There is an ambition among the best of films – and the best of filmmakers – for the work to carry the same dramatic heft and dignity, be treated with the same respect and appreciation as a fine work of literature. Think of the best works of Welles and Lean, of Kubrick and Coppola. Citizen Kane has all the density and texture and period flavor of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (which, probably not coincidentally, served as the basis for Welles’ second feature). Coppola’s Godfather saga achieved a majesty and resonance Mario Puzo’s popular but lurid novel never did.
So, who better, during this award season, to talk about that ever-more-rare literary quality in filmmaking than someone who makes his living by his literary qualities?
A debuting TV series may compete in a given season against possibly 100 other shows; a newly-released movie will be scored against several hundred other titles released that year; but a book… The competition within any given year numbers in the tens of thousands.
The novel cutting through that kind of clutter and achieving any significant measure of commercial success is a statistical rarity. To do so and retain an equally significant measure of literary integrity – to be a breakthrough commercial moneymaker without pandering – is the rarest of the rare. David L. Robbins is among the rarest of the rare.
After several years as a freelance writer, Robbins turned to fiction and scored with critics with his first novel, the “cosmic love story” Souls to Keep (HarperCollins 1998). He achieved bestseller status soon after – without losing any of his critical ground — with his World War II trilogy, War of the Rats (Bantam 1999), set during the battle of Stalingrad, which, four years after its debut was still selling 1,000 copies a week; The End of War (Bantam 2000), about the Battle of Berlin; and Last Citadel (Bantam 2003), set during the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. Robbins broke new dramatic ground with his 2002 novel Scorched Earth (Bantam 2002), a novel of church-burnings and racism set in the contemporary American South that, while bearing a superficial resemblance to a John Grisham-type mystery, displayed a more meditative, poetic style at work. Robbins carried off the change-up without interrupting his critical/commercial winning streak and has continued to so to this day with works like Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express (Bantam 2004), Assassins Gallery (Bantam 2006), The Betrayal Game (Bantam 2008), and Broken Jewel: A Novel (Simon & Schuster 2009).
David L. Robbins is also a fan of the movies, has been since his youngest days, yet – at least up to this point – he’s shown little interest in making the jump from novelist to screenwriter. As he compares the dynamics of the two, and the way movies have changed over the years, it’s clear to see why.
An English soldier and his Arab guide lower a lambskin into the depths of a desert well. They hoist the water up. The Arab drinks deeply, the Englishman dabs his face clean before swallowing.
The guide lifts his eyes to the shimmering heat-dance on the horizon. He senses something coming. Foreboding backs him away from the well. Our view (on the silver screen) joins his, locked on the far blue and the baking sand. The camera stays, the horizon shimmers, until we see a black figure riding fast in a flowing robe. He seems to be the sum of the sun, the sand, the nothingness of the desert.
The guide scrambles for his weapon. But he is shot down by the far-off rider.
This, for me, is the greatest scene in the finest historical epic ever filmed, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The tableau affects and pleases me so much because it does something that almost every other historical movie made since has neglected to do. It embellishes nothing.
The desert in Lawrence is the unvarnished desert. The tale, cobbled together from records and T. E. Lawrence’s book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was recreated on the screen with faithful attention to accuracy. Director David Lean never broke faith with the truth. That’s why Lawrence stands as one of the few movies you can watch and rely on, that what you have seen – all of it, the landscape, the power, the story itself – was real.
And aren’t the best stories the realest ones?
Today in moviemaking, thrill is king. Truth and reality have taken a spill and seem to have broken something, they may never get up. I scratch my head every time I plunk down my money for another Hollywood-ized version of history and wonder: Why did they have to do that? What was it about the actual, verifiable story involving these people or this place and time that, in the end, was not thrilling enough for Hollywood? Why mess with history? Real people killed and died, they betrayed one another in droves, they loved and lost and bled and cried better than any actor can portray and any writer can improvise. So why not just put it on the screen the way they used to?
My mother and I were fixtures at the Lowe’s Theater in Richmond, Virginia when I was a kid. Ben Hur (1959), Taras Bulba (1962), How The West Was Won (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965); we were breathless and transported by the perils we’d seen as well as the verisimilitude. We left talking about more than the flick but the times and places it had captured. We felt we knew something that we could bank on, a new tidbit of history that had been handed us on a silver platter. We felt smarter for having seen Patton (1970), Spartacus (1960), Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Man for All Seasons (1966).
That was back in the day; back when directors, producers and writers shared the belief that the human condition is the greatest tragedy and comedy; that what we do in this world is sadder, more powerful, brave and inspiring than anything that can be made up for the sole purpose of being exciting. Isn’t courage exciting? Isn’t history our human catalog of courage, perfidy, wit? Isn’t it mankind’s greatest hits?
My own limited experience with Hollywood’s fixation on thrills offers no explanation, but serves only as a good anecdotal microcosm. The movie Enemy at the Gates (2001) detailed the same story I told in my novel, War of the Rats. Vasily Zaitsev, the greatest sniper in the Red Army of WWII, finds himself at Stalingrad, facing the top sniper in the German Army called in specifically to counter him. Each top gun squares off against his nemesis. Along the way, Zaitsev falls in love with Tania Chernova, a female sniper in the Soviet force.
The movie was made with no input from me. Despite the fact that my novel was based very closely on actual events, as well as several conversations with the real Vasily Zaitsev in Kiev and a translation of his memoirs, the film wandered far from fact, so far that it bore little resemblance to the actual cat-and-mouse game these two snipers played, one to snare the other. The facts were available, clearly; I found them. But in the end, the movie industry felt that the real cunning, courage, and heart of these people were not enough. Instead, they needed celluloid hearts and nerves. In the end, what I saw on the screen was a pale imitation of two men going after each other in the dangerous rubble of Stalingrad; it was calculated and compressed, too fast for the nerve-wracking shadings of the human hunt that happened. The love with Tania was perfunctory and depthless, scripted, nothing like real love in desperation.
I pride myself that when a reader puts down a novel of mine, he or she has been transported to an epoch I have recreated with all my abilities for accuracy and research, even though I may have walked fictional characters through it. Why have filmmakers lost this joy? Why do they no longer see the real story as an irreducible element of storytelling?
One of the greatest writers of our generation, William Styron (Sophie’s Choice), told me that he tried in all his work to do three things, what he called the “Three E’s”: elevate, educate, and entertain. Why do novels continue to do this (see Gates Of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, any of the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje) while many movies have abandoned any pretense to educate, and often elevate, focusing solely on entertainment?
As a writer of historical adventure novels, I often find my biggest challenge is sticking to the facts and timelines of the events I have chosen. Why, then, do I see Pearl Harbor (2001), a movie about a great naval disaster, portrayed through the eyes of two pilots? Why was U-571 (2000) filmed as an American action to capture an Enigma machine from a German Seawolf sub, when it was, in fact, a British operation?
The list goes far past war thrillers. Think of JFK (1991)(Oliver Stone’s far-fetched Kennedy assassination theory, debunked by almost every expert); The Hurricane (1999) (reviewers lapsed into a frenzy taking swings at the film’s poor depictions of fact); Donnie Brasco (1997)(where Joe Pistone is given credit for the heroism and undercover revelations of about seven other FBI agents); The Patriot (2000)(where British troops behave with a brutality they never displayed – in fact, their burning of Colonial civilians in a church was inspired by something the Nazis did two centuries later); Gods and Generals (2003)(the South was never that slow).
Why do novelists care about fact and moviemakers do not?
The answer is simple, and as American as Disney (not Euro-Disney).
It’s not what the public wants.
The visual medium of film begets an ever-escalating banquet of action sequences that books cannot, and do not aspire to, match. Character development takes a long time. I spend the first half of all my books digging into my folks’ motivations, pasts, voices, urges. If a movie did that, the audience would migrate across the hall to watch whatever current film blew the most stuff up. Movies do not have the luxury of time because their audience will not grant it. Instead, most go with what they can do quickly and with outrageous efficacy. Action. And more action. It gets a bit mindless, but moviegoers are taking their minds with them to the flicks less and less often, let’s admit it.
Who can blame filmmakers? We have returned as a society to our old prurient ways (like we were in the ‘60s and ‘70s when better movies were made, but without all those clothes being taken off; my mom used to hide my eyes but I strained between her fingers), so without sex as a buttress, and with no real capacity as a medium to reveal character, and without patience from an ever-accelerating society, filmmakers dollop on the explosions and gunplay. It’s treacly, it’s easy, it’s foolproof (so long as we’re the same old fools), and the public cries out a lot less against violence onscreen than we do vulgarity or smoking. In this, our new millennium, we are a culture of remote controls, instant Internet access, digital cameras with immediate results, fast and health-less food, and download times are a measure of your lifestyle success. A book cannot compete in the market for speed. Movies can, so they do. It is a vast treasure trove, that market.
Hollywood has given me uncountable thrills and chills. It would be craven for me to complain because they no longer teach me anything. I have grown a bit more numb along the way, I confess. I need a bigger shot of adrenaline every summer, and I get it in the dark with popcorn and soda with admirable regularity, despite the frequent missteps (even the stumbles are fun for how wickedly far they fall, action all the way). I hope to continue reading and writing books that pick up the slack, that transport me and others on a slower vessel to richer lands and times.
Movies have changed what they mean to their audience. They are not our tutors any more. Fair enough. We no longer ask them to be. And if you do, shame on you; by now, you should know, you’re going to be misinformed.
But most importantly, movies have not changed how much they mean. So pass the popcorn, and no talking. And will these previews ever end? Get to the feature! I haven’t got all night!