Taylor Kitsch in John Carter(© 2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER ERB, Inc.)
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Michael Chabon may finally score a hit as a screenwriter for Disney’s new sci-fi flick John Carter. But will success in Hollywood ruin his fiction?

Jacob Silverman
February 14, 2012
Taylor Kitsch in John Carter(© 2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER ERB, Inc.)

If pressed, you’d find it hard to come up with a more characteristic elevator pitch for a Michael Chabon story than this: “Short story about the attempts of a female rabbi at an assisted-living facility to reconcile two estranged comic-book artists.”

That’s the “abstract” for “Citizen Conn,” a Chabon story published in the latest issue of The New Yorker. It has many of Chabon’s obsessions: Jews (and a wise rabbi at that), comic books, a deep friendship, and a creative partnership sundered. It’s the first story Chabon has published in the magazine in more than 11 years (in 2008, he contributed “an essay in unitard theory”), and according to an interview on The New Yorker’s website, it’s the first short story he’s written in years. And even if the story feels a touch conventional—straightforward in plot, almost moralizing in its resolution—it has the sumptuous language and ebullience that the writer’s fans appreciate in his work. It’s good, in other words, to see him back in the saddle.

In September, HarperCollins will publish Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, which is reportedly a “comedy-drama” about two families, one black and one white, in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif. In recent years, Chabon has published two essay collections, a children’s book, a few op-eds, and a serialized adventure story, but this will be his first big book since 2007’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Telegraph Avenue will probably be the most-discussed literary novel of the fall—the kind of book for which a cover review in the New York Times Book Review is a formality.

But next month marks the release of a far different Michael Chabon project: On March 9, Disney will release the film John Carter, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, in which a Confederate captain is transported to Mars, where he gets involved in a war between alien species. If Chabon hadn’t co-written the screenplay, you could imagine him in the front row on opening night.

Chabon has spoken frequently and bitterly about his vexed relationship with Hollywood. The list of unfilmed, abandoned, or otherwise bungled projects is long: a romantic comedy about old Jews on a cruise, sold to Hollywood’s resident littérateur, producer Scott Rudin, but never filmed; rejected story ideas for X-Men and Fantastic Four; the unproduced Kavalier and Clay adaptation, which Chabon spent more than a year writing; a draft screenplay of Spiderman 2, only part of which was used for the eventual film; and a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which Disney hired Chabon to write, in 2004, before they replaced him. In 2008, the Coen brothers announced they were adapting The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the heels of A Serious Man; that, too, has landed in development purgatory, never to be heard about since.

And then there are the movies that were made: Wonder Boys(2000) and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (2008). Both are adaptations of Chabon novels. He didn’t write either screenplay, and both movies were box-office flops, but Wonder Boys remains a critically beloved film.

Of course, these sorts of experiences are common for anyone who’s spent much time in Hollywood. A screenwriter is arguably the most important figure in the development chain and the one with the least control. It’s likely that Chabon received a hefty paycheck for most of these projects—in addition to having sold the film options for many of his books—and screenwriters can spend years before breaking through with a big movie. Perhaps in no other industry can you toil for so long, be stymied so regularly, and still earn millions, while also being considered a relative success. (Chabon has also mentioned that his screenwriting work has helped to provide health-insurance coverage for his family, which includes four children and his wife Ayelet Waldman, herself a successful novelist.)

So, the March 9 release of John Carter—which, if it earns back its (likely) nine-figure budget, will necessitate at least one sequel—is a kind of victory for Chabon. It could make him rich (if he’s not already) and rescue some of his stalled projects. It may also boost the prospects of the show he and his wife are developing for HBO—a drama, titled Hobgoblin, about magicians and conmen battling Hitler.

But the appearance of John Carter may also be an unwelcome sign for fans of Chabon’s fiction. Although Telegraph Avenue is a reassuring signal that Chabon hasn’t completely immersed himself in screenwriting these last few years, his dilettantish output (the essay collections, the children’s stories), his rising Hollywood profile, and his relationship with people like director Jon Favreau add to the sense that this is someone who’s fallen deep into the cash-lined rabbit hole. (Last year, Chabon and Favreau were spotted together at Disneyland, around the time it was reported that Chabon had agreed to write the Disney film Magic Kingdom, which Favreau will direct.)

The relationship between Hollywood and the literary elite has existed since the early days of cinema. (Faulkner’s script-doctoring let him buy a plane; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s kept him afloat and led to the unfinished manuscript for The Last Tycoon.) But there seems to be a resurgence of this often-asymmetric relationship lately, led by Scott Rudin, who’s optioned work by anyone from Michael Lewis to Cormac McCarthy, and HBO, which in the last year has signed up Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Safran Foer. These kinds of arrangements are impressively remunerative—think six- and seven-figure paychecks—and they serve as a kind of stamp on a writer’s career, signaling that he or she is commercially and critically established enough to earn the attention of kingmakers on the West Coast.

But the lure of film can derail a writer’s fiction-writing career, or at least lead it wildly astray. In 1996, Mark Leyner appeared on the Charlie Rose Show with David Foster Wallace and Franzen. The discussion’s lofty title was “The Future of American Fiction,” and with the recent publication of Infinite Jest, the show had the air of a coronation of three important young writers. Leyner had published a few books of bawdy, experimental fiction and would go on to publish a couple more, including, in 1998, the novel The Tetherballs of Bougainville.

But around this time, Leyner also began writing for television and film, and his work markedly changed. His next three books were mass-market airport fare with titles like Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. Next month, Little, Brown will release his next novel—it’s titled The Sugar Frosted Nutsack—but the man who once soberly defended contemporary life from the encroachment of television has spent a long time in the very form he described as, though not inherently evil, certainly inhibitive toward writing and reading. Literary careers are notoriously difficult to forecast, but it’s unlikely that Leyner’s new book will get the attention it would have had he continued publishing fiction, or be as good. The skills required to write good movies and good fiction may be similar, but they are hardly the same, and no one seems to be able to do both at once. Spend enough time in Hollywood, and the literary world, including the reading public, may not perk its ears up when you come back. How many “Most Anticipated Books of 2012” lists included Leyner’s?

In Chabon’s case, it’s worth looking at a comment made by the rabbi who narrates “Citizen Conn”:

my husband made the astonishing admission that he viewed his life as a perpetual struggle to retain some starry residue of the sense of wonder with which the drawings of Mort Feather had imbued his early adolescence.

Surely money is a great temptation for any novelist-turned-screenwriter—though Chabon’s books are best-sellers—but this is also a deeply revealing comment about Chabon’s artistic sensibility and how he has failed to evolve over the years. Wonder is a nebulous quality, better appreciated by children; have too much of it as an adult and you’re called strange or a dreamer or put on psychotropic medication. It’s understandable then that Chabon would devote himself so ardently to the promotion of genre fiction and to writing comic books, children’s stories, and adventure tales, the sort of imaginative work where the pursuit of wonder is more easily licensed. And yet, if Chabon thinks that the place to find wonder is in the candy-coated CGI of John Carter and Magic Kingdom, it’s worth asking if one of our best literary novelists has given himself over to a different kind of fantasy.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.