Adventures in the Screen Trade

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The man who wrote these words is William Goldman. They are taken from his classic movie, The Princess Bride. He is also the screenwriter behind Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men, The Great Waldo Pepper, and A Bridge Too Far. In short, he’s been around the block a few times, and he knows what he’s doing—although he would have you believe that he does not.

The notion that nobody knows anything about movies, least of all Goldman, permeates the book Adventures in the Screen Trade. It is not wholly a practical guide on screenwriting. That aspect of the process is covered in a short but informative section towards the end of the book. Rather, for the most part it is a record of his journey from novelist to screenwriter. As you can imagine, the journey is not a smooth one, and in the process, Goldman has collected many anecdotes.

I won’t relate any of them here. Indeed, I don’t really remember them in any detail. Dustin Hoffman does not come out well. Laurence Olivier does.

The really interesting thing for me about the book is that Goldman finds a way to speak entertainingly about the creative process behind screenwriting. His main message is that the screenwriter is a somewhat impotent figure within the movie making process, constantly usurped by the director, the producer, and any friends of the director all producer who wish to improve his screenplay. It’s not a happy situation. He recommends that the screenwriter try to make as much money as possible from his scripts, and then return to some kind of properly creative pursuit, such as novel writing.

Nothing very new here, then. But the book is engaging nonetheless. The real value in this book lies in its final chapters. In these, he begins with a short story that he published many years before and then converts right there into a screenplay, outlining along the way his struggles in transforming it. He goes on to interview a cinematographer, editor, producer, and director to get their impressions on producing a movie from the finalised screenplay. The interview with the director is worth the price of admission alone. The director is not a big fan of the screenplay. Indeed, he rips Goldman a new one. It’s a great illustration of the combative process through which a movie is constructed.