William Goldman is one of the best screenwriters of all time, having written such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride. Adventures in the Screen Trade is a memoir/guide to the world of screenwriting written in 1982. As such, it is a fascinating look at the Hollywood of the time, gossipy is the best sense, and a sobering look at the reality of why so few great screenplays get turned into films.
The book is split into three parts. The first is an insider’s guide to the current problems with the studio system. In 1982, fewer movies were being made than at any time since the beginning of the movie business. The colossal failure of Heaven’s Gate and its ruinous effect on United Artists had a chilling effect on the other studios. The few movies getting approved were mainly comic book movies and sequels. Goldman explores why this is the case and depicts all the roadblocks a script faces on the way to being filmed. He does through several outrageous real-life examples and some creative fictionalizations. Goldman’s wit is on display in a section where he imagines a film adaptation of “The Little Engine that Could” from conception through negotiation to final product.
The second section features Goldman following his varied career in mostly chronological order. Goldman includes all the films he’s written, as well as several projects he was either fired from or had to abandon due to creative differences. Goldman isn’t shy about naming names, even when the high profile people in his stories would probably not appreciate Goldman’s interpretation of their motives. The movies and stars prominently featured in this section include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier, A Bridge Too Far, The Right Stuff, and more.
The third section suffers in comparison to the other two, but is still worthwhile reading. Goldman decides to reprint an old short story of his own and adapt it into a screenplay for his audience, all the while informing us of the potential difficulties inherent to adapting a story into a screenplay.
The story itself, about a boy in a small town who inadvertently provokes a conflict between his barbershop-owning father and his mercurial employee, is a delight to read. However reading the same scenes in Goldman’s adaptation as he comes at them from different angles becomes a little tedious. Finally, Goldman concludes his book with a series of interviews with other filmmaking professionals, as they evaluate his screenplay and describe how they would go about turning it into a film. These include a cinematographer, a designer, and the famous director George Roy Hill.
Adventures in the Screen Trade is a fascinating inside look at the Hollywood studio system. William Goldman’s writing is fluid and graceful and makes for an easy, entertaining read. For any fan of the movies, this is a must-read.