“Did we learn nothing from the movie business? Sure, the movies still make money, but almost every prize-winner, almost every movie for grown-ups, almost every movie with real people and not cartoons or cartoonish stories is based on a novel filled with ‘good writing’ because it turns out that’s the part you can’t ‘work with’, so you have to buy it somewhere else.”One of my paying gigs is as a movie reviewer, and one of the joys there is the fact that, when it comes to movies, no one – filmmakers, critics, the audience – discriminates against a movie on the basis of its genre. Two of the last three Best Picture Oscars, for example, have gone to crime flicks (The Departed and No Country for Old Men). If you check out the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Movies of All Time, the list runs like this:
Voted the number one movie was CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, which he directed, produced, wrote and starred in at the age of 25. The rest of the top ten, in order, are: CASABLANCA (#2), THE GODFATHER (#3), GONE WITH THE WIND (#4), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (#5), THE WIZARD OF OZ (#6), THE GRADUATE (#7), ON THE WATERFRONT (#8), SCHINDLER’S LIST (#9) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (#10).Now, there’s a couple of things that need to be said about that list. (1) It’s an American list of movies. (2) Schindler’s List – wtf?
That said, it’s interesting to note how many of the movies listed above are what the publishing industry would term ‘genre stories’ (this may have something to do with the fact that the movie industry, being rooted in the early 20th century, is a much more democratic form than the novel, which is 500 years old and rooted in a time when democracy was something the ancient Greeks once tried out). Crime, fantasy, romantic fiction, war – they deal in the kind of subject matter that does not routinely feature in the Booker Prize shortlist, say. Or, for that matter, win the Impac Prize, which is the most lucrative prize in publishing today.
It’s also worth noting how many of the movies above are based on pre-existing stories – eight in total, seven novels and one play.
I’m not going to make any grandiose claims on behalf of said novels (Darley Anderson would surely say that it was character and plot that made GONE WITH THE WIND or THE GODFATHER best-selling novels, for example, rather than ‘good writing’, and he would have a very good point). But, given that this is a crime fiction blog, let’s take The Godfather as a movie. It’s a superb character study, and has a great plot, drawing as it does on classical themes of guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption.
Law Abiding Citizen is also a crime flick, a character study that trades in guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption. Released this year, it stars Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, and is so bad it’s probably toxic.
What makes The Godfather a great movie and Law Abiding Citizen a terrible one? The latter has nothing like the quality of actor the former has, which is a significant handicap, although it’s fair to say that the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan have starred in some turkeys. Neither is it as simple as saying that Francis Ford Coppola is a genius director, because – as the last two decades have proved – he’s patently not. I’d argue that it’s the blend of Coppola (as director and screenwriter) and Mario Puzo (as screenwriter) and the great Gordon Willis (cinematography) and William Reynolds’ and Peter Zinner’s editing, and Warren Clymer’s art direction, among others, who contributed to what was (eventually) regarded as a masterpiece. The Godfather isn’t simply a triumph of story, character and theme. In cinematic terms, it has a beautiful grammar, an unerring instinct for when less is more, for the visual ‘mot juste’, for the barely perceptible nuance that fuses story, character and theme into an indivisible whole.
It’s the equivalent, in other words, of ‘good writing’.
This isn’t just an exercise in aesthetics. The Godfather was just another movie when it was first released, and as I understand it, Coppola was none too pleased to be asked to direct a ‘mob movie’. But three decades and more later, The Godfather is recognised as a classic, and – finally, here’s the point – continues to sell. I have no idea of what its figures are like, but I’d imagine that Law Abiding Citizen is highly unlikely to cover its costs by this time next year, let alone be still selling on DVD (or whatever the format is) in 30 years time.
The notion that ‘good writing’ is an optional extra that grows more redundant by the year is given the lie by the likes of The Godfather. The beautiful (and latest) re-issue of the Raymond Chandler novels earlier this year is another case in point. ‘Good writing’ endures. It requires investment, of course, but it’s an investment that delivers and continues to deliver. The pursuit of short-term gain (quantity over quality) that got the world’s economy into the mess it’s in today is mirrored in the attitude that sees ‘good writing’ as an optional extra, or the least of a writer’s concerns.
‘Good writing’ isn’t enough in itself, of course. The number of very fine novels that have fallen out of print, never to see a shelf again, doesn’t bear thinking about. But this is where crime writing has – or should have – the edge over its counterparts in the publishing industry. Yes, plot and character are vital, and its relevance to its time and place means that the best crime novels will always be relevant. Take all that and put it in the hands of a writer who instinctively understands ‘good writing’ and you have a gold mine that may never tap out.
There’s a mate of mine, you may have heard of him, called Adrian McKinty. I told him recently that he was too good a writer to ever make it really big, that he’s cursed by his obsession with ‘good writing’. But even if McKinty never sells on a par with James Patterson or John Grisham, he knows in his heart and can take it to his grave that he’s a good writer. That’s a thing that used to matter. It still does, and it always will.