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).
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.
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.
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.