They’re Going to Make a Movie Out of Our Book! And Not Everyone Is Happy.

UnknownBy Jack Limpert

Harry Jaffe has been The Washingtonian’s national editor since 1990, and in 1994, along with  DC television reporter Tom Sherwood, he wrote a book, Dream City, about the rise and fall of Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry. Today’s Washington Post says HBO, the cable network, is making a movie based on Dream City, with Jaffe and Sherwood as consultants. Spike Lee may direct with Eddie Murphy as Marion Barry.

Barry, now a DC council member, isn’t happy about it. The headline in today’s Post: ‘White men’ want to profit from my story, Barry says.

Jaffe and Sherwood are two of Washington’s best reporters—smart, well-connected, good at getting people to talk—and they would argue that their work as journalists may include writing books and that authors don’t profit as much from their books as Barry may think. By the standards of Hollywood and DC politics (the mayor makes $200,000 a year), Harry would argue that he is seriously underpaid.

Here, from writer Raymond Chandler, is some insight into what it’s like to work with Hollywood. It’s a story proposal that Chandler sent to Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, suggesting that he write something about doing a screenplay based on one of his books; it’s excerpted from Writers and Friends, the memoir written by Weeks and published by Atlantic-Little, Brown in 1981.

Good luck, Harry and Tom— may you find some fame and fortune and, like Chandler, have enough fun that you can write a good magazine story about it.
Dear Mr. Weeks:

Instead of writing critically about Hollywood, would it interest you to have me describe some of my more humorous experiences, such as, for example, the time I was loaned out to MGM and there was no couch in my office? I had brought my own secretary from Paramount, and made that part of the deal. The Producer told me that Mannix, the Studio Manager, had decided there should be no couches in writers’ offices, because they spent too much time on them and not always alone. I sent my secretary down to the car for a couple of steamer rugs, spread them out on the floor, and lay down on them. The Producer rushed to the telephone and called Mannix and said, “My God, I’ve got a horizontal writer here.” The next day there was a couch in my office, but the atmosphere in the Thalberg Building (known around MGM as The Iron Lung) depressed me.

I told my Producer, a very nice fellow, that I had rather work at home. He told me that Mannix did not allow writers to work at home. I said with my usual impudence, “I’ll work at home, I think—if at all.” And they let me do it.

Another thing amusing to me at least was that after I had handed in a batch of script to the Producer and he had looked it over, he would say, not quite on the edge of tears but rather close, “Can’t we keep some of the book? Isn’t it  one of your books we bought? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“I’m sick of it, George. It’s so much easier to write new stuff.”

“For God’s sake,” he said, “this is supposed to be an adaptation of something we bought from you. And you keep on writing entirely difference scenes. They are all right in their way, but how do I explain to the front offices that a writer who was hired to do the screenplay of his own story pays almost no attention to it?”

He was not angry—only troubled.

“I guess it’s not my kind of story,” I said, “or not any longer. When a writer breaks his heart to do a job and does it as well as he can, he just doesn’t want to do it all over again and worse.”

“But we bought the damn thing.”

“Yes, but to me the point is that  I am stale on it. Perhaps some other writer could do a much better job—naturally leaving out any line of dialogue that might have any possibility of making what else he did look like a dead carnation.”
All editors look back with regret at the writers they didn’t hire and the stories they didn’t buy. Weeks writes: “Has a writer ever disclosed more honestly the grind of converting one’s book into a screenplay? All he needed was my encouragement to shape this for the magazine. Why didn’t I wire him the green light, as in time’s past? I was thick in the preparations of our Centennial issue—for which it would have been ideal—but I hesitated.”


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