Monday, April 6, 2009

The Perils Of Screenwriting: A century later, Jack London's thoughts on screenwriting still resonate

"I have written some novels of adventure in my time, but never, in all of the many of them, have I perpetrated a totality of action equal to what is contained in 'Hearts of Three'." - Jack London.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In looking through Jack London's writings on a recent research jaunt I happened upon the forward for his escapist, Indiana Jones-esque adventure, Hearts Of Three. In it, Jack, with comic deliberation, discusses the various strengths and weakness between authors of literary fiction such as himself and those upstart scenario writers for that newfangled silent film phenomenon taking the planet by storm.

According to London, the 'scenario writers' bring to the table relentless speed and breathless excitement, whereas he brings only deliberate pacing and unhelpful things such as description and fullness of character. Such speed and deft illogic of plotting was necessary since the relentless grind of cinema was chewing through the world's entire history of plots at a brakneck pace and must be continually fed like a steam engine hungry for coal.

According to London, Hearts Of Three was a collaboration between himself and one of the early writing superstars of the cinema, none other than Charles Goddard. Goddard was a noted playwright who adapted many of his works for the new medium but will forever be remembered as the writer, er, scenarist, of The Perils of Pauline. Goddard also gets props from me for penning the plays that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis' funny Scared Stiff and Bob Hope's The Ghost Breakers were based on.

London's hilarious description of how he wrestled with the demands of the two mediums to produce an imminently filmable novel is a joy to read, even today.

If only it still didn't resonate so painfully!

I HOPE the reader will forgive me for beginning this foreword with a brag. In truth, this yarn is a celebration. By its completion I celebrate my fortieth birthday, my fiftieth book, my sixteenth year in the writing game, and a new departure. " Hearts of Three " is a new departure. I have certainly never done anything like it before; I am pretty certain never to do anything like it again. And I haven't the least bit of reticence in proclaiming my pride in having done it. And now, for the reader who likes action, I advise him to skip the rest of this brag and foreword, and plunge into the narrative, and tell me if it just doesn't read along.

For the more curious let me explain a bit further. With the rise of moving pictures into the overwhelmingly most popular form of amusement in the entire world, the stock of plots and stories in the world's fiction fund began rapidly to be exhausted. In a year a single producing company, with a score of directors, is capable of filming the entire literary output of the entire lives of Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Scott, Zola, Tolstoy, and of dozens of less voluminous writers. And since there are hundreds of moving pictures producing companies, it can be readily grasped how quickly they found themselves face to face with a shortage of the raw material of which moving pictures are fashioned.

The film rights in all novels, short stories, and plays that were still covered by copyright, were bought or contracted for, while all similar raw material on which copyright had expiredwas being screened as swiftly as sailors on a placer beach would pick up nuggets. Thousands of scenario writers literally tens of thousands, for no man, nor woman, nor child was too mean not to write scenarios tens of thousands of scenario writers pirated through all literature (copyright or otherwise), and snatched the magazines hot from the press to steal any new scene or plot or story hit upon by their writing brethren.

In passing, it is only fair to point out that, though only the other day, it was in the days ere scenario writers became respectable, in the days when they worked overtime for rough-neck directors for fifteen and twenty a week or freelanced their wares for from ten to twenty dollars per scenario and half the time were beaten out of the due payment, or had their stolen goods stolen from them by their equally graceless and shameless fellows who slaved by the week. But to-day, which is only a day since the other day, I know scenario writers who keep their three. machines, their two chauffeurs, send their children to the most exclusive prep schools, and maintain an unwavering solvency.

It was largely because of the shortage in raw material that scenario writers appreciated in value and esteem. They found themselves in demand, treated with respect, better remunerated, and, in return, expected to deliver a higher grade of commodity. One phase of this new quest for material was the attempt to enlist Jmown authors in the work. But because a man had written a score of novels was no guarantee that he could write a good scenario. Quite to the contrary, it was quickly discovered that the surest guarantee of failure was a previous record of success in novel writing.

But the moving pictures producers were not to be denied. Division of labor was the thing. Allying themselves with powerful newspaper organisations, or, in the case of "Hearts of Three," the very reverse, they had highly-skilled writers of scenario (who couldn't write novels to save themselves) make scenarios, which, in turn, were translated into novels by novel-writers (who couldn't, to save themselves, write scenarios).

Comes now Mr. Charles Goddard to one, Jack London, saying: " The time, the place, and the men are met; the moving pictures producers, the newspapers, and the capital, are ready: let us get together." And we got "Hearts of Three." When I state that Mr. Goddard has been responsible for " The Perils of Pauline," " The Exploits of Elaine," " The Goddess," the " Get Rich Quick Wallingford " series, etc., no question of his skilled fitness can be raised. Also, the name of the present heroine, Leoncia, is of his own devising.

On the ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, he wrote his first several episodes. But he wrote faster than I, and was done with his fifteen episodes weeks ahead of me. Do not be misled by the word " episode." The first episode covers three thousand feet of film. The succeeding fourteen episodes cover each two thousand feet of film. And each episode contains about ninety scenes, which makes a total of some thirteen hundred scenes. Nevertheless, we worked simultaneously at our respective tasks. I could not build for what was going to happen next or a dozen chapters away, because I did not know. Neither did Mr. Goddard know. The inevitable result was that "Hearts of Three" may not be very vertebrate, although it is certainly consecutive.

Imagine my surprise, down here in Hawaii and toiling at the novelization of the tenth episode, to receive by mail from Mr. Goddard in New York the scenario of the fourteenth episode, and glancing therein, to find my hero married to the wrong woman! and with only one more episode in which to get rid of the wrong woman and duly tie my hero up with the right and only woman. For all of wilich (sic) please see last chapter of fifteenth episode. Trust Mr. Goddard to show me how.

For Mr. Goddard is the master of action and lord of speed. Action doesn't bother him at all. " Register," he calmly says in a film direction to the moving picture actor. Evidently the actor registers, for Mr. Goddard goes right on with more action. " Register grief," he commands, or “sorrow," or " anger," or " melting sympathy," or “homicidal intent," or "suicidal tendency." That's all. It has to be all, or how else would he ever accomplish the whole thirteen hundred scenes?

But imagine the poor devil of a me, who can't utter the talismanic " register " but who must describe, and at some length inevitably, these moods and modes so airily created in passing by Mr. Goddard ! Why, Dickens thought nothing of consuming a thousand words or so in describing and subtly characterizing the particular grief of a particular person. But Mr. Goddard says, " Register," and the slaves of the camera obey.

And action! I have written some novels of adventure in my time, but never, in all of the many of them, have I perpetrated a totality of action equal to what is contained in "Hearts of Three." But I know, now, why moving pictures are popular. I know, now, why Messrs. "Barnes of New York" and "Potter of Texas" sold by the millions of copies. I know, now, why one stump speech of high-falutin' is a more efficient vote-getter than a finest and highest act or thought of statesmanship. It has been an interesting experience, this novelization by me of Mr. Goddard's scenario; and it has been instructive. It has given me high lights, foundation lines, cross-bearings, and illumination on my anciently founded sociological generalizations. I have come, by this adventure in writing, to understand the mass mind of the people more thoroughly than I thought I had understood it before, and to realize, more fully than ever, the graphic entertainment delivered by the demagogue who wins the vote of the mass out of his mastery of its mind. I should be surprised if this book does not have a large sale. (" Register surprise," Mr. Goddard would say; or " Register large sale ").

If this adventure of " Hearts of Three " be collaboration, I am transported by it. But alack ! I fear me Mr. Goddard must then be the one collaborator in a million. We have never had a word, an argument, nor a discussion. But then, I must be a jewel of a collaborator myself. Have I not, without whisper or whimper of complaint, let him " register " through fifteen episodes of scenario, through thirteen hundred scenes and thirty-one thousand feet of film, through one hundred and eleven thousand words of novelization? Just the same, having completed the task, I wish I'd never written it for the reason that I'd like to read it myself to see if it reads along. I am curious to know. I am curious to know.


Waikiki, Hawaii,

March 23, 1916.


Copyright in the United States of America by Jack London.

Live the adventure.