The heroine is cornered. Laser beams and death rays are aimed at her. The villain now has his chance to destroy his enemy, leaving him free to take over the world. But then, just before the laser beams and death rays are fully charged, the heroine sees an open panel beneath the floorboard. She heads towards it and escapes. In the same moment, the villain’s goofy sidekick bumps the button and suddenly the weapons of mass destruction are turned upon them. The evil HQ explodes. The heroine gets out in the knick of time, saving the day!
Looking at this story, you may think a few things:
“Wow! The heroine got very lucky!”
“And the bad guys had a series of convenient mistakes.”
Or you may think, “Hmmm… This story was contrived.”
That was certainly what Becky thought when she folded the book and read the embossed text of the author’s name, JLL Rubinsteen.
Rubinsteen is known for his fast pace stories, and while they are sometimes entertaining, many considered his storylines contrived. But what does “contrived” mean?
When someone is talking about a story being contrived, it usually means that it feels forced. In other words, the author got lazy and rushed. Yep, that’s you, Rubinsteen!
When Becky picked up the book, she expected an adventure! She wanted to start at one end of the story and arrive at the other, enjoying all the sights and sounds in between. A writer’s responsibility is to pave the roads. However, what a contrive storyteller does is that instead of taking a scenic route, it hops onto the freeway, or when traffic gets heavy, decides to take a shortcut, causing the reader to yes, arrive at the destination, but miss the joy of the ride.
Take the paragraph at the beginning. The heroine is cornered — a common place for writers to get stuck. When a heroine is trapped, the author might find an easy way for her to escape. In this case, the open panel in the floorboard, an element in the story not mentioned before. It just happened to be there and the heroine happened to see it. Just in time!
Another example is the goofy sidekick. How convenient of him to bump a button that causes the villain’s plans to backfire. The villain is vanquished and the world is saved. Easy! So easy that it feels forced by the author.
Even though Becky wanted the heroine to win at the end, the way in which it was accomplished made her feel a little ripped off. She invested all her time to read this? And this is how it ends?
There are arguments that all stories, to some degree, are contrived, because regardless, writers need to weave a tale together, manipulating certain aspects, so that the protagonist can go from the beginning to the end. A story is not like real life and will always be artificial.
However, we can also agree that some stories are more believable than others. That is because believable stories reveal the details in a functional order, requiring the writer to put in some work, dropping bread crumbs along the way so when the heroine is cornered, the escape route is doesn’t appear magically like a cheat, and the clumsy minion’s mistake is surprising, but not completely random.
If earlier in the story, Rubinsteen had described the evil lair as being rundown and in need of maintenance, talking about how his unreliable contractors are always leaving jobs unfinished, perhaps the open panel in the floorboard would be more believable.
If Rubinsteen mentioned that the laser beam and death ray rely on a cheap imported generator, because that’s all he could afford, then maybe the slow charging doesn’t seem like such a convenient delay for the heroine.
And finally, if Rubinsteen rounds out the evil sidekick’s character, making him more than a klutz. Then the reader can see that he is struggling with an internal battle over whether to do what his leader says and what his gut is telling him. Then the sudden slip on the button wouldn’t feel like a convenient end, but rather a character overcoming an obstacle. A redemption.
As you can see, all of these suggestions would require Rubinsteen to do more work, leading to that epic moment where the heroine is cornered by the laser beam and death ray. But it’s worth it, because by putting in the work, the events in the story will feel like they’ve happened naturally, as opposed to feeling artificial and unrealistic.
Yes, in stories we want heroes to win, mysteries to be uncovered, and lovers to get together, but the journeys in which these objectives are achieved are as important as the results. If a writer rushes through, missing necessary details about plot, characters, and settings, in another word, being too lazy to pave the path for the reader, then their story will ultimately come across as contrived.
Was there a part of a story that you’ve read or watched recently that felt contrived? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:
Louisa May Alcott grew up in a poor family that was frequently at risk of being broken up, needing to move in order to avoid food shortage. Her father, Bronson Alcott, who rarely held steady employment as a transcendentalist philosopher and educator, was not a good supplier and the efforts of keeping the family afloat fell upon Louisa’s mother, Abigail.
While Bronson had failed in many rights, he did encourage his daughters to embrace their God-given talents. Anna pursued acting, Lizzie took to music, May to arts, and Louisa to writing. This was the early 1800s, a time when women were discouraged from putting pen to paper. It was a culture that believed a woman writer was as shameful as prostitution.
And it certainly felt that way during those times. In 1867, 35 years-old, Louisa was approached by Thomas Niles, a publishing partner at Roberts Brothers. He solicited her to write a book for girls. Alcott didn’t like girls or knew many, only her sisters, so she was reluctant. However, her family needed money and after some pressure, she began work on a novel called The Pathetic Family.
In September 1868, The Pathetic Family was published under the new title: Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in the England publication, released two months later, it was titled: Four Little Women. This semi-autobiographical story was a success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out instantly. Alcott received letters from readers, mostly young girls, who wanted to know what happened to the March sisters, most importantly who those girls married.
Because of this great reception, Alcott began working on the second half of the story, following these Little Women into adulthood. It was undeniable that the characters had a parallel with Louisa’s sisters and herself in real life: the death of her sister Lizzie, Louisa’s rivalry with her sister May — which mirrored Jo’s rivalry with Amy — and even her friendship with a Polish man named Laddie she met in Europe, who was represented in the story by the character Laurie.
There were two main divergences from the real experiences: First was the father figure in the novel, Mr March, who was depicted as a Civil War hero, while in reality Bronson Alcott was hardly such and was often seen as an embarrassment to the Alcott family. The Marches were much more well off than the Alcotts.
The second was the protagonist, Jo, who Alcott had based off of herself. While Alcott remained single her whole life, saying that she had a man’s soul inside of her woman’s body, Jo ended up married, which at the time was the pretty bow necessary at the end of any respectable tale.
Alcott was against having Jo married, but in the end, the best she could do was to make a compromise. She set Jo up with an unconventional husband, which was designed to subvert adolescent romantic ideas, for he was older and unfitting — when it seemed like she would be destined to end up with Laurie.
Nevertheless, in April 1869, Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second was published — in England, it was called Little Women Wedded.
Women from all different classes and national backgrounds, during a time when immigration was high in the US, could envision new dreams for themselves after reading Little Women. This was especially true during the 19th century when there were hardly any models for nontraditional womanhood. Literature was the first place to spark that self-authorization, opening the door for women to evolve and even encourage them to have a change of heart when necessary, whether it’s in their relationships or careers.
Alcott was an abolitionist and feminist and in the early 1860s, prior to her fame from Little Women, she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War escalated, in 1862, Alcott went to Georgetown DC to serve as a nurse. During her six-week service, Alcott contracted typhoid and nearly died. She survived and her letters home were revised and published in a Boston anti-slavery publication and a collection called Hospital Sketches. This earned her her first critical recognition as a writer.
While serving as a nurse, her father would send her poems saying how proud of her he was for her services. No doubt, Bronson Alcott would continue to be proud, as Louisa’s influence grew as one of the key female voices during the Gilded Age, which included Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Anne Moncure Crane. In 1877, Alcott would become a founding member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, designed to support women and children during the rise of industrialism.
Tragically, on March 6, 1888 — two days after her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott at the age of 55 died of a stroke. She would never get to see her story of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth come to life on screen, but her novel and the themes within will last for many generations to come.
In a 1979 essay by literary scholar Judith Fetterley, entitled “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War,” she argues that the novel was pushing back against the framework for adolescent girls of that time. One prime example was where Beth, the character that best exhibited the acceptance of the woman’s role, died upon reaching adulthood, while the sisters that resisted conforming survived. Little Women will be the subject of feminist and literary criticism for years to come, and while some deemed it unworthy to be catalogued with the great American novels like Huckleberry Finn, the story had consistently attracted writers and filmmakers.
From 1917 to 2019, there have been numerous adaptations of Little Women made for the television and the stage, as well as 6 feature films.
The first was a lost British silent film in 1917 starring former Gaiety Girl, Ruby Miller who played Jo.
A year after, an American version of Little Women was produced around Alcott’s home in Concord Massachusetts. This was also a silent film and it starred Dorothy Bernard as Jo.
The first talkie adaptation of Little Women was released in 1933 and it was a huge box office hit, garnering rave reviews from the critics. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, the movie’s theme about simplicity, frugality, and resilience resonated with the audience during the midst of the Great Depression. With that, it ended up earning the movie three nominations at the Academy Awards, one for best picture, one for best director, and one for screenwriters, Victor Heerman and Sarah Y Mason, who won for best-adapted screenplay.
In 1949, Little Women was adapted once more, this time in Technicolor, starring June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. According to many critics of the time, it couldn’t hold a candle to the preceding version starring Katherine Hepburn, saying that although Allyson may have tried to emulate Hepburn it wasn’t as persuasive. But nobody could blame Allyson for copying as the script and music were taken directly from the version that was released over 15 years prior.
When Denise Di Novi, known then for producing Ed Wood and Nightmare Before Christmas, reached out to director Gillian Armstrong to gauge her interest in remaking Little Women, Armstrong, feeling the movie was too similar in theme to her first feature, My Brilliant Career, declined. However, Di Novi was persistent and encouraged Armstrong to reconsider. When she did, she found that the story was pertinent to the times and perhaps it was worth revisiting after 45 years. Armstrong would only then discover that Di Novi, producer Amy Pascal, and screenwriter Robin Swicord have been working on modernizing Little Women for 12 years. Their main pitch was for it to be a great family Christmas movie.
When Robin Swicord wrote the script for the 1994 version of Little Women, she looked back at the previous adaptations and saw that the main question in the story was “Who will these girls marry?”, but she knew even at a young age, that the question should be, “Who will these girls become?” Considering what Louisa May Alcott had at the heart of the story, she wrote the script focusing on the themes of ambition and identity.
Filmed in Vancouver with a budget of $18 million, Little Women starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Christian Bale as Laurie opened to over 1,500 screens in North America on December 21, 1994, grossing over $50 million — a success.
In addition, the film earned three Academy Awards nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Actress for Winona Ryder. Robin Swicord was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America Award but lost to Eric Roth who wrote Forrest Gump. Although many critics were skeptical about this remake at first, feeling it would be cheesy or overly sentimental, they found that it was full of serious themes and warm and meticulous performances.
Between 2013 to 2015, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, and Amy Pascal teamed up again for a new adaptation of Little Women. While the news about the project started to spread, many wondered what new aspects can be brought to a story that was now nearly a century and a half years old. During this time, Olivia Milch, who would eventually write Ocean’s Eight, was working on the script.
Later on, in 2015, Canadian actor and director, Sarah Polley — known for the movie Away from Her — was hired to take over the script and eventually direct the movie, but she never got much deeper into the project than the discussion phase.
Finally, in August 2016, Greta Gerwig was brought on to write the script. Little Women was a book that she grew up with and loved. She went as far as saying that the character of Jo was someone she idolized, inspiring her to be a writer herself. Gerwig saw themes that other adaptations glossed over, including money, authorship, ownership, art — but mostly money.
After the success of 2017’s Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig was signed on as the director for Little Women. While on the set of Lady Bird, upon hearing that Gerwig had such influence in such an influential movie, Ronan approached her evoking her desperation to play Jo.
In addition to casting Ronan as Jo, Gerwig continued to make major decisions regarding her rebellious protagonist. Upon doing her own research of Louisa May Alcott, she discovered that so much of Jo was pulled from Alcott’s own life, however, the author had to make many compromises as per the pressures of the times. Gerwig wanted to bring more of Alcott into the character that Alcott herself was unable to do. Convinced that the author had never wanted to write a story where Jo got married, Gerwig made a movie that she believed honoured the original creator — a redemptive adaptation — while being faithful to the novel.
Telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, Gerwig began the 2019 adaptation of Little Women with Jo trying to sell her book and ending her story not on the importance of finding a man to marry, but rather the qualities of the sisters, most notably the intelligence of the bratty sister, Amy, played by Florence Pugh.
While the whole cast, including Emma Watson as Meg, Laura Dern as Marmie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March all received positive reception for their performances as an ensemble, it was Ronan, Pugh, and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie that were deemed stand out performances by the critics.
On Christmas Day 2019, Gerwig’s Little Women, with a budget of $40 million, was released and ended up earning $206 million worldwide. The movie earned six nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading role for Ronan, Best Actress in a Support Role for Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig, and Best Costume Design, which was the only win of the night.
There was a bitter taste when Gerwig was left off the ballot for Best Director, which many called foul, feeling that Gerwig had done a phenomenal job modernizing the classic and bringing a uniqueness to a story that was so familiar, blending the contemporary and the nostalgia so masterfully that it made the adaptation relevant.
Nevertheless, no one can deny the sustaining power of the story of the four March sisters. While so much of our world has changed since Alcott had written the words, so much remained. We can only imagine what the next twenty to fifty years will bring. How much will change? And how will the next version of Little Women be interpreted? As the readers of Alcotts’ time had wondered what will happen to Jo — we can also do the same… as we look towards the future.
What was your favourite adaptation of Little Women? Let me know in the comments below.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
When Peter read that passage from one of his favorite books, he paused for a moment and processed the words on the page. On the surface, it was merely describing what Samwise Gamgee saw and how it made him feel.
Through the cloudy gloom, up upon the mountains, he saw a white star — and that star gave him hope because it shone through all the darkness.
Yet, there was something more. Something underneath the literal. To which it made him say out loud, “Wow… that’s deep.”
But what did he mean? Why did that passage out of the thousands of passages in the trilogy stop him? Or better yet, how did it stop him?
The phrase “that’s deep” when we hear it in a literal sense, sounds like someone’s talking about the ocean floor. While that might sometimes be the case, what Peter meant when he said that’s deep was that the writing was profound. So in order for us to understand what makes something deep, we must understand what makes something profound.
Yes, Sam Gamgee saw the star — but it was what the star represented that made the passage profound. It was so beautiful that it smote his heart and even looking at all the destruction, he had hope. Perhaps we have all been where Sam Gamgee was — not literally, not Mt Doom — but we have all been in a situation where we felt as though we were ready to surrender. There were moments where we felt hopeless.
Peter certainly did. He was neck-deep in student debt and looking for employment in the entertainment industry. Of course, the world was not looking for another filmmaker, and any project he wanted to get off the ground was consistently met with rejections. He was in the clouds on the dark tor, ready to quit.
But the star, a light of high beauty can never be dimmed by the shadow. The shadow in Peter’s world was the debt. No matter how deep he falls into debt, his love for filmmaking and storytelling will never die. The star was his passion and when looking up upon it, he remembered the feeling he got when he premiered his first student film in high school. The audience laughed and cheered. It was what he loved doing. It made him happy. It fulfilled him. It kept him warm and made him feel as though life, his little life, was worth living. And that life — that will to live — hangs so high above the debt, that he knew poverty would never make him hate his passion. For he was living for his passion, not for his debt.
He closed the book and placed it to the side. Peter, filled with hope and inspiration, his white star visible through the darkness, goes and picks up his camera and starts filming. He didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t ask for a budget. He didn’t go get approval or a permit. Like Sam, he’s focused on the twinkling star and not on the forsaken land beneath.
For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small passing thing.
We all have a Shadow — a capital problem that follows us — but Tolkien doesn’t make it obvious, he layers it with imagery and symbolism.
Imagery is vivid and descriptive language. It creates visuals in the reader’s mind by appealing to the senses. In this case, sight: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.”
Symbolism is the use of characters, settings, or objects to present an abstract idea. It holds hidden meanings and requires some deeper thinking to identify. In this example, it was the star and the Shadow. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Of course, Tolkien didn’t have Peter in mind when he wrote the story. But by using imagery and symbolism, he was able to emotionally impact a wider audience and his writing has lasted generations. That is what profound writing can do. Profound writing transcends time and space. It captures what it is like to be human without ever stating the obvious, “here, this is what you have to do. These are the facts.” It lies not on the surface and requires the individual, with their own values and personal experiences, to dig underneath. And it’s the process of digging that makes a piece of writing deep.
Is there a profound passage of writing that really resonated with you? I’d love to read it, so please share it in the comments below. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, check out these two other posts in the series:
What makes one writer formal, important, talented, and cultured — and another pretentious?
This is a tale of two writers. Devon and Jessica.
Devon is an aspiring novelist, he has this epic fantasy novel in his head and has spent many evenings and weekends outlining and drafting. He’s an enthusiast of all things mythology and considers himself a primo expert in medieval weapons. But he knows something is holding him back. Gatekeepers. He simply needs to meet the right people and get them to read his work.
Jessica is an accountant and has never thought of herself as much of a writer. It was only when her grandmother started feeling ill that she even considered picking up a pen. After visiting her grandmother one afternoon and hearing her stories about her childhood in Vietnam, she decided that it was a story worth recording.
Devon and Jessica although had different intentions for their writing, found themselves both applying for a spot in the local university’s creative writing program. One of the requirements for admission was to supply a 300-word essay explaining their writing goals and what they hope to achieve from the courses.
Reid is an administration associate for the university and it’s his job to review the applications and create a short list of applicants. First he read Devon’s and it went like this:
As I commence my journey to ascertain knowledge to optimally communicate my story with the citizens of tomorrow, I aim to transcend the lives of those I have yet to meet as the literary legends I applauded had accomplished for me.
Reid looked up from Devon’s essay, opened and closed his eyes to clear his vision and looked down at it again. Reid doesn’t say it out loud or announce it to his colleagues. He didn’t pass the essay around so it could be ridiculed, but something was glaringly obvious about Devon’s writing: it was pretentious.
While Reid avoided over analyzing the essay in the moment, there were a few aspects of Devon’s writing that couldn’t be ignored.
1. Lack of Clarity
Big stuffy words made the writing hard to read. Although long complex words can often accentuate a piece of writing, like a pinch of salt can bring out the flavour of food, overdoing it can leave the meal inedible. The same goes for writing.
2. Attempting to Be Impressive As Opposed to Expressive
All the choices made in the writing is in an effort to impress Reid. Devon was clearly flexing his vocabulary muscles — perhaps writing with a thesaurus beside him — and in doing so, failed to express himself in a genuine way. It comes across as inauthentic, as though the essay had been written by a robot programmed for optimum results, as opposed to a human aimed to connect.
3. No Awareness of the Reader
Perhaps Devon had misinterpreted what the essay wanted. Reid was not looking to be blown away, but rather, he simply wanted to understand the person behind the submission. He wanted to get an impression of who Devon was. And perhaps he did. Devon is someone who, despite his insecurity as a writer, deems himself to be an intellectual specimen. However, by using words one wouldn’t use when speaking, Devon doesn’t appear smarter, but rather confused.
Pretentious writing is unpleasant to read. It’s often composed with the attempt to stump the reader, giving the writer a feeling of superiority, like a specialist (a mechanic, a lawyer, or a politician) who uses jargon. However, all it achieves is a failure in communication. Pretentious writing stems from lack of confidence, where writers feel as though their ideas, as is, are not strong enough, so they need to juice it up with words or concepts that don’t serve the story in order to give the material bulk.
Reid placed Devon’s essay to the side and picked up Jessica’s. Here’s a passage from it:
When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I was going to lose her right away. But while some misfortunes take loved ones away quickly, my grandmother stayed strong and remained. Long enough for her to tell me the story of how she immigrated to Canada. Through this heart-wrenching process, I realized that I was given a second chance to know the woman that was my hero. Now knowing the stories she had in her, I feel it is my duty to capture them and share them with the world.
One word popped up into Reid’s head after he put Jessica’s essay down. Vulnerability. It was not brilliantly written, but it captured why Jessica had decided to take on the gruelling task of writing. Where Devon was insecure, u sing his words as a shield to protect himself, Jessica was emotionally exposed on paper for Reid to see.
Perhaps that’s the essence of pretentious writing. A piece that strives to impress but fails to connect.
What do you think? Is there a piece of work you find pretentious? Let me know in the comments below.
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During a college creative writing course, Kevin Kwan wrote a poem entitled “Singapore Bible Study”. The poem was about a study group — but there was more gossiping and showing off new jewelry than studying. A few years later, he began rewriting that poem into a scene. That scene ended up being chapter 2 of Crazy Rich Asians.
It was that chapter that gave Kwan the momentum to write a novel. Yet, it was a story he was brought up to never talk about — at least to avoid sharing with those on the outside. He was unaware of his status. With a wealthy family tree that had roots all the way back to the year 946, Kwan lived a privileged childhood, although not to the extent of those characters in his imagination. And it wasn’t until he moved to America that he understood what luxury he came from.
In 2010, his father passed away — and Kwan felt it was the right time to reconnect with his past. It was perhaps a morbid reason, but Kwan, who was currently working as a creative consultant in New York, didn’t know how much time he (or anyone) would have left.
It was through heartbreak and history that emboldened Kwan to write Crazy Rich Asians — and ignite the flame for Asian American authors and filmmakers for the coming generations. This is how Crazy Rich Asians went from bestseller to blockbuster hit.
Kevin Kwan’s families consisted of three major clans: the Hus, the Ohs, and the Kwans. They had a hand in inventing Tiger Balm, founding Singapore’s oldest bank (the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation), and establishing the Hinghwa Methodist Church. Among many accolades, his paternal grandfather was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropies. In addition, they lived in some of the grandest homes in Singapore including an estate previously occupied by the sultan of Johor, the ruler of Malaysia.
During this time, wealthy Chinese families were educated in English colleges and universities, and that included Kevin Kwan himself. He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School, and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and neither did his parents, who worked as an engineer and a pianist.
Kwan’s family was indeed wealthy, but the old money that had been trickling down for generations had mostly dried up by the time Kevin was born. While he was privileged, he was not on the same level as some of the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. Nevertheless, he remembered his home in Singapore when growing up. It was on a hill with a panoramic view. From his bedroom, he could see for miles. Sadly, that estate that housed multiple generations of Kwan’s family no longer exists. As Singapore’s development expanded in the 90s, Kwan’s family home was demolished and four separate homes now occupy the property.
At the age of 11, his family, along with his two older brothers, immigrated to Clear Water, Texas. Kevin Kwan missed many aspects of his Singaporean lifestyle, but there was one key person that he missed the most: his journalist aunt. It was his aunt that invited interesting characters to the house: painters, sculptors, and writers. She also had regular lunches with fascinating people such as royalty, business people, and art collectors. It was she that brought Kevin into that world and opened his imagination.
This perhaps encouraged Kwan to pursue the arts. After graduating from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in Media Studies, Kwan moved to Manhattan and earned a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design. Afterward, Kwan was employed by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and Martha Stewart Living, as well as working at — famous graphic designer, Tibor Kalman’s design firm — M&Co. In 2000, Kwan opened his own creative consulting company which served high-profile clients that included TED, Museum of Modern Arts and The New York Times.
When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Kwan took 18 months off work and returned to Texas to take care of him. He had to drive his father back and forth to daily doctor appointments in Houston. There the two of them spent the time while commuting recounting old family memories and the days back in Singapore. It was during those conversations he realized that there was so much he didn’t know about his family’s history. To contain all his thoughts, explore his ancestry, and mourn his father during that emotional time, Kwan wrote.
He noticed there was a gap in contemporary Asian literature. Most of what he saw on the market involving Asian culture was historical fiction or Asian-American identity. Asia had changed a lot since the 20th century. There has been a lot of financial reports in magazines such as Forbes announcing that there are more billionaires in Asia than anywhere else in the world. While reports may show the numbers, Kwan wanted to show the family aspect, or as he puts it, he wanted to tell the story of the Downton Abbey of Asia
The challenge was to make the story approachable to an American audience. He didn’t think it would be a book people in Asia would be interested in. He said, “They have their own stories, this is old hat for them.” That was how Crazy Rich Asians focused on an Asian American visiting Singapore. Telling the story from the eyes of Rachel Chu, a New York university economics teacher and an Asian outsider allowed him to bridged the gap between worlds. An Asian American may think she knows what she is getting herself into, but she has no idea.
On June 11, 2013, Crazy Rich Asians was published and received overall positive reviews. A New York Times review claims, “Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures.” Yet, it was not the Asian community that initially embraced the novel, and Kwan somewhat anticipated that. He claimed that Asian Americans were so used to being disappointed by anything portraying their culture that they naturally approached anything as such with suspicion. The title, of course, didn’t help either.
It was the fashion industry and the community in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that became an ambassador for Kwan’s novel. One strategy implemented was to leave copies of Crazy Rich Asians on every seat of the Hampton Jitney, a charter bus service for Manhattanites who don’t have private planes, as Kwan puts it.
Perhaps the most notable promotion for Crazy Rich Asians, was when Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, published an excerpt of the novel in an issue of the magazine. This brought the novel to new heights. Crazy Rich Asians will continue its rise from there. But not without some friction.
As the story was gaining interest in Hollywood, Kwan remembered a movie producer reaching out with a proposal for a movie deal and a request to turn the main character, Rachel into a white girl. Kwan never responded.
That wouldn’t be the only offer for Kwan. The calls began to pour in. One of the first was movie producer and investors of Snapchat, Uber, and Warby Parker, Wendi Deng Murdoch who received an early manuscript from Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.
Then there was this surreal “beauty contest” day in 2013 that Kwan and his agent remembered well. A creative consultant that worked with Oprah Winfrey and Kate Spade flew them to Los Angeles where they met with executives from major studios such as Fox and Lionsgate.
But in the end, it was producer Nina Jacobson that won over Kwan with her passion and acquired the rights to adapt Crazy Rich Asians into a film.
In 2007, after Jacobson was terminated from her role as president of Disney’s Buena Vista subdivision, she partnered with Brad Simpson to start an independent film studio, Color Force. Up to this point, Color Force’s most notable releases were the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Hunger Games series, two other literary adaptations.
At first, Jacobson considered financing the movie outside of the American studio system. This would give them the freedom to have an all-Asian cast, but the risk of doing so may cause the movie to fall out of relevancy and be unseen. Luckily, by 2014, Ivanhoe Pictures have signed on with Color Force to fund the picture. Previous productions for Ivanhoe Pictures include: Kite Runner, United 93, and MoneyBall — as well as other foreign pictures from Asia.
President of Ivanhoe Pictures, John Penotti had little doubts about signing on. It was what Ivanhoe Pictures was all about. While other studios were worried about an all-Asian cast, this was the type of movie that he and his organization were eager to make. Greenlit and ready to go with a budget of $30 million, the two studios set off to make North American cinema history.
Screenwriter Peter Chiarelli, known for The Proposal and Now You See Me 2, was hired to script Crazy Rich Asians. He was brought on before a director was hired. It took until May 2016, until the studios entered negotiation with director Jon M. Chu, who had directed the sequel to Step It Up, Jem and the Hologram, and Now You See Me 2, where he worked with Chiarelli.
Incidentally, Chu was loosely mentioned in Kwan’s novel, as Kwan knew Chu’s cousin Vivian and passingly regarded them in the book as the Chu’s of Silicon Valley. But that wasn’t the reason Jon Chu won the job. Chu gave a presentation to Color Force and Ivanhoe Pictures describing his experience as a first-generation Asian-American. His presentation included a picture of himself as a little boy and his family. His dad owned a renowned Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto and as Jacobson recalled, he and his four siblings were all dressed like the Kennedy’s. Identifying as an American but having the visual knowledge of Asia, Chu got the trust of the studios and for the first time as a director felt as though he would be working on a project that will bring his name to the forefront.
One of the first action Chu took once getting the gig as the director was to hire a writer of Asian descent to go over Chiarelli’s script. Adele Lim, Malaysian-American screenwriter, who spent most of her career writing for television, including shows such as Las Vegas, One Tree Hill, and Dynasty, was considered perfect not because of her writing experiences but rather her life experiences: Lim’s parents live in Singapore and her husband is caucasian. Chiarelli was said to have focused the script on the plot while Lim added specific cultural details to the story.
It was this distinction that ended up causing a divide between her and the studio, who were paying Chiarelli significantly more than Lim: at a rate of approximately 8 to 10 times more. The studio claims that the rates are based upon industry standards, which evaluate the experience of the writer. To make an exception for Lim during the negotiation for the Crazy Rich Asians sequels was to set a bad precedent. Lim took it as a slight from the studio, viewing her contribution to be merely “soy sauce” on top of a meal, and declined the partnership with Chiarelli again.
There was indeed something empowering when working on this movie. A Hollywood romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast was the first of its kind, but filling the roles was not easy for Chu. Before casting began, Chu offered up a dream list or what he called “The Avengers of Asian Actors,” included on the list was martial arts legend, Michelle Yeoh most notable for her role in Crutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; rising star of British television series Humans, Gemma Chan; Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang, Daily Show correspondent, Ronny Chieng; and Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu.
In 2016, Constance Wu auditioned for the role of Rachel. Jon Chu as good as offered the part to her, but due to a scheduling conflict with her television series, Wu was put in a tough position. Contractually, she would have to turn Crazy Rich Asians down. But Wu didn’t give up — how could she? She remembered 10 years of her life waitressing in order to make ends meet. She now played an important role for Asian American actors on television — as Fresh Off the Boat was the first American sitcom with a core Asian cast — and couldn’t simply pass on an opportunity to experience the same impact on cinema.
Wu wrote a letter to Chu expressing her connection to the character of Rachel. “Dates are dates,” she wrote, “and if those are immovable, I understand. But I would put all of my heart, hope, humor, and courage into the role.” Her passion wasn’t ignored by Chu, who would go on and delay production of Crazy Rich Asians by approximately 5 months to April 2017. And with that, the role of Rachel was cast.
Next was to find someone to play the male lead, Nick Young. This was a major challenge for Jon Chu. After looking through all the finalists in a Los Angeles and China audition, he wasn’t able to find someone who could deliver Nick’s British accent as described in the novel. Chu was beginning to feel the pressure, so much so, he decided to launch a social media campaign to not only fill the role of Nick Young but also for all the Asian characters in the story. Candidates from around the world posted a two-minute video audition on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with #CrazyRichAsiansCasting. Thousand of videos were submitted and once again we see that Crazy Rich Asians was a movie that intended to break away from traditions, in an effort to remove the gatekeepers that were holding many Asian actors back.
Perhaps it was this reason that made it so upsetting to many when Malaysian-English actor, Henry Golding was cast in the lead role of Nick. Golding was brought to Chu’s attention by the production company’s accountant: Lisa-Kim Ling Kuan. With minimal experience in the industry and zero Hollywood credit on his resume, all Golding could do was charm Chu with his personality and accent — which he did.
The criticism was simple: for a movie that was claiming to go all-in with an Asian cast, with a critical role, they decided to pull back and fold. To many, Golding was not Asian enough. And it’s fair: Golding was biracial, there was no hiding that. Many felt that casting Golding was simply to make the movie more digestible for an audience that was used to white actors on the screen.
Japanese-English-Argentine actress, Sonoya Mizuno who earned the role as Araminta Lee, would also face the heat for not being full Asian, meanwhile, Korean-born actress, Jamie Chung, who was declined a role in the movie for not being ethnically Chinese made everyone wonder where the line was being drawn.
As hurt as Golding was about all the comments concerning his legitimacy as an Asian, he acknowledge the validity of the criticisms and encourage more conversations around the topic. Whether you agree with the casting or not… whether you think Henry Golding is Asian enough to play the role of Nick Young or not, all Asian actors can agree that it was one small step for Asians; and one giant step for Asian-American cinema. Because of Crazy Rich Asians, many Asian actors are working that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Much like casting, one of the most pivotal decisions Chu and the studio had to make was regarding the distribution rights. In late 2016, Netflix began aggressively bidding for the worldwide rights to the project, including the sequels. They offered full “creative freedom,” and an upfront seven-figure-minimum payout for all the stakeholders. Such an offer was hard to ignore — because everyone involved would be instant millionaires. But a Netflix exclusive release, would ultimately diminish the impact of the all-Asian movie.
Sure some Netflix movies do get theatrical releases, but since it’s streaming at the same time, few theatres would put it up on screen. In the end, in order to make any cultural impact, Crazy Rich Asians went with Warner Bros. to bring the movie to the theaters.
On August 15, 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was released and grossed $174.5 million in the US and Canada, and $64 million internationally. This ended up being an incredibly profitable gamble for the studios. However, the reception from the Chinese audience was lackluster, much to the disappointment of Warner Bros. The Chinese didn’t find novelty in seeing Asians on screen, they watch Chinese dominated entertainment all the time. Additionally, the plot surrounding those with excess was off-putting to many movie-goers in China.
Then there were the critics, who were not all on the same page. While many celebrated the film for making history, for being visually appealing with its glitz and glamour, and for stand-out performances from Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong; and rapper-turned-actress, Awkwafina — others had problems with the movie.
Some said it was a cliche North American rom-com with all the same tropes and archetypal characters. It wasn’t bad per se, but it’s about as revolutionary as 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Then there were those that felt the movie didn’t help the Asian reputation, stating that the movie, right from the title, reinforces the stereotype that “Asians are rich, vulgar and clueless.”
Lastly, others deemed Crazy Rich Asians to have committed the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy. With a story that was meant to bridge racial divides, the movie might have done otherwise simply for some laughs. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country with not only those of Chinese descent, but also those from Malaysia, India, and many more regions of the world. In the scene where Rachel and Peik Lin arrive at the mansion, they get frightened by some Sikh security guards. This scene has no explanation and was a clear glossing over of a troubled racial political climate in the country, where Indians are marginalized. In the novel, the guards are described as some of the finest warriors in the world, but in the movie, they were relegated to comic relief at best.
It might not have been a grand slam, but it was at least a triple with two runs batted in. Crazy Rich Asians did a lot right. For one, it increased tourism to Singapore, particularly to a few on-screen locations including the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Hotel. Next, it increased book sales for Kwan’s novel by over 300% in 2018 after the release of the movie. And lastly, since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club based on the novel by Amy Tan, there hasn’t been a modern movie with an ensemble Asian cast that captured the attention of the North American public.
The adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians happened at the perfect time during a cultural shift. What the world needs now are more Asian artists in all fields to feed off the spark that had been ignited. Unlike The Joy Luck Club, Asian creators cannot wait another 25 years for another at-bat. As race continues to be a hot button in Hollywood and the rest of the world is eager and watching, Asian artists need to bring everything they have to the table, because whether others agree or not, they are now in the game thanks to Crazy Rich Asians. However, the question remains: Is Crazy Rich Asians a trial blazing movie? Or is it an outlier?
What are your thoughts on the cultural merits of Crazy Rich Asians? Do you think it helped the public perception of an all-Asian cast? Or was it just another cookie-cutter movie, albeit a fortune cookie? Let me know in the comments below.
Leonard planned the funeral when his mother passed away. Near the end, there was this moment at the crematorium where he was assigned to push the button that initiated the furnace that would torch his mother’s corpse turning it from flesh and bones to ash.
At that moment, all he could think about was the button and whether it was real. Does it actually do anything or was it all a show for his relatives all of which were standing behind him… sobbing. Leonard was not sobbing. He looked at his father, who was weeping quietly in his wheelchair. He looked at his aunt who was breaking down into the chest of her husband. Friends and family all gathered to watch him push this button. They were all in a different state of grief. So he took a deep breath and he did it. He pushed the button.
The crematory initiated. His mother’s coffin disappeared behind the oven’s door. A blind to the window looking into the crematorium was lowered. The show ended. Leonard and the rest of his family returned home. He will never see his mother’s face again.
A month later, Leonard goes on a date with a former co-worker of his, Sarah. She wanted to see this academy award nominated movie. Dramas were not Leonard’s thing, but he was willing to compromise. He’ll get to pick the movie next time. They bought tickets and popcorn and Leonard held Sarah’s hand as the movie started.
At the one hour twenty two minute mark, Leonard clenched his teeth and pursed his lips. He even placed his finger up against his mouth. This was unusual. He didn’t usually cry in movies. But here he was…
On the screen was a hospital scene. The adult children were looking down at their dying mother as she told them all about her regrets. The tragedies of her life. Her missed opportunities. Her unrequited love. She tells them of how she had let them down. How she wished she could have been a better mother to them. How she wanted to be a better listener. It was all too late.
As the first drop of tears left Leonard’s eyes, an image flashed in his mind. The button. While the rest of his family had been sobbing, he was stoic. Now, in the theater… the floodgates opened.
What Leonard was experiencing as he sat there holding his date in one hand and keeping himself from crying out loud with his other, is catharsis.
Catharsis is the process in which we release our pent-up emotions. Some define it as a purification or purgation of emotions as though it is some sort of cleansing. It’s as though we have poured Drain-O through our response system, unclogging the months and years of built-up feelings, so it can function properly again.
Works of literature, television, cinema, and music that are deemed cathartic are often praised for being good for the human soul. It is often seen as therapeutic, as many of us like Leonard have repressed memories that we have not properly come to terms with. In this way, the artform allows us to “let it all out.”
While Leonard had certainly felt sad that his mother had died. He was immediately tasked with coordinating her funeral. He had to call friends and family members and fulfill all his mother’s wishes. Letting it out then simply wasn’t a priority. There was no time for it. And so it goes with many of our own emotions.
After the adrenaline of a car accident, we are immediately faced with dealing with insurance and maintenance. After losing our jobs, we are immediately faced with the pressure to get a new one. And on it goes with every emotional experience, we are often expected to respond with another action and rarely are we offered the luxury of time to assess what we’ve just been through. These moments afterward, can often compound in dangerous ways as we bury the feelings or deny them. We hold them tight and pretend like they aren’t there. We stuff them into a compartment in the back of our brain like a messy miscellaneous drawer.
There is no time to clean that drawer. How selfish would it be… especially when we know what’s in there can’t be changed. No amount of crying will bring Leonard’s mother back, so why bother? Especially now that he had so much to deal with. Real life comes rushing back. Where was he supposed to find time to cry? In the morning before work? While brushing his teeth at night? No… there’s simply no time to be emotional about that stuff. There is no point.
If this is the case, emotions can erupt at inopportune times. That is why people break down at the office. This is why we see people sobbing in the milk aisle as the sudden memory of a brand of milk triggers something about a long lost cat.
What cathartic work can do is allow us to unselfishly release these emotions in a controlled environment. To experience what the characters in the story is experiencing as opposed to ones of our own, we are given a separation. We are allowed to feel the feelings without having to dig within ourselves. Leonard could cry about the dying mom on screen and not have to think directly about his own. It is true that when it comes to these deep seeded emotions, it’s often easier to feel someone else’s.
As Leonard and Sarah leave the theater, they give each other a hug and a kiss. She tells him how much she enjoyed the movie. He tells her about the hospital scene. She listens quietly as Leonard talked, he feels a weight lifted from him. The conversation about the movie transitions to his mother and how they have grown apart in the last few years. He told her about how honoured he was that she wanted him to manage her final wishes. He wished there was a way he could have told her that. Sarah held Leonard’s arm as they walked towards the bus station. She looked forward to the movie he’ll pick next time.
What would you do after a publisher rejects your novel for being too disturbing? Well, if you’re Chuck Palahniuk, you would write something even more disturbing and submit it.
While working at Freightliner, a truck company, as a diesel mechanic, Palahniuk regularly carried a notepad with him while he worked. In addition to the details about fixing vehicles, the book also contained snippets of Palahniuk’s first published novel: Fight Club.
Fight Club placed a mirror in front of the concept of masculinity during the 1990s, where males instead of being sent off to wars and take up arms in defense of something worth fighting for — were encouraged to take on cushy jobs and embrace commercialism. With nothing motivating men to step out of their comfort zone, they became caged animals, tamed… but still with feral instincts.
Palahniuk’s story acknowledges the men’s movement and how every man is battling forces from two sides: one to abide by societal rules and one to break it.
Yet without the adaptation, the story of Fight Club and the influence it would have on young men of that generation wouldn’t have materialized. Today, we’ll explore the story of Fight Club and how it went from Chuck Palahniuck’s debut novel into the cult classic it is today… and how it has continued to stay relevant after 20 years. Let’s talk about Fight Club.
Palahniuk began writing fiction in his early 30s, after attending workshops led by American writer, Tom Spanbauer. It all began as an attempt to meet new friends, but he ended up getting inspired by the fiction form and Spanbauer encouraged him to perfect his minimalistic writing style.
Tom Spanbauer describes his teaching style as “dangerous writing”, saying on his website description:
I must listen for the heartbreak, the rage, the shame, the fear that is hidden within the words. Then I must respect where each individual student is in relation to his or her broken heart and act accordingly. when my relationship with the student is solid, and when the student has a strong foothold in his or her writing, I bring out my jungle red fingernails, play the devil’s advocate, be the bad cop, the irreverent fool–whatever it takes to teach perseverance, self-trust, and discipline.
With that Palahniuck pursued his craft head-on while holding a day job where he found time to write during work, at the laundromat, at the gym, and while waiting for his 1985 Toyota pickup truck at the shop.
Invisible Monster, originally titled “Manifesto” was the first novel Palahniuk tried to get published… years before Fight Club. It was shot down because the publishers didn’t have an appetite for a story about a disfigured model with multiple identities. Powered by indignant persistence, Palahniuk set off to write a novel even further from the norm.
During a camping trip, Palahniuk was involved in an altercation that left him bruised and swollen. Upon returning to work, he realized that none of his co-workers acknowledged his visible injuries or showed any interest in his personal life. That indifference from others was the spark for Fight Club.
Fight Club’s Project Mayhem is loosely based on The Cacophony Society, where members are self-designated and gatherings are randomly pitched and sponsored. These events usually involve costumes and pranks, as well as venturing into areas that are restricted. Palahniuk is a member — and was a victim of a prank once when the members of the Cacophony Society showed up during one of his readings in San Francisco.
On August 17, 1996, Fight Club was published. It was a positive reception and won Palahniuk the 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for Best Novel. Critics praised Palahniuk for his unique writing style: caustic, outrageous, funny, violent, and unsettling. However, others found issues in the novel’s heteronormative themes and the violent aspects of the plot. Yet even with the publicity, the hardcovers for Fight Club didn’t perform greatly in sales with only 5,000 copies sold.
In the rerelease of Fight Club in 1999 and 2004, Palahniuk says that all he did was update The Great Gatsby. He describes the two stories as apostolic fiction, where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. In both tales there are two male characters and one female — and in the end, the hero dies.
Even though the book didn’t make it onto any top sellers list at the start, a copy of the novel made it to movie producers Ross Grayson Bell and Joshua Donen. Bell remembered reading the novel and getting to the twist in the story, which caused him to reassess everything he just read. He stayed up all night, too excited to sleep. He was about to produce his first feature film, but to affirm what he felt about Fight Club, he hired a group of actors to read the book out loud, restructuring it and cutting out the excess in the novel that couldn’t be presented in a film.
Bell recorded the reading and shared it with 20th Century Fox producer, Laura Ziskin, who produced such films as Pretty Woman, What About Bob?, and As Good As It Gets. During a drive to Santa Barbara, Ziskin listened to the recording that Bell shared. As the current executive of the mid-budget division of 20th Century Fox, Ziskin saw potential in the story of Fight Club — she herself was uncertain of how to approach it, but she was confident that Bell was the one to lead it and hired him as the producer.
The film rights for Fight Club was optioned for $10,000 and the adaptation process was on its way. Bell first sent the novel to up-and-coming director, David O. Russell, who was looking for his next project after releasing Flirting with Disaster in 1996. Unfortunately — or fortunately — Russell didn’t understand what the story was about and declined the offer. Later, Russell will admit that he obviously didn’t do a good job reading it.
The manuscript made its way around town and got rejected from directors such as Buck Henry who directed The Graduate, Peter Jackson who directed The Frighteners, Bryan Singer who directed The Usual Suspects, and Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting. Because of this lack of interest, the manuscript got a bad reputation.
David Fincher, on the other hand, was attracted to the story at once. Coming off of projects such as Se7en and The Game, Fincher was establishing himself as a director who can apply a unique visual style to a story with an edgy theme. While his movies to this point were hits and misses: Se7en: a hit; The Game: a miss. He had come a long way from his days of directing music videos, some notable ones including Rolling Stones, Madonna, and Aerosmith.
Fight Club attracted Fincher for many reasons, but it was the relatability to Palahniuk’s story that really moved him. Fincher himself was a man in his late thirties and he recognized the same anger evoked in the novel, where a certain breed of men was unable to evolve at the speed society required them to.
Nevertheless, there was some hesitation for Fincher to sign on with 20th Century Fox. In 1990, Alien3 was in pre-production and things were not going well for franchise producers David Giler and Walter Hill and director, Vincent Ward. Due to creative differences, Ward would end up being fired — and Alien3, a movie with a $56 million budget and an unfinished script was now without a director.
In comes 28-year-old David Fincher to save the blockbuster movie. Giler and Hill found Fincher through his music video credits, specifically Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and hired him for his feature directorial debut. Yet, it wasn’t so much as saving the movie for Fincher, as it was surviving it. With no history as a movie director to back up his experience on set, he became a puppet for the production company. Even as an avid fan of the original Alien directed by Ridley Scott, and even having a cohesive story that linked everything together, the studio refused to budge and Alien3 became a piece of cinema devoid of key decisions from the director. Fincher was not proud of the result and he was not happy with his experience working with 20th Century Fox.
It took Fincher three years to recover and at many points, he felt as though his career as a feature film director was over.
However, 20th Century Fox opened the door to Fincher when he came knocking about Fight Club. Fincher saw the movie heading in two directions and gave the studio the options: 1) Fight Club could be a low-budget straight to videotape movie or 2) it could be one with a big budget and big stars. Obviously, he had very little interest in making a low-budget movie, but since Alien3, he had learned a few tricks and used it to negotiate. The studio didn’t buy in at once but were intrigued enough to give Fincher a chance.
Screenwriter, Jim Uhls had been working on adapting the story of Fight Club from the beginning. He received the manuscript about the same time Fincher did from someone he knew who worked for a production company. He was told that every studio in Hollywood had already passed on it. Uhls was blown away by the story and even though he felt that it could never be made into a movie, he thought it would be a great achievement to be paid to adapt it, so he began to write.
The story was deemed unadaptable by many — as the novel was essentially a long monologue. Where Uhls made a difference was building the scenes around those key moments inside the narrator’s head. Slowly Uhls began to gain some interest around 20th Century Fox, but what sealed it was his attendance at a large lunch meeting with the executives and David Fincher. Uhls sat strategically next to Fincher, who was somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend. It was there during the lunch meeting where the two talked about Fight Club and the obstacles of making it into a film, but it was more than a conversation and Uhls knew it: he was there to pitch himself.
Much like how Fight Club was Chuck Palahniuk’s first credit as a novelist, the adaptation was Jim Uhls’s first credit as a screenwriter.
During the late 90s, voice-overs have gotten a reputation as being a trite and uninspired technique to deliver exposition in a movie and many studios wanted to avoid it. However, Fincher recognized that the story hinged on the internal dialogue of the narrator. Without it, it would be a depressing story — and that was not what he was going for. It took Uhls and Fincher seven months to complete the script and still it required help from director, Cameron Crowe and screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker.
During the casting process, producer Ross Bell had Russell Crowe in mind for the role of Tyler Durden, but it was producer Art Linson that began conversations with Brad Pitt. Having already worked with Fincher in Se7en and the studio’s desire to add a bankable star as the lead, Pitt signed on, hoping to wash the dismal failure of Meet Joe Black away.
There were a lot of options on the market for someone to play the unnamed narrator: Sean Penn or Matt Damon were top contenders, but it was Edward Norton that won the role with his aligned vision with Fincher. Both Fincher and Norton saw the film as a satire — it was not an action movie, it was a comedy. And Fincher knew that Norton could give the type of “wink wink” comedic performance required having seen him in his previous role in The People vs Larry Flynt.
Once cast, the two leading men took lessons in various martial arts, including boxing, tae kwon do, and grappling. Additionally, they took a course in soap making.
Fincher wanted to cast comedian Janeane Garofalo as the role of Marla Singer, but she declined due to the sexual aspects of the film. Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, and Reese Witherspoon were up for consideration as well, but in the end, Fincher went with Helena Bodham Carter because of her role in the 1997 romantic comedy, The Wing of the Dove.
In 138 days, filming was completed, but not without hiccups. The movie was budgeted for $23 million and ended up costing $63 million. There were threats made by the executives from the partnering studio, New Regency, for Fincher to reduce the cost, but he refused. It was only when the executives saw the dailies during a three-week span that they were convinced that it was money worth spending.
It took over 1500 rolls of film, three times more than the Hollywood average, to capture principal photography. David Fincher affirmed his reputation as a director who liked to shoot many takes.
While the movie was shot predominantly in California, there ended up being over 200 locations, in addition to over 70 sets. For a movie with only 300 hundred scenes, this was a lot. Fincher didn’t enjoy this aspect of the process and remedied it in his next movie, Panic Room in 2002, which was shot predominantly in one location.
There were disagreements on many fronts on how to properly market Fight Club. The studio at first wanted to market it as an art film, geared towards a male audience because of its violence. Yet, when you have Brad Pitt as a star, it’s hard to not push him to the front of all your publicity material, however, Fincher resisted against that. Instead, he decided to film two fake public service announcements presented by the two lead characters. The studios were not thrilled with that creative stint and instead spent $20 million to create materials that highlighted the movie’s fight scenes, buying ad time during viewing events dominated by the male demographic such as WWE.
On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School entered their school and murdered 12 people before turning the guns on themselves. This incident rippled through the entertainment industry and the studio — claiming it wanted to avoid competing with the summer blockbusters — pushed the release of the film from July 1999 to October 15, 1999.
The job of promoting the film was no easier for the actors. As Brad Pitt and Edward Norton did their circuit, they discovered the difficulty of explaining the movie without giving away the key parts. None of the marketing efforts properly communicated what Fight Club was, and most who initially went to see it in theatres expected to see a film about fighting.
Fight Club bombed at the box office, earning only $37 million in domestic gross and $100.8 million worldwide. Fincher left LA to Bali during the opening weekend to escape the inevitable negativity and recalibrate his life.
Yet, the movie’s failure didn’t banish it to obscurity like so many others. Word of mouth started to spread, a cult following was established, and in an age of growing sensitivity, real fight clubs were formed. Across America, from universities to the tech industry, from gentleman clubs to gathering of pre-teens, people were getting together to throw punches. Many of which were filmed and leaked online — thus breaking the number one rule and leading to arrests. On top of that, these gatherings began partaking in terrorist activities such as bombing attempts. Fight Club had reached critical mass and achieved longevity in many home entertainment collections, selling more than 6 million copies on DVD and VHS its first decade.
While today, Fight Club is deemed to be Palahniuk’s and Fincher’s masterpieces, it’s said to continue to do damage as a cultural influencer of violence. In a world so politically separated, is this the sort of entertainment that encourages those with a lack of power to take matters into their own hands, often leading to dangerous results?
One group that have latched onto Fight Club as their bible, is the incels, a collection of bitter violent men who harbor resentment because of their involuntary celibacy. The most recognized member is Elliot Rodgers, who in 2014, went on a killing spree at the University of California. When asked about the situation in an interview with the Guardian, Palahniuk stated, “the extremes always go away,” comparing the incels to radical feminist, Valerie Jean Solanas, who attempted to murderer pop artist, Andy Warhol in 1968.
In a society many deemed to be getting overly sensitive, a term coined by the novel may best represent the toxicity that the story leaves behind. The term is “snowflake,” an insult now commonly associated with the alt-right movement, usually directed at the liberals and their inflated entitlement and sensitivity.
20 years after the release of the movie, the message of Fight Club is as relevant as ever, but many of us are moving towards a more progressive viewpoint and want to put Fight Club behind us. Some now even deem it to be an example of a two-hour-long mansplaining episode and that it is nothing more than a childish representation of past. Albeit, we must recall what Fight Club was intended to be… it was not propaganda, it was satire. How it’ll be received in the decades to come? Only time will tell.
Fight Club is a story of pent up rage, a clenched fist held too long and must be thrown. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen if we don’t find ways to release the anger in a peaceful manner. Fight Club is not condoning violence, it’s supporting all the other means of expression that isn’t violent, such as peaceful protest.
After watching the film, Chuck Palahniuk went on to say that he believes the movie was an improvement on the book. Perhaps he saw what Fincher did…
Many changes were made during adaptation, but perhaps the most notable is the ending. In the novel, the narrator wakes up surrounded by the members of Project Mayhem in a mental hospital after shooting himself. While in the movie, the narrator and Marla mend their relationship just in time to watch the city below crumble. The novel ends with the impending return of chaos that is Tyler Durden, while the movie ends with a new beginning — a new life with Marla.
Which version did you prefer? And what are your thoughts on the impact of Fight Club in today’s society? Is it dangerous? Let me know in the comments below.
Writing at a coffee shop — cliche, yes, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some symbiotic relationship between the two acts: writing and drinking coffee. There is something beautiful in it.
Additionally, working at a coffee shop is often a departure from the household distractions that many remote workers and freelancers have to face. If I’m at a coffee shop, I have to focus on writing, not on the dishes and other chores.
So, in an effort to find some nice local coffee shops to work from this NaNoWriMo, I visited 5 of Vancouver’s popular coffee houses. Here was what my experiences was like:
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Yes! You have to go up and ask for the password, but once you have it you should be all set. I didn’t have any issues with it and overall, it was a pretty solid experience.
Coffee: (4/5 stars) The most delightful thing about the mocha at Propagenda was that they served it to me in a glass. There is something salacious about drinking caffeine from glass — all of a sudden it becomes a cocktail and I’m doing six shots of tequila. Although this glass of mocha didn’t get me wild, it was a nice treat. Certainly not the best mocha I’ve ever had, but it’s pretty good. Not great, but good.
Comfort: (5/5 stars) Propagenda is an incredibly comfortable spot to work. It has a wide-open space so that nobody is bumping into you as they line up or have to maneuver around a series of obstacles in order to bring the coffee to the table. However, glancing around, I didn’t see any power outlets, so you might want to bring a fully charged laptop. In fact, always bring a fully charged laptop.
Noise level: (4/5 stars) It’s the usual coffee shop sounds: espresso machines, conversations, and the tapping of keyboards. Even when people are talking it isn’t that loud. There weren’t any obnoxious laughter or anything like that. It had a lot of nice wooden finishing and a nice balance of communal seating, lounge-y seating, group of four seating, and higher stool seating by the window. Overall, it’s a chill place to work.
WiFi: (3.5/5 stars) Yes Buro does have WiFi, but it’s a pretty weak signal for such a high foot traffic place. We sat at the far end at first but had to move closer to the bar to get a better signal, and that put us in a less comfortable spot.
Comfort: (3/5 stars) Buro has a few comfortable seats, such as the corner window alcove right beside the pastry area, but it is also a lot of seats in this place and not all are created equal, especially when it gets crowded.
If the WiFi signal was better, we did not have to move to the other end of the coffee shop where we had to sit right in front of the awkward bathroom where people kept coming and going, confused because they had to get the keys to open it.
Noise level: (3/5 stars) It wasn’t particularly busy when we were there, but the noise tended to echo, so when a few groups of people were talking, the volume increased a lot. We were also sitting in the narrow hallway, which causes the noise to funnel in towards us. Overall, it was not easy to focus.
Coffee: (3/5 stars) I got the Spanish Latte and my wife got an Americano. It’s not particularly pricey, and they do offer two sizing options, which can make it a bit more expensive. But the thing is, the coffee wasn’t amazing. The first sip of my Spanish Latte was good, but over the course of the drink it felt too sweet, so maybe there was just a bit too much condensed milk in it. However, my wife found her Americano to be a little watery, which is kind of unacceptable.
This was not an enjoyable working experience. It didn’t feel like a treat; it felt like a place I would go to if I didn’t have another choice. Like I said, it’s in a high foot traffic area, so there are a lot of people coming and going. There are tourists, there are locals, and it is just not the best laid out coffee shop to concentrate.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) The WiFi was solid. And on top of that, it didn’t even require a password to log in. There was a guest account and it was seamless. In this day and age, that is a nice experience. Especially when there were so many people using it in the coffee shop.
Comfort: (3.5/5 stars) Matchstick was very busy when I got there. It’s a popular spot but it’s also strangely laid out. One side there was a communal desk and a couple of stools and on the other side there are some comfy seating and then some two seaters — and a weird bench area. We had to wait for a bit, which was totally awkward in a coffee shop. But eventually someone did and we were able to sit at a two seater. The tables aren’t that big; it’s not great for two laptops and the chairs were pretty stiff. It’s nicely designed and I love the homey feel, but there were a lot of people there.
Noise level: (4/5 stars) The bar is at the center of the shop, so there wasn’t anywhere you can go to avoid the noise of the espresso machine or the people ordering. Matchstick also serves food so people will be eating a meal near you. I feel that if you are at the communal table, it’ll be more quiet, however, if you are on the other end, where we were then it’s a bit noisier because that’s where people were hanging out and having conversations. However, it was never at an overwhelming or unpleasant level. Still, there is a lot of movement in this coffee shop because it was busy.
Coffee: (5/5 stars) One of the reasons why I think Matchstick is so popular is because they serve great coffee. I got the mocha and it was phenomenal. It was the perfect amount of sweetness and the milk was super soft and smooth. It was like drinking a chocolate cloud. For it’s price, it was certainly worth it.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Finch’s Market had excellent WiFi. They post the password in visible places, so I didn’t have to ask, which is wonderful because I’m an introvert. The WiFi was consistent and there was no issues to mention.
Comfort: (4.5/5 stars) Finch’s is a cozy and homey place. I enjoyed all the old-timey decorations hanging on the wall, as well as the wooden aesthetic. It gave off the atmosphere of a rural cabin and there are few places more comfortable than a cozy cabin.
Keep in mind that this place is also a store, you can buy fruits and milk. It’s not only a place for coffee, it’s also a restaurant that serves some pretty awesome fresh sandwiches, salads, and soup. I recommend not going there during lunch hours as it’ll be a bit busier, but while I was there, it was pretty chill. I got a whole four-six seater dining table all to myself, so I was pretty comfortable. I would have been more productive, but I was writing about a pretty challenging part of my story, so I didn’t get as much written as I wanted, but it was still a really chill place to work.
Noise Level: (4.5/5 stars) I was there during a quiet time, but even then, there were people coming in and out and there was a group of girls having lunch. However, none of that bothered me. It’s not a big space so now and then someone who is ordering would talk loudly or move around and bump into a chair at your table,, but overall it was pretty chill.
Coffee: (3/5 stars) At this point, I thought I should stay consistent with the coffee I order, so I got a mocha again. Well, also because that is my drink of choice. Anyways, how was it? Honestly, I was a little disappointed. It was probably the most photogenic cup of mocha yet but it wasn’t that creamy. It didn’t taste like I was drinking a chocolate cloud like it did at Matchstick. Also, they had two sizes, and I got the smaller one, which was indeed small. It was served in one of those diner coffee cups, which made it feel like it’s not the best deal. I should have gotten the large, which was also a double shot as opposed to the small single.
Overall, I had a wonderfully pleasant time working at Finch’s Market and it’s definitely a place I see myself coming back to work soon.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Kafka’s does have WiFi and it was a pretty solid experience. No problems to speak of, but I had to ask for it as it wasn’t displayed. Besides that, it was great.
Comfort: (5/5 stars) The way Kafka’s is laid out in a very organized fashion. There are a bunch of two-seaters up against the wall, a few larger tables closer to the window along with a comfy couch, and a big communal table close to the bar. I thought about sitting at one of the two-seaters, but then decided to be selfish and take up one of the big communal table since nobody was there at the time. I had my front facing the rest of the coffee shop. To me, that was the best. I don’t like having someone right behind me, in my blind spot, it’s unnerving and definitely affects the comfort level. But this time, I was really comfy.
Noise Level: (4/5 stars) When I first arrived, the coffee shop was pretty quiet. An hour later, it started to pick up and it got pretty busy by the time I was ready to leave. Kafka’s is located at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in the city: Main Street and Broadway. Therefore, it surely experience a lot of foot traffic. While I was there a lot of parents brought their children along, so that increased the noisiness.I anticipated a very noisy environment, but even at its busiest, it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t great and got a little distracting, but not to the point where I couldn’t work.
Coffee: (4/5 stars) With the coffee, I shared the review with my friend, Billy from YouTube channel, The Best of 604 who will give his thoughts on his oat milk latte. If you want to hear what he thought, check out the video here.
Best of 604 is a channel about the best places to get pizza, wings or any other type of delicious food in Vancouver. I recommend checking out Billy’s channel if you live in or plan on visiting Vancouver.
As for me, I got another mocha. There was a lot to like about it, especially how they filled it up to the very brim. However, I feel one area that it didn’t completely nail was the chocolate flavour. It was subtle — and even though, I do like subtle flavours in my drink — I felt that this one was almost too light and could really use one more level, a slight turn of the dial in chocolate up.
Vancouver is full of unique coffee shops and I look forward to visiting more. If you have one you like to work at, please let me know! Startbucks are cool too!
If you like this article, you might consider buying me a beer (or a coffee), it helps to keep me writing.
When something terrible occurs, we often try to make sense of it. We ask, “Why did this have to happen?!” This is especially true when the tragedy was the result of an unfortunate twist of fate: a natural disaster.
Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia is an attempt to make sense of an inconceivable situation, one few of us are ever prepared for.
Writing a story is about answering a question. So that was what Paterson set out to do, she wanted to understand what we’re supposed to do in the aftermath of a tragedy. What can we learn after we have suffered a great irreparable loss? How can we go on? What she ended up creating was a story that gave the readers a rehearsal for the pains of life.
But it wasn’t simply Paterson’s life: Bridge to Terabithia was about her son, David L Paterson, as a child. When David grew up, he adapted his mother’s story — his story and the story of his childhood best friend — turning it from a book in literature studies class to one of the highest grossing movies of 2007, a year that included Spider Man 3, Transformers, and The Simpson Movie.
Lisa Christina Hill was eight years old on August 14, 1974. She was with her family: mother, brother and sister, at Bethany Beach in Delaware that sunny day. But on the horizon, a storm was brewing. Lisa was sitting at the edge of the water when a lightning bolt tore through the heavens and struck her. In an instant, Lisa, David Paterson’s best friend, was killed.
Since second grade, David and Lisa were close companions. David had a lot of trouble adjusting to the new class at the beginning. It was Lisa that he found solace in. They developed a relationship that was unusual for children their age where boys tended to hang out with boys and girls with girls. They would spend their time playing imaginative games behind the house in the forest and feeling comfortable enough to tell each all their thoughts.
While the whole community of Takoma Park, Maryland grieved for the loss of Lisa, David took the news as well as a boy his age could. His mother remembered him crying, knowing there was nothing she or anyone else could do to bring her son’s friend back.
In the following months, Kathrine Paterson wrote Bridge to Terabithia, a story about an artistic fifth grader, Jesse Aaron, and his neighbour, Leslie Burke, an eccentric and affable tomboy. Even with an overlay of fiction, Bridge to Terabithia was undoubtedly a story about David and Lisa. When she was finished with the book, she read it to her son. She wanted his approval, because it was ultimately his story to tell. One could only imagine that David was as moved as would the millions of kids that will soon read it.
A major change that the editors requested was the Leslie Burke cannot die by a lightning strike. This was a case of where reality is stranger than fiction. The editors requested that the death had to be caused by a more likely circumstance. It needed to be believable. The change was made and — spoiler alert — Leslie’s death would come from drowning in a creek after swinging from a rope within the kingdom of Terabithia, a imaginated realm the two children had created for themselves.
The novel was published on October 21, 1977 by Thomas Y. Crowell Co. It would win Kathrine Paterson her first of two Newbery Awards, an award given to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”.
Paterson had written Bridge to Terabithia as an attempt to answer a life question, but when children started asking her why Leslie had to die, Paterson forced back the urges to cry for that was a question she didn’t have the answer to — even though, she was the writer. People began to find their own answers, or as Paterson puts it, “people brought their own lives to the book, their own images that creates it.”
With all the attention, Bridge to Terabithia began to receive some criticisms regarding the moral of the novel, becoming one of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the United States. There were references to witchcraft, atheism, satanism, and there was an ample amount of swearing. On top of all that, many adults didn’t want to put their children through such a heartbreaking story.
Over the years, Paterson would hear people telling her that after facing an emotional experience, they would reach for the pages of Bridge to Terabithia. In certain cases, people have given the book to children like David, who experienced the loss of someone they loved. Paterson sadly believed that giving the book after the tragic event may be too late. Bridge to Terabithia was a book to be read before that. It was an emotional practice. It’s not meant to upset the children, but prepare them for all the sadness and disappointments they have to face ahead.
While Bridge to Terabithia faced resistance, it also became a tool for English studies in many schools around the world including, Ireland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Philippines, Ecuador, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Panama, South Africa and the United States.
From 1984 to 1992, The Walt Disney Company and PBS teamed up to produce a made-for-tv-anthology based on the critically acclaimed children’s books. This series was called WonderWorks, and it included such hits as Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, and another of Katherine Paterson’s work: Jacob Have I Loved.
On February 5, 1985, WonderWorks released the adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia. The 57 minute film was shot in Edmonton, Alberta. While Paterson got writing credits, the script was written mostly by Executive Producer, Nancy Sackett. However, the main criticism with the made-for-tv version was that the performances from the young actors were weak and unconvincing. On top of that, the dialogue was obviously dubbed over and gave off the impression of low production value.
In 2007, David Paterson spoke about the 1985 WonderWorks version of Bridge to Terabithia and said that the film is “like the crazy cousin in a mental hospital that nobody talks about.” Neither his mother nor himself were much involved with the project or even happy with the result.
At points, David felt guilty that now he was getting famous from the death of his best friend. David graduated from The Catholic University of America in 1989 and pursued a career as a playwright, with over two dozen published. Additionally, he holds the record for having three plays premiere on the same month in New York.
As a form of healing and honoring Lisa, and all the fortune she had given him in her passing, David approached his mother and asked for the right to adapt her story of Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. His mother granted his wish not because it was his story, but because of his abilities as a playwright. With the confidence and blessing of his mother, David went off to translate the emotional story from page to screen, having already seen how it could turn out. The adaptation became a project that consumed him for 17 years. He wanted to do it right.
Staying as true to his mother’s story as possible, David didn’t have the easiest time writing or selling the screenplay. At many points, he found that the story was too close to him. He approached screenwriter Jeff Stockwell to cowrite, as he would offer an outsider perspective to the story. What was most important to David was the spirit of the story and adapting a novel that spent so much time in a character’s head was not easy.
Selling the script posed another hurdle. Many production companies had a problem with Leslie’s death. In some cases, the executives even suggested to David that perhaps she didn’t have to die and that Leslie can simply fall into a light coma — and then she’ll wake up.
David took the role as a co-producer to ensure such a change would not happen at any stage of the process. But it was the president of Walden Media, Cary Granat that suggested Gabor Csupo to direct the movie. If you don’t know Gabor Csupo as a director or musician then you would most likely know him as the co-creator of Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and animator for Hanna-Barbera.
Gabor Csupo had an interesting career, but he had yet to direct a live-action movie. This was not a concern for Granat who saw the little kid inside of Csupo and knew that he would have the perfect approach to the story.
According to producer Lauren Levine, Csupo was inspired by the opportunity to create Terabithia. He wanted to approach it in a Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam type of way, going for a creative representation that went beyond the usual cliches of an imaginary environment. This got everyone very excited.
Casting was a difficult process and required compromise. Csupo didn’t have any particular actors in mind when he set out on the search, so that opened the door to discovering new talents.
AnnaSophia Robb had been a fan of the story and wrote a letter expressing her love for the book and the character to Csupo and the other decision makers of the film. Before casting began, Robb met with Levine to discuss the role. In that meeting, Levine was convinced that Robb would be perfect. She had the enthusiasm and the magical presence — the spark — that was Leslie. Csupo was onboard and AnnaSophia Robb was the first to be cast in the movie.
Finding the perfect Jesse was more of a challenge. It was difficult finding a young actor that can go through the transformation of an isolated introvert to someone who exhibits courage and leadership, along with the imaginative whimsy needed. Josh Hutcherson was not the first choice, but won the job because of his chemistry with Robb.
The leads and the characters in the movie were a few years older than the characters in the novel, but Csupo said that that change was perhaps advantageous as the story bordered on the idea of an innocent first love and upping the age allowed for that theme to rise to the surface a bit more.
The movie began production on February 20, 2006, with a budget of $20-25 million. In 60 days, they completed principal photography. Bridge to Terabithia was the last film for cinematographer, Michael Chapman who had been behind the camera for such classics as Taxi Driver, The Fugitive, and Space Jam. Chapman said that he wanted this movie to be his last because he wanted to end his career with a happy experience.
Post production took 10 weeks to complete and Csupo made every effort to keep the special effects minimal. Working with Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s company famous for producing the special effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Csupo had a hundred team members working on the project with many of them on set during production to help create the unique creatures of Terabithia.
Perhaps the special effects got too much of a spotlight, this was a criticism during the marketing phase of the movie. As you may know, a trailer for a movie is often created by a separate organization that takes clips here and there from the movie to get the people who see the trailer to buy a ticket and see it in the theatres. The trailer for Bridge to Terabithia was laden with special effects moments in the movie to a point where many consider it to be false marketing. If you had read the book, the majority of the story takes place in the real world and is mainly a relationship between two pre-teens.
Many who were loyal to the book were appalled by how the story they loved was being presented on screen. It was a gross attempt at trying to sell computer-generated effects as opposed to the unpretentious story of loss.
When Katherine Paterson saw the film she cried — in fact, she cries every time she sees it. She sang praises to the cast and was impressed that such a movie was possible within their indie movie budget. She also spoke about the sacrifices and changes necessary in the movie, none of which spoiled her taste for it. She regarded her son for standing his ground and keeping the movie as loyal to the novel as he could.
Many writers can’t stand to watch the adaptations of their novels, because it feels so far removed from what they have created. Beside the age of the characters and the physical appearance of Leslie, perhaps the most notable change from the book was the time period, as the movie took place in a more modern era where Internet and cellphones exist.
Bridge to Terabithia was released on February 16, 2007 and earned a total domestic gross of over $82 million, $137 million worldwide. The movie cemented AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson as young stars and household names. Additionally, it brought the novel back onto the New York Times bestsellers list, which Katherine Paterson commented to writers reluctant to sell the film rights thinking nobody would read the book if the movie was released, as being untrue. Lastly, the movie brought closure for David Paterson, who’s always thinking, in the back of his mind, about his friend Lisa, and how death lies behind every beautiful moment.
Every adaptation has a unique story, if there a book to movie that you’re interested in learning more about? Let me know in the comments below.
Imagine yourself in a war — a war as uncertain and violent as World War 2 — and in your pocket, you carried a piece of writing, six chapters of a precious and personal project. Occasionally, you would pull it out and rework in those brief — not so peaceful — moments.
Imagine having your work travel with you as you stormed the beaches of Normandy, survived the Battle of the Bulge and marched through concentration camps in Nazi Germany. What would this piece of writing become? In Jerome David Salinger’s case that piece of work is The Catcher in the Rye.
Imagine everything a person can go through in their early adulthood: surviving heart-breaking relationships, dropping out of university without a clear direction, and struggling to make it in a field as competitive as publishing. Salinger was that person before 1942 — before he was drafted into the Second World War.
Asking why The Catcher in the Rye was never made into a movie is a question about what a writer sees in his own work. How much of his soul lies in between those lines? The pages did not simply represent the story written, but rather the turmoil and the resilience of the author. It represented who Salinger was…
This is the story of why The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most infamous literary works, was never adapted into a movie.
JD Salinger began writing The Catch in the Rye in 1940, or at least, that was when he first spoke about it. In his early 20s, Salinger was an aspiring writer. Having completed a writing course with American writer, Whit Burnett, he had a lot of momentum, as many young writers do. Salinger wanted to become financially stable and maybe even famous.
In those early years, he even told Burnett that he was eager to sell the film rights to his work so he could ensure that stability. Dating Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, appeared to be a move in the right direction. He was 22 when he met her and she was 16. A year later they were officially dating and he joined her at the pinnacle of the social ladder in New York City, attending some of the most elite parties in the country.
Salinger was uncomfortable at these gatherings. He disliked the company — those pretentious socialites with their entitlement and their faux humility — those people were phonies.
Yet, he had a complicated relationship with Oona O’Neill. He would be hot and then cold. At times, he would show affection and then in a blink he would be stand-offish. This was grounds for O’Neill to find love elsewhere. And with a history of being neglected by her work-focused father, Eugene, she found the attention from a much older man, Charlie Chaplin. The superstar film actor was 54 when he married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill.
Jilted and heart-broken, Salinger sent her letters after she wedded a man 36 years her elder, criticizing her. He was hurt, and the pain lingered.
The 1940s was an intense time for Salinger as he began to navigate the world as a published writer. Each publication gave him a little bit of hope — although they came few and far in between — but even with the successes nothing elevated him to the level he wanted to be.
Then Pearl Harbour, the day that will live in infamy.
Salinger was drafted and sent off to war where he literally went through hell and back. With his proficiency in multiple languages (French and Italian), he served as an interrogator. Yet he never stopped being a writer during those dangerous times. Members of his counter-intelligence team could still recall Salinger writing, even once when they were at risk of enemy fire. Witnessing the death of many friends and the horrors of the holocaust aftermath, Salinger was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress after the war ended.
Upon returning to America from World War 2 in 1946, he brought with him back a wife, Sylvia Welter — a former Nazi Party member — and his writing, a work in progress. His marriage didn’t last, but the novel did. Holden Caulfield remained his closest companion.
In 1946, Salinger sought help from his old instructor, Whit Burnett, in an effort to get a collection of short stories published. The collection like many of Salinger’s attempts amounted to nothing. And in that, Salinger disengaged with Burnett — as he now had a tendency to do with the people in his life.
Life ebbed and flowed for Salinger, and in 1948, his short story entitled Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was published in The New Yorker. Movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights to the story, promising Salinger the career advancement that he had been yearning. On January 21, 1950, the movie — which was retitled My Foolish Heart, starring Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews was released to the American audience.
Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was a dialogue-heavy story, and with that being the case had to be rewritten significantly for the film. In hindsight, Salinger would have wanted it to be a stage production, but the allure of the silver screens was too great. My Foolish Heart was very poorly received to the shock of Salinger, who had uncharacteristically relinquished all controls to Samuel Goldwyn when the producer bought the rights.
According to the critics, the movie was melodramatic and full of the typical soap-opera cliches. This gave Salinger, a writer already lacking confidence, another significant blow, leaving a bruise that would not fade.
The Catcher in the Rye was published by Little, Brown and Company on July 16, 1951. It received its fair share of positive reviews but would end up being one of the most influential novels of its generation for negative reasons. While many critics enjoyed the book, they found that the character of Holden Caulfield himself was immoral. This didn’t stop The Catcher in the Rye’s success, within the first 2 months of publication the novel was reprinted 8 times and would end up spending 30 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list.
By the late 1950s, the story of Holden Caulfield represented a group of brooding adolescence, which was coined The Catcher Cult. A rise against the novel began to form as those who upheld Christian morals found the 277-page novel to be a threat. The words “goddamn” appeared 237 times, “bastard” 58 and “Chrissake” 31 times. This was enough to get the book condemned in many high schools and libraries across America. By 1961, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book of its time and will continue to be one of the most challenged books for decades to come. Nevertheless, the novel sold over 65 million copies and rocketed Salinger into the limelight.
Salinger hated the limelight.
In as early as 1953, Salinger stopped interacting with the public and by 1965, he stopped publishing his works — even though, he continued to write regularly, hiding away from his family to do so. Why did Salinger stop publishing? It was the same reason he became reclusive. Publishing was an invasion of his privacy. He loved writing and continued to do so, but with the success of The Catcher In the Rye, he no longer needed people to read his fresh material: the 15 potentially completed manuscripts in his bunker in New Hampshire.
During this period, Salinger was solicited by many from the film industry who wanted to adapt The Catcher in the Rye and he would turn them all down. He had many reasons for doing so, but one that stood out was that he felt he was the only person that could have played Holden Caulfield honestly, and perhaps with Margret O’Brien as his co-star. That would be most ideal for Salinger. After seeing what someone could do to his work — as he had seen in My Foolish Heart — he was not ready to trust anyone.
In 1957, Salinger answered a letter asking about the potential for adaptation. He responded with “The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade “scenes”—only a fool would deny that—but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique. True, if the separation is forcibly made, there is enough material left over for something called an Exciting (or maybe just Interesting) Evening in the Theater. But I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights…. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable.”
Unactable — not even for The King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis, who tried for many years to acquire the rights to play Holden Caulfield. Salinger never even humored him.
The list of elite filmmakers continued to knock on Salinger’s door as the years passed.
In 1961, Elia Kazan famous for On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire wanted to produce a Broadway version of The Catcher In the Rye.
Billy Wilder of Double Indemnity made many attempts to communicate with Salinger, but it only ended up making the author annoyed and angry.
Steven Spielberg, Harvey Weinstein, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ethan Hawke, and John Cusack, who famously said that he regretted turning 21 because he was now officially too old to play Holden Caulfield, were not alone. Many generations of actors and filmmakers came and went — none of them added Holden Caulfield or The Catcher in the Rye to their credits.
Acquiring the film right is the first step in adapting a novel to a movie; without it, there is no moving forward. No amount of money was going to sway Salinger, convincing him to relinquish the protection of his most precious work.
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside of his apartment The Dakota by what police deemed, “a local crackpot,” Mark David Chapman. On Chapman’s body was a copy of The Catcher In the Rye. The killer continued to endorse the book during his arrest and trial.
In 1981, after an attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the authorities found The Catcher in the Rye in the culprit, John Hinckley Jr’s apartment. In 1989, after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by Robert John Bardo, the novel was found on him when arrested. Perhaps it was all circumstantial and merely a correlation, but The Catcher in the Rye was deemed a book with unholy powers.
JD Salinger hid from all of this, as his novel continued to be both read and criticized almost four decades after its publication. To this day, The Catcher in the Rye holds a mystique. What power does it have over the readers, compelling them to do something so extreme? I believe if the novel was adapted into a movie, the power of the text would have been dampened. It would have been unlikely that these murderers would have been arrested with a DVD starring Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson. Salinger knew what a poor adaptation could do to literature…
In 2009, a Swedish writer by the pseudonym of John David California published a book called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which chronicles Holden Caulfield’s life as a 76-year-old man. When Salinger caught a whiff of it, he sent his lawyer to sue California, real name: Fredrik Colting. 60 Year Later was banned in America.
Even near the end, Salinger did not want his work to be tainted and defended it until his last breath which came on January 27, 2010. JD Salinger died at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was 91 years old. It was then that Hollywood wondered how long they will need to wait now until The Catcher in the Rye will be released in theatres.
In 1957, Salinger wrote a letter, toying with the idea of giving the unsold film rights to his family as an insurance policy. They could sell it if they were financially desperate. He accepted that he would be dead and cannot see the results anyways. But that letter was written long, long ago. He had since separated with his second wife, Claire Douglas. And his daughter, Margret had written a memoir with a not-so-flattering portrayal of her father. Understanding how Salinger tended to respond to slights, it’s unlikely that the rights would be in their hands at the time of his death.
In 1976, the copyright act changed, and it allowed The Catcher in the Rye to be renewed in 1979, extending its terms by 28 years from its original publishing in 1951. There had been two more extensions in the succeeding decades and 67 years have been added on top of the initial 28 year extension. Without getting into too much copyright detail, The Catcher in the Rye will enter public domain in 2046 — 95 years after the story was published.
2046. If you are eager to see The Catcher in the Rye movie that will be how long you will have to wait. However, many have claimed that a Catcher in the Rye-esque movie had already been made by director Burr Steers called Igby Goes Down in 2002, starring Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes and Jeff Goldblum. The movie follows a rebellious young boy who recently flunked out of prep school attempting to deal with all the relationships and circumstances required of him as he grows up.
Steers acknowledged the similarities but said that Igby Goes Down was inspired by his own experiences living in New York as a child. He had initially wanted to write a novel, but the project became a script and then a movie.
In 2019, Salinger’s estate announced that they are planning to release some of the late author’s unpublished works and in addition, finally bringing his available works to the digital form. Salinger had been against ebooks and audiobooks, but in an interview with the New York Times, JD Salinger’s son, Matt Salinger said, “He wouldn’t want people to not be able to read his stuff.”
With this sudden change in the tide, perhaps the movie may come sooner.
Would you go see The Catcher in the Rye when it comes out in theatres? Who should play Holden Caulfield? Let me know in the comments below.
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