writer when Stanley Kubrick asked him to write a screenplay about the Vietnam war. Kubrick, a successful intellectual expatriate with no love for the standard screenplay, wanted Herr to write his script in prose, and a form was born.
When Herr began his next movie project — an original script for a film on Walter Winchell, to be directed by Bob Fosse and produced by Robert Benton — the form was second nature. But nothing in the movie business can ever be taken for granted. Before Herr was finished, Fosse died, and he ran into artistic differences with Benton. Herr was let go. He might have dropped the project there (he’d been paid), or he might have tried to peddle it elsewhere, but the story demanded that he do it justice. That meant going back — without the aid of actors, technicians, and set designers — and making sure that it was all there on paper: a living, breathing, intensely compelling, and unpleasant human being, and the vivid, claustrophobic world of Table 50 in the Cub Room of the Stork Club in the Manhattan of the ’40s and ’50s. Doing it justice meant making it a novel.
”Readers really have final cut,” Herr told me. ”They always have done. They shoot a kind of film in their head when they read a book. I’m certainly amenable to writing in screenplay form. I love movies, and I’m doing a rewrite now. It’s just that books have a different priority — you write a book, you’re the director. It’s language — it’s the most powerful thing around. I would say it’s the second most powerful thing after mind. Whether we know it or not, we’re all under the power of language. There are very few actions that don’t originate in the mind first and then in language. It’s as powerful as breath. More powerful than image. Maybe a word is worth a thousand pictures. If it’s the right word, you know.”
If Walter Winchell has the power of the breath of life, it is because Michael Herr felt compelled to take control himself: to put to use the ephemeral, invaluable tools of literary skill and the allusiveness of words, instead of what he knew he could never control, the relentlessly explicit and expensive apparatus of moviemaking. People always compare movies to dreams — and that’s true of films when they’re wonderful, but even then they’re someone else’s dreams. A good novel lets us dream on our own. Which is just what Walter Winchell does.