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Why Directors Are Writing Novels Instead of Making Movies

Are David Cronenberg, Ethan Coen, and others honing their artistic vision through fiction, or just more free to be gross there?

Saul Austerlitz
October 13, 2014
David Cronenberg at BMC Lab in TIFF Bell Lightbox.(Canadian Film Centre. Photo by George Pimentel.)
David Cronenberg at BMC Lab in TIFF Bell Lightbox.(Canadian Film Centre. Photo by George Pimentel.)

It is ironic, but not terribly surprising, that the opening line of celebrated filmmaker David Cronenberg’s debut novel Consumed—“Naomi was in the screen”—places one of its protagonists inside the pixilated confines of a MacBook Air, greedily investigating the “small, shabby, scholarly apartment” of a pair of married French philosophers. It takes another handful of pages before we come to understand that intrepid journalist and technophile Naomi is not literally in the screen, but merely engrossed—we might even say “consumed”—by a video she watches in the Paris airport. The scene feels like a classic Cronenberg bit of misdirection, instantly recognizable from one of his films.

In celebrating (and, perhaps, critiquing) 21st-century technology within the confines of the decidedly analog form of the novel, Cronenberg joins the small but growing fraternity of established filmmakers like Ethan Coen, Harmony Korine, and Gus Van Sant who have tried their hand at fiction. (John Sayles, best known for socially conscious films like Matewan, began his career as a novelist, and has returned to fiction on and off over the past three decades, most recently with the 1,000-page historical behemoth A Moment in the Sun.) Perhaps after so many years or decades telling stories through images, the idea of using words alone becomes increasingly tantalizing to filmmakers as an opportunity to thoroughly control the storytelling process.

Having transformed the likes of Naked Lunch and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis into films, Cronenberg already possesses a certain literary-fiction cachet, and a familiarity with the tone and texture of the form. “He clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to literature,” says film critic Glenn Kenny. “He’s adapted Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, and when adapting those guys was able to talk to them on their own level.” Cronenberg has also suffered from “this perception of him as a sort of high-toned pornographer,” says Kenny. “It hasn’t harmed his career in the long run, but it sounded really tedious to deal with. And it’s not something that’s apt to happen with a book nowadays.”

Consumed is crammed full of uniquely Cronenbergian touches: the North Korean entomologist-filmmakers, the woman convinced bugs are living inside one of her breasts, erotic encounters with cancer patients, marital cannibalism, surgery as philosophy, philosophy as sex, sex as surgery. Naomi and her boyfriend Nathan chase parallel scoops that begin to intertwine over the course of the novel, the “juicy French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing” melding into the “controversial Hungarian breast-cancer radioactive seed implant treatment thing.” Cronenberg has long been fascinated by technology, since the days of James Woods being sucked into the screen by a disembodied mouth in 1983’s Videodrome, and Consumed, with its iPhones and digital cameras and ultrabooks and high-end lenses, juxtaposes technophile fetishism with its lo-fi status as printed words on a page.

Naomi and Nathan exist in an eternal present, their passion as much for the act of recording as for the acts recorded. They bond and flirt over their shared fascination with technology, its eternal gleam of youth pitted against the rot of illness and the decay of death in a distinctly Cronenbergian equation. Cronenberg appears to be writing about himself and his own career, dependent as it is on that same technology. “I was aware that I was taking inordinate pleasure in small, technological events and objects,” Aristide says of himself, “and that this was probably a semiconscious tactic meant to evade confronting certain agonizing life events which were probably not resolvable and were destined to cause unrelenting pain and distress; yet the pleasure was real, and I took it greedily.”

Literature makes differing claims on its practitioners than film, but Consumed is almost immediately recognizable as a product of Cronenberg’s particular concerns and preoccupations. Consumed, one Cronenberg scholar argues, is emerging as a novel simply because it could never be made as a film. “You could never make it,” says William Beard, a professor at the University of Alberta and the author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. “You could never show a scene of the amputation of a woman’s breast, you could never show scenes of the consumption of body parts, scenes of cannibalism, you could never show this woman who cuts off pieces of her flesh with a nail clipper and then feeds them to herself. You just couldn’t show that.”


Cronenberg is hardly the first filmmaker to transition to fiction. During a dip in his career in the 1930s, after the introduction of sound, acclaimed silent auteur Erich von Stroheim wrote a novel called Paprika, about, as the Los Angeles Times described it, “Hungarian gypsies, gay, irresponsible, thieving, dancing, sensuous, and sadistic.” Earlier this year, the Cineteca di Bologna published a heretofore-unknown novella by Charlie Chaplin, Footlights, about a once-popular clown named Calvero who would later show up, somewhat altered, as the protagonist of Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. Screenwriter and blacklist victim Dalton Trumbo wrote the classic antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun during his time away from Hollywood, eventually turning it into a well-regarded film. Pulp filmmaker Samuel Fuller began his career as a pulp novelist, with his “lost” novel Brainquake republished earlier this year, complete with an encomium from Martin Scorsese. Most famously, Elia Kazan embraced the literary life late in his career as a film and theater director, writing four novels, including the immigrants’ tale America, America.

So, what motivates filmmakers to attempt to transform themselves into novelists? The constraints of moviemaking as a format might provide the most cogent explanation. “Today, if you’re going to be a commercial filmmaker, you have to appeal to a wide audience,” says Peter Hawkes, a professor at East Stroudsburg University and the coauthor of Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. “You have to really adjust your story to the taste and the morals and the understanding of the general public. But when you’re writing a novel, you don’t have to do that. You can write about subjects or treat them in a way that has narrower audience appeal.”

Moreover, filmmaking requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration that is simultaneously tantalizing and infuriating. Making a movie involves incorporating the efforts of dozens of talented specialists whose wisdom and experience and spur-of-the-moment strokes of genius can be incorporated into the final product. It also requires depending on the efforts of dozens of potentially flaky specialists whose delinquency or incompetence may sabotage the final product. “There are just so many people involved. Most directors don’t have complete control over the final product,” says Hawkes. “There are just so many other parts involved. But when you’re writing a novel, you’re in control. You choose setting, characters, themes, action, and how everything comes out in the end.”

Filmmakers’ primary exposure to writing comes in the crafting of screenplays, but the form is constrained by the nature of its readership. Scripts are not completed products, but intermediate efforts, pausing halfway between the imagination and the screen, and intended for a specific cohort of readers. “If you ever write a screenplay, you have to write a screenplay for about four or five different people,” says Kenny. “You have to make sure you’re indefinite enough so that any given number of actors can read the part and see themselves in the part. You have to make sure that you’re specific enough so that a producer reading it can draw up a budget in his head as he’s reading it. You have to be vague enough so that the director doesn’t think you’re stealthily trying to give direction to the script.” Yet for all its promise of freedom and artistic transformation, the literary efforts of these filmmaker-turned-writers bear a strong resemblance to their cinematic work.

Sayles’ novels betray a social conscience and interest in the political choices of ordinary men and women familiar from his work in films like Lone Star and Men With Guns. His early novel Union Dues (1977), predating his debut as a filmmaker, reflects the burgeoning cinematic bent of Sayles’ artistry. Hobie, the son of a West Virginia miner, heads north to Boston, in search of his disaffected-Vietnam-vet brother, and his father Hunter follows, hoping to track Hobie down. An early set-piece scene depicts the miners on their lunch break, bantering about the girlfriend of one of their sons (“Wunt take no shotgun get me on top of that Delia”) and the team foreman. The book ends with a high-stakes finale in which father and son head out on two equally misguided nighttime raids, one political and one personal. The action is so clearly laid out and cross-cut that it would require little effort to imagine it as the dramatic conclusion to a film.

Sayles had been a novelist before making his mark as a filmmaker. Gus Van Sant, by contrast, wrote Pinkin 1997, the same year he directed Good Will Hunting, and after such acclaimed indie efforts as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Pink looks forward to later Van Sant films like Elephant and Last Days, its homoeroticism and dramatic sparseness suggesting a first step on the director’s path away from the Hollywood mainstream. The setting is suggestive of an upside-down, comically exaggerated Hollywood, its characters the star performers and directors of “informmercials” like 101 Useful Things You Can Do with Flamex. A Kurt Cobain-like musician has a crippling addiction to the purchase of heavy machinery, instead of heroin. The novel culminates in the death of a young actor whose demise, outside a club popular with “many other teen spokesmodels,” resembles that of River Phoenix. An informmercial director, standing in for Van Sant, concludes that “I try to find people in pain to put in my commercials, because that is what sells the product in the end. Pain is what works for the audience.”

Extensively annotated and filled with flip-book pictures, a science-fiction fantasia set in a notably familiar Los Angeles, Van Sant’s book echoes the playfulness and experimentalism of his later film work without any of the beauty or rigor. Interested in the tormented interior lives of young men, Van Sant is a devotee of the works of Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, but Pink feels shallow by comparison, a knockoff rather than an original. “To say it’s opportunistic dilettantism is too punitive and too pejorative,” says Kenny. “He’s a great filmmaker, [but] it’s kind of clear this was just something he wanted to give a try to, and there was a publisher willing to put it out on the strength of his name.”

In his film work with his brother Joel, Ethan Coen has straddled genres with liberal abandon, from the neo-noir fatalism of Miller’s Crossing to musical travelogues like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. Coen’s short-story collection Gates of Eden similarly veers across the literary map. The familiar figures of the Coen universe recur here: the confused gangster of “Johnnie Ga-Botz,” reviewing his instructions with his boss and searching with Talmudic rigor for loopholes and exceptions, and the Minneapolis Jewish family of “Phil Shapiro,” with farting schoolboys at the Talmud Torah and intra-family disputes over the merits of eating four eggs in one day at the dinner table. It is less a departure from Coen’s film work than a compendium of ideas too compact to make for a feature film.

More than anything, Coen seems eager to escape the mainstream film’s need to be likable, to encourage the audience to root for anyone in particular. In the short play “Debate,” published as part of the collection Almost an Evening, Coen takes his revenge on the philistines looking for relatability and emotional accessibility in his movies. An actor, having concluded playing God on the stage, rips into his girlfriend for her lack of enthusiasm for the show by way of reference to the Old Testament: “All of your ‘feelings’ shit! Who gives a fuck! We live, we eat, we shit, we fuck! Like the nomad Hebrews in the Middle East three thousand fucking years ago! Who made feelings king? Feelings are fucking bullshit!”

For filmmakers who came of age in the era after auteurism, the old artistic hierarchy, where writing fiction was inherently superior to moviemaking, has vanished. Instead, filmmakers have begun to think of themselves as artists and have come to see writing fiction as merely another form of expression. Those who paint with words and images try their hands at removing the images and telling a story with words alone. But adopting a new format is much like learning a new language. We struggle with a new grammar and sometimes surprise ourselves with the phrases that burst out of our mouths, but our fundamental personality remains unchanged.

Writing fiction makes different demands than helming a movie, but for all the challenges of writing, the artists remain instantly recognizable. No one but David Cronenberg could be responsible for Consumed, and if, by some chance, someone were to be, they would be instantly decried as a slavish imitator of David Cronenberg. Yet Cronenberg’s novel, if not quite the equal of Eastern Promises or Crash, rests comfortably in the upper tier of his oeuvre, a work composed in a differing dialect of the same language.


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