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One dictum I coined to keep my writing on track is this: Do things in prose the Hollywood machine cannot reproduce. For me, this means exploring characters, and even objects and other phenomena, from the inside out. It’s writing that trades the forward momentum of plot for the deep dive into character or situation. It’s writing that eschews reportage for the lyrical, the poetic, the musical. I mean, after all, if your intent is to write a novel suitable for reworking into Hollywood fare, why not just go into the screenwriting business? I always try to remember that fictive prose is an art in its own right, imbued with its own peculiar techniques and capable of evoking its own rich palette of response between the ears of its audience.

Do things in prose the Hollywood machine cannot reproduce.

Cover of On the Road

Why was Kerouac so keen on joining the Hollywood gang?

I’ve been thinking about this because of a titbit of literary-cinema history recently called to my attention. It seems that, flush with the hard-won success of On the Road (which had taken years to find a publisher), Jack Kerouac penned a letter to Marlon Brando begging him to do a film version of the novel in which Brando would play Dean Moriarty, and the part of narrator Sal Paradise would be played by … Kerouac himself!

Though fairly well acquainted with Kerouac’s biography, I was not aware of this little episode. My first reaction to it was pity. How sad, I thought. I suppose I couldn’t blame Kerouac if he wanted to cash in on his success with On the Road. After all, he’d paid long dues living down and out. But why so desperate to jump in with the Hollywood gang? As others have noted, the letter comes off creepy and ingratiating.

What truly struck me as sad, however, is that Kerouac should have been so on fire to have a movie made of On the Road. In some ways, I’ll grant, it’s the perfect novel-to-film vehicle: OTR blazes few (if any) intellectual trails. So, in that regard it’s perfect for Hollywood. What’s more, the plot is fairly simplistic and, as we all know, centers on several manic crossings of the country by Dean, Sal, and several of their comrades. Everyone loves a road movie, right?

What Kerouac did achieve in OTR, however, is a voyage into new territory in the realm of narrative technique. All you need do his hear Kerouac read from OTR to realize the way he turned his narrative into an extended jazz-prose improvisation (in spite of or because of his many revisions!) that in no way can be reproduced in film, leastwise without actually incorporating a voiceover of Kerouac narrating the entire film. The narrative technique is Kerouac’s true achievement here, and it’s a shame he was so eager to lend his title to a film that surely would have ignored it, as I’m sure the Coppola OTR currently in production will.

Cover of Doctor Sax

Kerouac's work of sheer fiction, Dr. Sax

More so than OTR, however, I find Kerouac’s most impressive work to be Doctor Sax, a book in which Kerouac not only trumpets his mastery of jazz-narrative improvisation but weds it with the kind of bold imaginative leaps of which sheer fiction is made. Doctor Sax stands out from all of Kerouac’s other novels for its move into an imaginative realm of mythologized nostalgia that junks chronology and pulls the rug out from under plot. In some ways, the novel has more to do with the French surrealists of the 20s and 30s that with the work of his colleagues in the so-called Beat Generation.
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I think we authors need to keep working up our multiverse in prose that goes beyond the simple, and simplistic, demands of the potboiler.

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Cover of Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch: Still can't make it into a film!

In my estimation, any attempt to make a movie of Doctor Sax is doomed to failure. That is, unless the director cheats. We saw evidence of this kind of cheating in David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a novel thought to be incapable of adaptation for the screen. And it is! Cronenberg made a fine film that does a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of Burroughs, but it’s not Naked Lunch. Cronenberg’s cheat was to excise the novel’s most difficult passages and replace them with elements of Burroughs’s biography. Nice try, David!

So, to keep fiction vital, original, and always looking forward, I think we authors need to keep working up our multiverse in prose that goes beyond the simple, and simplistic, demands of the potboiler. Leave that to the hacks and journos. Let’s be proud of our art!

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