Sam Mendes' Away We Go (54 screens) makes for a great trailer, consisting of all the very funny, snarky stuff written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The actual movie has some very funny moments as well, and some terrific individual scenes, but it doesn't add up to a reasonable whole, mainly because the ever-shifting tones never quite mesh. Nevertheless, it seems to be performing well in its arthouse capacity, surviving more on a well-executed stream of hype rather than on the quality of the movie itself. From the ads, you'd think it has already won an Oscar (and, because of this kind of subconscious suggestion, it still might). Either way, what this means is that a literary giant like Eggers didn't have to go slumming. His reputation is intact.

In the old days, great novelists would sometimes write for the movies, but it was sneered at and looked down upon. Movies were for hacks and has-beens, or for desperate sellouts who were willing to work for cash rather than for the reward of a richer soul. William Faulkner was perhaps the most famous example of this, scribbling screenplays for drinking money. Fortunately, nowadays, Mr. Faulkner's literary reputation not only remains totally intact, but also some of his screenplays, including To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), are celebrated for their high quality. Similarly, Billy Wilder once hired the great crime novelist Raymond Chandler to adapt a book by another great crime novelist, James M. Cain, into Double Indemnity (1944). I can only imagine the indignity Chandler must have felt at the time, but today no one cares. Actually it more or less depends on the writer, the movie and the moment to determine whether literature is stooping to the level of movies, or whether movies are rising to the level of literature. John Dos Passos wrote the screenplay for Josef von Sternberg's masterpiece The Devil Is a Woman (1935) right between books two and three of his famed "U.S.A. Trilogy" and seemed none the worse for wear. The respected British novelist Grahame Greene actually started out as a lowly film critic before writing movies like The Third Man. Thornton Wilder wrote Shadow of a Doubt (1943) for Hitchcock. Dorothy Parker also wrote for Hitchcock, but she did so in the grandest spirit of irony.

Of course, lots of people adapted their own novels, like Vladimir Nabokov writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), and then later disowning it. Stephen King wrote a good many screenplays for his own film adaptations (and even directed one: Maximum Overdrive). But my favorite credits are the totally weird ones, the unexplained ones, like Roald Dahl writing the James Bond screenplay You Only Live Twice (1967), or Michael Chabon's "story by" credit on Spider-Man 2 (2004). One of my favorite authors, Paul Auster, collaborated with Wayne Wang on the rambling, oddball and decidedly un-Auster-like double-bill Smoke and Blue in the Face (1995).

One of Eggers' colleagues, Daniel Handler, has an even more fascinating credit. (Eggers called him "something like an American Nabokov.") Handler is also known as children's author Lemony Snicket, and his work was adapted by others into a 2004 big budget film with Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep. But Handler also wrote a screenplay under his own name for a film released the same year, entitled Rick, which virtually disappeared as fast as it came out. This is a terrifically sharp, chilly, black office comedy starring Bill Pullman as a cynical working stiff who gets a sinister proposition. Oh, and it's based on an opera, Verdi's Rigoletto. Perhaps one day when Handler's literary reputation is re-assessed, people will stumble upon Rick once more.
categories Columns, Cinematical