Friday, May 8, 2020

“Child of Light”: The Hollywood Adventures of Novelist Robert Stone

One day my boss, low-budget moviemaker Roger Corman, asked me to look through an anthology of price-winning short stories and come up with a young master of prose fiction who might be converted into a screenwriter. Years before, he had given a similar assignment to my predecessor, Frances Doel. In the pages of Esquire, she had discovered a young man named John Sayles. Eager to try his hand at filmmaking, Sayles wrote Corman’s Piranha, then evolved into the award-winning writer/director of indie films like Lone Star.   

Hoping for comparable success, I set my sights on Madison Smartt Bell, whose short story about a film editor convinced me he’d be willing to explore a transition to Hollywood. He was hired to write the screenplay for a disaster film we were calling Aftershock. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out well (partly because Roger had developed a sudden fascination with political infrastructure issues, and insisted these be at the center of our earthquake drama). No hard feelings: Madison and I stayed in touch, and he’s since turned out a long series of highly-praised novels and biographies, with a particular focus on the history and landscape of Haiti.

Now, he’s just published an intimate and comprehensive biography of a literary idol who became a close friend.. Robert Stone, perhaps best known for the National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers, published eight novels, beginning with 1967’s Hall of Mirrors. Stone’s fiction covers a wide range of territory, both geographically and emotionally, but he was one of our greatest chroniclers of what might be called the Vietnam War generation. His troubled, amoral characters reflect Stone’s own restless life. Madison Bell’s new Child of Light; A Biography of Robert Stone both probes the fiction in depth and links it to Stone’s own psychological complexities.

I was especially fascinated by Stone’s forays into Hollywood to adapt two of his novels into screenplays. At first it must have seen easy. As Stone’s ever-loving wife Janice told Madison, “There was the book already, with all the dialogue. How hard could it be.?” I was thoroughly gratified with Madison’s response: “Harder than one might think, in fact—good screenwriting is a more demanding endeavor than it looks to people who haven’t tried it.” 

Stone himself, after being hired by Paul Newman to adapt Hall of Mirrors into what became  WUSA, remembered that “the thing in progress slide between incoherency and the nearest equivalent cliché. The novel aspired to a certain poetry and was made of words.. The movie WUSA came out looking like such a novel rendered as a very indifferent episode of Matlock.” Clearly, the involvement of Newman, Joanne Woodward,  Anthony Perkins, Lawrence Harvey, and director Stuart Rosenberg (coming off of Cool Hand Luke) couldn’t save the project, which ended up as a massive critical and box-office flop.

In 1976, Stone tried again, adapting the complex, haunting Dog Soldiers for director Karol Reisz and actor Nick Nolte. The result was a 175-page screenplay (far too long by the standards of Hollywood, which considers each page a minute of screentime). The draft immediately set off alarm bells because, faithful to Stone’s own novel, it portrayed its female lead (Tuesday Weld)  as a willing participant in a drug deal instead of an innocent dupe. Refusing to make this key change, Stone walked out on the screenwriting gig, but did take the opportunity to visit during the location shoot in Mexico.  Dog Soldiers, inexplicably retitled Who’ll Stop the Rain, was another bust. But the experience gave Stone insights into the entertainment industry, leading to 1986’s Children of Light. Looking forward to reading that!   

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