William Burroughs on Books and Films
WSB: I’ve got The Treasures of Sierra Madre on here. Now that, it’s sort of axiomatic that good films are not made from good books. The Treasures of Sierra Madre, I think, is a much better film than it was a book (that is, I read the book after seeing the film. I found the book quite a disappoinment, it didn’t have the punch that the film had at all) . I was trying to think of a case of a really good book that has been made into a good movie, and I can’t think of one right off hand, can you?
WSB: Of who?
Student; Women in Love
WSB: Oh that was D.H.Lawrence. I didn’t see it
Student: Slaughterhouse-Five.. Slaughterhouse-Five was made into a pretty great movie.
WSB: What? what? what movie?
Student; Slaughterhouse Five
WSB: Oh, Slaughterhouse Five, yeah, was it a good movie or was it a…
Student: A good movie
WSB: A good movie. And the book? How about the book?
Student: Did you ever see (Reflections in a Golden Eye), a pretty obscure film
WSB: Good film, good film, and was a good book
Student: Yes, excellent film,
WSB; Well, I think, though, that they made a film of both (that and), The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, I know they made a film of that, the Carson McCullers (book) – It was not a bad film, but the best thing for me in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was the nightmare that this man had, that they didn’t mention in the film – It was a fair film. But, by and large, I can’t think of many good books that have been made into good films. I suppose it’s the… You’ve got a good book that Hollywood considers to be a classic, they can’t take the liberties with it that you have to take with a book in order to make it into a film.
Student: Like the comic books?
Student: Like the comic books?
WSB: Well, yeah. Those are.. You get something like comic books, those are written like film scripts. And, of course, this is getting to be more and more true, that (when) people write, they really are writing film-scripts. I mean, you take a book like Jaws, which, of course, is nothing very special but, it’s written as a film-script. Any competent film-script writer could turn that book into a film-script in a week. And that’s true of many, many books that are written now. You see, someone like (Scott) Fitzgerald, he had, obviously, no idea of a film when he wrote his book [The Great Gatsby]. It just doesn’t..it just doesn’t work as… And then you have books like Conrad, where you would really have to work to find a way of making them into a film. So, as I say, I can see An Outcast of the Islands, and I can see Under Western Eyes, as films, but not Lord Jim, not really.
See, a film. I mean, a very simple novel -you can’t use all of it in a film – I mean, even a novel as simple as Jaws, they leave out.. they had to leave out.. a lot of the sub-plots. In film, you have to be able to say in one sentence just what it’s about. And also, it has to be the-film-in which-this-and-that-happens (that’s why people go to see these films – this is the film with the mechanical shark, this is the film of the giant octopus, this is the film where the alien eats its way out of the guy’s stomach and jumps onto the table… Have you… how many of you have seen this Alien thing? (actually, I read the book and I said, right away, “that’s the.. that’s the thing there”, that’s the..yeah, “that’s what’s going to… they’re going to really do with the special effects” – and that’s what everyone says the film’s about – it’s about the alien that eats its way out of the guy’s stomach – Well that’s.. You have to simplify like that when you’re making a novel into a film . Of course, that was just written to be a film…
Well, any further questions? Yes?
Student: I was wondering about, in your own work, if you decided to do that filmscript of the Blade Runner, to sharpen your (writing)…
WSB: Well, that is written as a filmscript, but isn’t a filmscript at all. I mean, if you look.. I mean, it would have to be a hundred-million dollar spectacular. You would have to tear down New York.
Student: I happen to have read the original and so I didn’t know what the relationship was.
WSB: No, no, it really would(n’t)… It just is a form that I use there, but it really is not practical as a film at all, nor was it meant to be so.
Student: Did you write it to sharpen…
WSB: Er ..no, it’s just a form. Like, I did the same thing with The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, which really isn’t a filmscript. I mean it’s not a practical filmscript, nor is it meant to be.
Student: Is Junkie still going to be made into a movie?
WSB: Ah, well..I…I don’t know. A film project is never.. never dead until you are, really. It’s…We had some backing and then we lost the backing, and then there’s talk of more, but..and “..Dutch Schultz” was batted around for about five years.. So, I mean, I just don’t know. At present, it’s just more or less extant. There is still..
Student: Will they make Naked Lunch into a movie?
WSB: I doubt it very much. I don’t think of it as really being film material. I mean, it would have to be, as I say, very drastically simplified, you’d have to concentrate on one, one aspect. It’s.. and also it’s a book with a lot of talk in it (and, generally speaking, as far as film goes, the less talk, the better). I mean, people should not.. do not make long speeches in films.
Student: That’s what they say what’s wrong with Apocalypse Now.
Srudent: That’s what they say what’s wrong with Apocalypse Now.
WSB: Er.. Too much talk.. I’d like to see it, very much.. see what.. see what they did with that – the theme – But does it have…? – how many have seen it? – Did you see it? – uh-huh… yeah… I wonder if it had any actual reference, I mean, if there was anyone who could be identified as Mister Kurtz
Student: They used the manuscripts..
Student: It’s not about him, but they used the manuscripts.
WSB: Oh they did – uh-huh – And this was… but it was actually taking place in Vietnam at the present time?
Student: In one scene, (Marlon) Brando played Kurtz
WSB: Uh-huh, yeah, I’d sure like to see that.
Student: (He’s got a great screenplay, but, of course, it’s Hollywood and…..)
WSB: Hmm – Any (further questions)… Yeah.?
Student: (Did you think the Chicago Project (Columbia College) did a good job on their play (version) (dramatization) of Naked Lunch?)
WSB: Pretty good. Yes, I thought it was…creditable, not bad. Did you see it?
Student: Yeah..but I didn’t….
WSB: You didn’t feel it was successful?…
Student: (I don’t really want to fault it, but…)
WSB: Well I thought it was.. l.. I thought it was..it was.. Well, of course, it wasn’t strictly speaking, a real professional performance, but I thought it did a.. (creditable job) ( (it) was not bad.
to be continued tomorrow
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately seventy-six minutes in and concluding at approximately eighty-six-and-a-quarter minutes in]