G is for … William Goldman

What do The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man, the cinema adaptations of Maverick (1994), Misery (1990) and The Stepford Wives (1975) as well as that great counter-culture Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all have in common? They were all written by William Goldman, not only a best-selling novelist but also a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter. He is also a fine essayist,  writing trenchantly about the film community as well as sports and the New York theatre world of the 1960s.

He is the author of two Edgar-winning mysteries too. He is perhaps known best for such overlapping works as Marathon Man and the postmodern comic fantasy The Princess Bride, both novels that he later also adapted successfully into movies. He also coined the classic Hollywood maxim: “Nobody Knows Anything”.

Below I offer a brief overview of Goldman’s engagement with the crime and mystery genre over the decades as part of Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter G. You should head over there right away to look at some of the other choices that have been posted as part of the challenge.

“Is it safe?” - Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man

William Goldman turns 81 next month (he was born on 12 August 1931) and is one of the most venerable and venerated of American screenwriters. What’s unusual about this is that he is also a highly successful novelist and also an essayist, renowned for his caustic wit and a no-nonsense attitude that refutes the auteur theory and which has seen him be remarkably candid and critical of the industry in which he has been so successful. His non-fiction books include a fascinating look at Broadway, The Season (1969); a memoir of his contrasting experiences as a judge for the Miss America pageant and on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival as recounted in Hype and Glory (1990); and of course his much quoted book on Hollywood screenwriting, Adventures in the Screentrade (1983) and its sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000). As a screenwriter, Goldman has adapted several thrillers for the screen, from the comedy capers of Donald Westlake in The Hot Rock (1972), the recursive horror of Stephen King’s Misery (1990), for which he bagged an Academy Award nomination; The General’s Daughter (1999) from the potboiler by Nelson DeMille; the courtroom theatrics of John Grisham’s The Chamber (1994); and, perhaps best of all, the under-appreciated Absolute Power (1996) starring (and directed by) Clint Eastwood.

Goldman has tried his hand to many genres, including fantasy and even science fiction and he has returned to the mystery and thriller genre on many occasions. They specialise in carefully worked out revesals and shock effects that often really surprise. these are often darkly-hued works, offering a somewhat unflattering view of humanity, with innocence frequently crushed. His books are also funny and very exciting and wonderfully told. Of his various excursion itno espionage, psychological suspense and the hardboiled genre, the most notable include:

No Way to Treat a Lady (1964)
Originally published as by ‘Harry Longbaugh’, the real name of ‘The Sundance Kid’, this is a variant telling of the Boston Strangler story that is by turns funny and very dark as one madman gets jealous of another and apparently tries to out-do him. The book includes a truly cruel twist in its closing section that will knock most readers off their perches. For my full review, click here.

Marathon Man (1974)
The orthodontic torture of a young New York student at the hands of a Nazi war criminal in Goldman’s 1974 book Marathon Man is one of the most instantly recognisable set-pieces of any postwar spy thriller, made perhaps even more memorable when played on screen two years later by Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in the author’s own adaptation. Like most of Goldman’s fiction, this is a coming of age story that taps into the theme of sibling rivalry, one that also looms large in his output (his brother incidentally was the playwright James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter and They Might Be Giants). This is a book full of terrific twists and turns, especially in its first half. It was followed by the sequel Brothers (see below).

Magic (1976)
This was another bestseller, a variation on the ‘mad ventriloquist’ story familiar from many movies and TV shows (probably easier to count the depictions of sane ventriloquist by this point, let’s face it). This one is especially clever, in particular with Goldman leading the reader on a very merry dance during the opening 100 pages before delivering a thunderingly good reversal and following this up with several very clever twists in a story of murder, magic and twisted psychosis. A big hit in its day, it still works extremely well. Goldman later adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins that could only replicate some of the novel’s power and effect.

Heat (1985)
An hommage to the hardboiled novel as perfected by Ross Macdonald, one of Goldman’s heroes, Heat was another one of his books that he adapted for the screen, but with only middling results (the production got through several directors, including, briefly, Robert Altman) and I’ll be reviewing that book next week. Published in the UK as Edged Weapons.

Brothers (1986)
A follow-on from Marathon Man and one of Goldman’s few excursions into the sequel – in fact only his second one if we discount his postmodern fairytale novellas published under the ‘S. Morgernstern’ persona he created for The Princess Bride. Once again the focus are marathon runner Babe and his spy brother codenamed Scylla – Goldman perfects some really neat reversals that could only work in a novel and never on film, in the service of a story that takes a surprising turn into science fiction for part of its plot and which works best as a series of well-executed set-pieces but which doesn’t quite hang together as a cohesive narrative. Few critics liked the darkness of its ending, feeding the charge of misanthropy frequently levelled at the author.

Goldman pretty much stopped publishing novels after this one – his only sustained bit of fiction writing was a novella, ‘Buttercup’s Baby’ appended to the 25th anniversary edition of The Princess Bride, which is the only one of his novels that the author claims to like. Over the course of his 30 years as a novelist he has produced much more of note than that, so on this issue I would beg to differ …

For a recent interview with Goldman by Joe Queenan, visit The Guardian website here.

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This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Los Angeles, Private Eye, Ross Macdonald, Scene of the crime, William Goldman. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to G is for … William Goldman

  1. Colin says:

    Never read any of Goldman’s books but his screenwriting credits speak for themselves and highlight his versatility.

    • Goldman’s main theme is usually the problems of growing up and the tone melancholy, but it its fascinating to see how that tracks through various generic conventions. The Princess Bride is a real classic in my view, both wonderfully funny and inventive (it was sold as a ‘hot fairytale’ – very 70s …) but lso has a bittersweet quality. I think this one, and Magic, are probably his most successful books in terms of being quite distict from their movie counterparts.

  2. TracyK says:

    You certainly have opened my eyes to the wide range of William Goldman’s talents. I knew he had written books and screenplays but was not aware of many of them (or if aware of the movie, did not know the screenwriter was Goldman). THE PRINCESS BRIDE is on the shelf by my bed to be read (at the suggestion of my son) and I will have to get to it soon. Looking forward to the review of HEAT.

    • Thanks very much Tracy K, very kind of you. I suspect Princess Bride really is the one he will be remembered for as a novelist. It’s a wonderfull book, though it would be a shame if it overshadowed the rest of his output.

  3. Skywatcher says:

    I love THE PRINCESS BRIDE, too. Of the other novels, my favourite is probably MARATHON MAN, which I read before I saw the film. MAGIC was an idea which had been done too many times before Goldman got to it, with the result that neither the movie nor the book is terribly interesting to me. The non-fiction ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE is a fascinating, acerbic book, and destined to become a standard text for those interested in the real world of movie making.

    He’s done an enormous number of screenplays, and maintained a very high standard. Some of my favourites are quite odd….I sometimes think that I may be the only person in the entire world other than Goldman himself who actually loves THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER.

    • Thanks for that, though I do think Magic, especially the novel, is very exciting and does manage to find several new wrinkles in an admittedly otherwise well-worn story. I suspect Goldman is right in his assessment of the negative impact that the tragic death of the young girl in The Great Waldo Pepper has in people’s appreciation of it, though clearly, for all its fun and games, it is quite a dark film even with the then golden boy Robert Redford in the title role – I quite agree that it is a seriously overlooked movie.

  4. John says:

    Really enjoy his work, but MAGIC I think is a poor effort – an utter rip-off of many stories and TV shows that came before him that are far better in their treatment the now cliche tortured ventriloquist motif. John Keir Cross’ story “The Glass Eye”, to my mind, is still the absolute best of this kind of tale. Didn’t know Goldman had anything to do with NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. I think the film version with Rod Steiger is one of the better crime thirllers of the 1960s.

    • I remember finding Magic really smart when I read it (it works much better than the movie) but then I haven’t read ‘The Glass Eye’, which I shall definitely look out for John, thanks very much. The adaptation of Now Way to treat A Lady is pretty faithful, apart from the ending which in the book is pure Goldman and which in he film is pure Hollywood. I actually like them both fine in their own distinct ways.

  5. Jeff Flugel says:

    Really interesting overview of Goldman’s work as a suspense novelist, Sergio! Other than THE PRICESS BRIDE and his ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE book, I’m not familiar with his career as a novelist; like Colin, I’m more well-versed in his screenwriting work. I’m especially fond of his Ross McDonald adaptation, HARPER. I think he did a good job on DeMille’s THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER, too (I wish the film version had done well enough financially to warrant them taking a crack at the superior sequel, UP COUNTRY.)

    • Thanks Jeff. I’m a big fan of Harper too – apparently among his papers, not to be found at Columbia University (and listed here) includes an unproduced adaptation of The Chill, for my money Macdonald’s greatest novel – wouldn’t that have been great?

  6. I am going to look for ‘Magic’. Very well written and thorough post!

  7. Hi Sergio, I meant to write earlier but my modem router stopped working and I was without an internet connection at home for nearly five days. I still can’t comment on WordPress from office, though — trying to figure that one out. Meanwhile, thanks a ton for writing about William Goldman and his amazing work. I had had only heard of him in a vague sort of way. I agree with Colin and TracyK about Goldman’s “versatility” and “talents” which is obvious from the kind of films he has written, many of which I have had the privilege of watching in the past without, of course, knowing that Goldman wrote the screenplays for them. His books are an additional treat and that’s another thing I need to look into.

    • Thanks Prashant – 5 days without Internet? That’s the definition of a modern day nightmare! Hope you’ve recovered … When the internet goes at the office, I always have to make a real adjustment as I so dependent on it now – scary! Hope you get to read some of his books as I think you would like them a lot. The not being able to post thing is very odd – have you tries using a different browser? I use Firefox and Safari without any trouble but avoid Internet Explorer if I can. Thanks again for taking the time and making the effort mate.

  8. Hi Sergio, my preferred browser is Google Chrome which, I’m told, guzzles a lot of memory but I’m comfortable with it. I have tried using IE and Firefox (the former is a pain, the latter is really good) to comment on WordPress but without luck. I have never used Safari and will have a go at it soon. Let me see if I can post this from office. If I can’t then I’ll get one of my IT engineers to check out the error when I do. Strangely, I can post WordPress from home on all the three browsers. Maybe, I need to “enable” something in my office PC.

    Yes, five days without an internet connection at home can be pretty scary though I have 24-hour access to the net in the office, which is reliable but is often slow. I used to have a USB-based wireless broadband device which I need to renew. It comes in handy even if you’re not travelling, as I don’t.

    Now I’m off to read your post on Edgar Wallace Mysteries though I might be able to respond only later this evening after I reach home. Cheers!

    • IE really is horrible isn;t? Most of the people I know use it and all I can do is look in disbelief and ask, ‘Why?’ Really hope you are able to get this sorted – sounds incredibly frustrating! Hope you enjoy the Wallace post.

  9. Sergio, guess what?! It works from office too! I’m still using Chrome. Might have been a technical snag of a temporary nature. See you around…

  10. Patrick says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t end up commenting on this! I do keep up with the blogosphere but to save some time I’ve commented a lot less of late… Looks like this post was a victim of the Patrician method.

    I love Goldman’s PRINCESS BRIDE, although I, like many others, am fare more familiar with his screenwriting work. This is an unpardonable gap in my knowledge! To the digital shopping cart! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuZxn0aT_UQ)

    • The ‘Patrickian’ method indeed! Cheers matey, I remember what a big Princess Bride fan you are. We have miissed you a bit, but then well, I blame all that Batman activity – is today the big day for you? Hope it lives up to expectations. Re-watched Dark Knight again at the weekend and it really holds up well.

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