1931, William Faulkner found himself face to face
with actress Tallulah Bankhead at a New York party.
"Why don't you write me a picture?" she
demanded of the Southern writer. Celebrated by the
New York literary intelligentsia (for The Sound
and the Fury, As I Lay Dying
and Sanctuary) but not by the public,
Faulkner was intrigued by the concept of a surefire
paying gig. After his agent secured him a contract,
on May 7, 1932, he reported to MGM studios, embarking
on a 22-year career as a screenwriter.
From 1932 to 1954, Faulkner alternated between
his home in Oxford, Mississippi, and a bungalow
in Los Angeles working for various directors and
studios. Altogether he worked on some 50 films,
but if not for a request by legendary director Howard
Hawks for his assistance on a film in the same year
he arrived, his stint in sunny California may have
been significantly shorter. For it was his collaboration
with Hawks over the years that led to his most notable
screen work, including To Have and Have Not and
the film noir classic The Big Sleep. Although
his time in Hollywood is generally perceived as
a footnote to his status as THE Southern novelist,
if nothing else it enabled him to pay his bills
and allowed him to pursue his and the critics' true
If William Faulkner had lived until our present
time, he would have turned one hundred years old
on September 25, 1997. In celebration of the great
author's centenary, Gadfly takes
a look at the lesser known side of him—Faulkner
the screenwriter. We spoke with the writer's friend
and foremost biographer, Joseph Blotner, about Faulkner
and his time in the celluloid city.
How did William Faulkner arrive in Hollywood?
JB: He was asked to do a script for a short story
of his called "Turn About" that Howard
Hawks made into a film. Of course, in the early
30s, particularly with his novel Sanctuary,
he got a lot of attention and was liked very much
by Hawks. He began doing scripts in large part because
he needed money.
Was Hawks the primary reason that Faulkner made
his way out there?
Pretty much so.
they work closely or did Hawks ask Faulkner to write
and then re-work the script submitted?
to both. He liked Faulkner's work which he based
his films on, but he also knew he wasn't an expert
at it. Faulkner tried to teach himself the techniques
of screenwriting as he went along, but the thing
that Hawks valued in Faulkner was his fertility
of invention, his capacity for ideas.
Faulkner had a propensity to write page after
page of dialogue that was ultimately unusable. I
think Humphrey Bogart once remarked about some of
his scripted dialogue, "I'm supposed to say
all that?" Didn't much of his script work get
Yes, but of course by and large that is the way
scripts get written. Very often additional writers
will be hired to re-write, to collaborate. That
was pretty much the way it went in Hollywood. It
doesn't mean that he was thought unsatisfactory.
Faulkner was regarded by Hawks as imaginative even
though he would write much more than people like
Humphrey Bogart would be able to memorize or say.
Hollywood, Faulkner seemed to be a fish out of water,
or an alien among them. Why was he so unhappy or
discontented being there?
said, "It wasn't my racket," in effect.
His principal line was novels and short stories.
He had the feeling that though he was earning the
money he needed he was spending time that ideally
would have gone to his prose fiction, to the works
he had in mind for a long time and wanted to get
to. But Hollywood was the readiest place for him
to earn money.
Faulkner worked on a countless amount of films,
didn't he only receive actual writing credits for
Yes, I think he got credits for something like
five or six.
How many of his books and short stories were
made into films?
a large number. There were Turnabout,
Land of the Pharaohs and
Sanctuary, for instance.
Two of the films he is best known for are To
Have and Have Not and The Big
Sleep. They are both adaptions
of other writers, Hemingway and Chandler. How did
he feel about having to adapt other novelists' works?
think he had a very professional workman-like approach.
He was hired to do a job, signed the contract and
did the best he could.
He had a high regard for Hemingway didn't he?
Were they good friends or...?
They never met.
Really? Wasn't Faulkner Hemingway's favorite
I wouldn't say that he was Hemingway's favorite,
but he was much admired by Hemingway. He had certain
technical criticisms of Faulkner's style, but at
one point Hemingway said "I would be happy
just to have managed him." You know, using
the lingo of boxing, to have been his manager.
How much did Faulkner have to do with the final
version of The Big Sleep?
Actually, I would not try to use numbers or percentages.
It becomes very difficult when it is a collaborative
work. Now in other instances, he worked on a long
film called The De Gaulle Story, about
sharing the gold in the Second World War. That was
pretty much his own with very little collaborative
work, but in some of the others, one such as The
Big Sleep, it was a collaborative process.
the film Barton Fink by the
Coen Brothers, there is a Faulkner-inspired character
who is drunk in his scenes. One thing that is always
mentioned in context with Faulkner is alcohol. Was
he an alcoholic?
It becomes a matter of definitions. Yes, he did
drink. He drank a good deal. Although he at one
time quit for a considerable time. I guess partly
to show that he could discipline himself that way.
He had episodes which have some of the characteristics
of what we call alcoholism. And there are a number
of ways of defining alcoholism. He sort of put himself
out on more than one instance when he drank, and
was unable to work. He said that he didn't drink
when he wrote. That is not to say that he did not
at the end of a work day have cocktail time, because
What influence did it have on his writing?
cousin said to him, "Bill, do you write when
you drink or when you're drunk?" And he said,
"No, but sometimes I get ideas."
What do you see as some of the central themes
of his writing?
That's pretty large. In his Nobel Prize acceptance
speech he tried to point a way to some of the things
that are more fundamental. He believed in the human,
the essence of man. In his speech, he said he thought
man would survive, that he would not blow himself
up as he put it. He believed in human dignity, that
people by and large did the best that they could.
He believed that the human experience was a tragic
one to some extent. In dramas such as those that
Eugene O'Neill worked on and novels such as those
the great Russian and French writers wrote, he saw
a representation of life as tragic and he said,
"One man has put it in eight words. He was
born, he suffered and he died." That's stating
the dark side of it, but, again, in the Nobel Prize
acceptance speech he said he thought that people
did the best they could.
do you think his experience with Hollywood ended
up detracting from his fiction writing?
think his best work was in his novels and short
stories, and that his time could have been better
used doing what he did best. But Faulkner sometimes
enjoyed things he did in Hollywood. But there is
no question in my mind at all that if he had been
able to support himself and his family without doing
film scripts he would have.
Did you know Faulkner very well?
I knew him for just under six years. For the first
two years he was a writer in residence at the University
of Virginia and he would return each year. My wife
and I would see him and Mrs. Faulkner and other
members of the Faulkner family. On social occasions,
we would go to Little League baseball games, football
games and track meets and so on. In the classroom,
my colleague Fred Gwynn and I would have our classes
ask him questions. So we had on the one hand a professional
relationship and on the other hand a social one.
What was it like to know him?
You were conscious of being with a genius. He was
a person of extraordinary talent and intellect,
a friendly person but very inner directed and very
shy—the most extraordinary person I have ever
screenwriting credits: Today We Live
(1933), The Road To Glory (1936),
To Have and Have Not (1944), The
The Big Sleep (1946) and Land
of the Pharaohs (1955)