Cinematic Fiction and Prose Remade

As artistic disciplines go, narrative fiction and narrative cinema have had a considerable overlap over the years. That takes on forms that one might expect–high-profile films adapting novels for the screen, for instance–but it can also venture into spaces much more obscure. The influence between the two forms goes in both directions: John Dos Passos famously spoke of adapting Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage for the page, specifically in his novel Manhattan Transfer, and the ways in which Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence weaves Wharton’s prose into the work as a whole is subtle yet resonant. The list of authors who have written for the screen–whether adapting their own work, the work of others, or creating something entirely new–is vast. But what happens when cinema itself is the inspiration for a work of fiction?

But what happens when cinema itself is the inspiration for a work of fiction?

Day of the Locust

Sometimes, that inspiration can be historic in nature: the world of film as muse for a particular novel or story. Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust looms large here, as the way that the film industry can both inspire and destroy fuels the action within it. More recently, a trio of novels have used various points in the history of the film industry as their settings. Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine and Steve Erickson’s Zeroville were largely set as the studio system receded in favor of a more experimental model in the 1960s and 1970s, with Specktor’s novel taking a more realistic approach and Erickson’s blending realism with occasional use of a kind of dream logic. Given that both are largely set behind the scenes, they play like shadow histories of seismic changes in the industry, blending real historical figures with fictional ones. Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is primarily set a few decades earlier, and follows the career of a young woman determined to seek stardom; it encompasses everything from the heyday of the studio system to the more hardscrabble conditions under which 50s B-movies were made. Its central themes are more about the way that art and creativity can evolve: the established codes of one decade can suddenly seem passé in the next.

May-Lan Tan book cover

These are stories set in the history of one medium which use techniques and devices that only a different medium can utilize. There are other approaches to invoking the language of film through the language of prose, however. Among the most striking stories in May-Lan Tan’s fantastic collection Things to Make and Break is “Candy Glass,” which takes the film industry as its setting. The first thing that a reader will notice about it is its style: it’s written, at least in part, in screenplay format. Read on and what emerges is a hybrid style, one in which cinematic transitions and dialogue formatting are blended with first-person narration. It’s the sort of description that may look unwieldy when described, but works remarkably well on the page. In this case, the story’s setting helps: the narrator is an actress named Alexa who becomes romantically involved with her stand-in, a woman nicknamed “DC,” for “Driverless Car.” There are questions within the story concerning surfaces, concerning appearances, concerning storytelling, both on a large-scale level and centered around the stories that different characters tell about their lives, or plan to tell in the future. Before reading Tan’s story, I would not have expected something that incorporated screenplay-style elements into the mix to work; now, I’m convinced that they can, under the right circumstances.

There are elements of a similar device in MacDonald Harris’s 1982 novel Screenplay, due for reissue later this year. Screenplay initially begins in a realistic vein, focusing on a wealthy young man named Alys who lives in relative isolation following the deaths of his parents. Alys’s life is an alternately decadent and media-saturated one: he pursues pleasure while also taking in old films and music. The novel takes a surreal turn when he rents a room to an older man named Nesselrode, who speaks of having a connection (or having had a connection) to the film industry. Alys begins to notice things going missing; strangely, though, one of the items that’s vanished from his house seems to show up on screen in a decades-old silent film. Nesselrode eventually leads Alys through a gateway into the silent era of Hollywood–though there’s some ambiguity over whether this is the past or some strange other world. (Or if this stylized version of the past is the only way in which it can be perceived.) When in the past, Alys takes on a series of roles in silent films; when he and the other actors speak, the dialogue appears alone, in all-caps–essentially, the prose equivalent of the way dialogue was conveyed in a silent film. “THE WORKERS ARE STRIKING AGAIN, THEY SHOULD BE PUT DOWN RUTHLESSLY,” is uttered in a melodrama, for instance. It’s a striking touch, and one that emphasizes the unreality of the world to which Alys has traveled.


Another take on expressionistic adaptations of film to prose can be found in Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree’s collection Our Secret Life in the Movies. In an introduction, the authors speak of viewing numerous films daily, with a goal of taking in the entirety of the Criterion Collection in their watching. The collection that follows, then, contains a pair of stories inspired by dozens of films. Sometimes, the allusions are subtle: the story “Lottery” is inspired by Lynne Ramsey’s film Ratcatcher, and uses some of the same imagery at the service of a brief, haunting scene in a different setting. At others, there’s a more metatextual element: a reference in “Pulp Fiction” to “psychopaths in the novels of Jim Thompson” takes on an added edge if you notice the story’s inspiration: the film Coup de Torchon, which relocates Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280 to West Africa during the French colonial regime there. There are some similarities between the approach taken by McGriff and Tyree and that chosen by Tim Kinsella for his novel Let Go and Go On and On, which fuses the life of actress and photographer Laurie Bird with the characters that she played in a series of films in the 1970s. In his book, Bird’s own life and the characters she played in films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter are all elements of the same biography–a psychedelic take on the same shared-universe territory that David Thomson employed in his novel Suspects.

Nicholas Rombes’s novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing opens with an epigraph from Sergei Eisenstein, but it stakes out a claim to stranger territory. (Disclosure: I have published fiction from Rombes, and he has published fiction of mine.) The title character is a film historian living in isolation; the narrator is a journalist who has sought him out, seeking information on a cache of films by notable directors–Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch, and Agnés Varda among them–that Laing allegedly destroyed in the 1990s. And so what follows is, essentially, a series of conversations between two people in which a series of nonexistent films are described, even as the demons of both speakers are slowly, subtly, coaxed to the surface.

This shouldn’t work, but it does. Perhaps it’s that the deconstructive elements of the novel echo another part of the world of cinema: between film school and film criticism, discussion is as much a part of cinema as images projected onto a screen. Rombes’s novel also echoes books on film that are told through dialogues: the landmark Hitchcock/Truffaut, and its spiritual descendant, Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Wilder. It’s a surreal jolt, though: perhaps the oldest storytelling tradition being used to recap one of the youngest, and medium somewhere between the two in age capturing the whole thing. It’s a welcome versatility, and it’s another demonstration of the agility of prose to echo and deconstruct forms around it.

More Like This

Electric Lit’s Best Nonfiction of 2023

Nicole Chung, Claire Dederer, Lamya H, Maggie Smith, and Samantha Irby are among the year’s most loved books of nonfiction

Dec 5 - Electric Literature

7 Memoirs About Addiction by Women Writers

Claudia Acevedo-Quinones recommends intimate stories about the struggle with drugs and alcohol and the journey to recovery

Dec 5 - Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones

A Childhood That Defies Gravity

"The Art of Levitation" from SHADOWS AND CLOUDS by Marcus Stewart, recommended by Clyde Derrick

Dec 4 - Marcus Stewart
Thank You!