William Goldman died today (16 November 2018) at age 87.
Writers die, just like any other mortals, but it would be hard to think of a writer I respected and admired more than William Goldman.
Goldman was perhaps the best screenwriter who ever lived — certainly he’s in the top five. His scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and All the President’s Men are legendary — and next to Coppola’s script for The Godfather, The Princess Bride may be the most quoted screenplay of all time. (Based on the number of different quotes, not on the number of times Yoda gets quoted with the same There Is No Try line.)
At the age of 87, Goldman died with a script in development — The Monkey Wrench Gang, a good novel that would be wonderful as a movie, using Goldman’s skill at adaptation. I hope he was only tweaking an already-finished script, so that we can get this last sample of his work.
But strangely enough, it’s not for his movies that I admired him so much. His nonfiction work, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Stories, and, above all, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, were my education in the business of mounting plays and movies, and the relative roles of greed, talent, ego, malice, and luck in getting good and bad shows before an audience.
For me, however, Goldman owns a piece of my heart because of his novel Boys and Girls Together, a sort of fictional version of The Season, in which we follow many characters as they gradually come together in the production of a play. I especially remember the shock when the playwright character — the one that I, as a playwright, unsurprisingly identified with most — overhears the producer of the play talking with someone else in the theater seats during a rehearsal. One says to the other, referring to all the ideas about how to fix the play, which isn’t yet working right, “Wash garbage, it’s still garbage,” with the clear meaning that the play itself is trash, so nothing they do can make it good. A devastating realization for the playwright — both the revelation that people involved with the production think this way about his script, and the even more shocking realization that he agrees with their assessment.
I loved that novel, which I read while on my mission in Brazil — sheerest chance that this happened to be a book available, in English, in the Brazilian bookstore I shopped at. But while in Brazil, I had written Stone Tables, a play about Moses and Aaron, which Charles Whitman mounted as a production at BYU while I was still on my mission, with music by my friend and collaborator, Robert Stoddard. It was a hit at BYU, and its run was extended for two weeks, unheard of at the time, for an original LDS play. So just in case I was thinking I was All That — and I was, definitely, thinking that I had Arrived — I took Boys and Girls Together as an antidote. Everything depends on the script and therefore on the writer of the script; but that means that failure in the script is failure of everything about the show. And it’s possible for many people to think a script will make a good play … and then find out they’re all wrong.
Add to that the fact that the stories in Boys and Girls Together were wonderful, and I loved the characters, and you can understand why, from then on, I thought of Goldman as my teacher and mentor, though we never met and I never even wrote him a letter (except to request the nonexistent missing material from The Princess Bride, which was really a letter to the publisher).
His later novels sold WAY better, but alas, were not as good. Starting with Marathon Man, he wrote thrillers, each of which had a gimmick — a reveal that forced the reader to revise the meaning of all that had gone before. It’s actually a cheap trick, though sometimes he brought it off with such panache that it was ALMOST forgivable. In Marathon Man, it’s the revelation that the character Jane is a man — which means that the protagonist’s brother was gay. In Magic, it’s the revelation that the protagonist’s best friend and confidant is a ventriloquist’s dummy, so that in fact he’s more than slightly insane and has been talking to himself through the whole book. In Heat, it’s our first experience with seeing the protagonist have a winning night at the tables in Vegas, at which point we finally understand why he’s so broke — he can’t quit when he’s ahead.
The gimmicks worked great for Goldman, in terms of making a lot of money. And he still wrote powerful stories with clarity and zest. But the gimmicks became a game — spot the gimmick before Goldman reveals it! Which means they took my mind off the story. So I learned how counter-effective such devices are. (And no, I don’t think of that “wash garbage, it’s still garbage” moment as the equivalent of his reveals in later novels. It was integral to the story, and not a trick played on the reader by withholding information.)
Look, Goldman wasn’t a perfect writer. But he was a thoughtful, analytical one, and his books about the business of writing-for-performance were brilliant, insightful, and true. He was a critic of the critics, and taught me how the critical community functions. This freed me from taking critics any more seriously than their actual ideas warranted.
I wish I could say that by studying Goldman and his adaptations I was able to adapt my own Ender’s Game into a great screenplay. No. It still took me more than twenty drafts before I finally found the key to writing a screenplay that actually had Ender in it — a screenplay that worked for people who had not read the book. (This screenplay was never looked at by anyone at the studios producing the movie; they were fully committed to Gavin Hood’s script by then, even though it made all the mistakes that I had managed to avoid even in my earliest draft.) But my one good script will never be read by anyone beyond the close circle of friends who saw it at the time, except that I can use it as a calling card or portfolio entry, when looking for other screenwriting gigs. Only I have never looked for other screenwriting gigs. It’s an art that I finally understand, and do not wish to practice any further.
William Goldman was an ideal writer because the many hours he put into his work in fiction, screenplays, and critical/historical writing were all deliberate practice — he thought about his craft, he wrote about his craft, and in his work he showed what he had learned in everything he did. Goldman was a living master class in writing. The art of film and of playwriting and of novel-writing were better because he practiced them.
But I can’t say I miss him, because everything he wrote is still available for our perusal. In honor of his passing, I think I’ll reread all his nonfiction books (I’ve rewatched my favorites among his movies within the past three months, so …). I am dismayed to realize that only The Princess Bride — one of the finest and most complex yet entirely readable novels ever written — is available on Audible.com. But that’s all right. Goldman is worth reading on paper or Kindle, with my own brain doing the work of performing his scripts for an audience of one.
I only wish I could see Goldman’s adaptation of Flowers for Algernon. Surely it would have been better than the script they shot as Charly. And it’s the only real link between us, because when Charles Whitman directed Flowers for Algernon in the Pardoe Theatre at Brigham Young University, I was his assistant director and I asked for his permission to completely rewrite the awful second act. Mine was better, and it totally worked in performance. That’s when I realized that I was a good enough writer to consider that as a possible career. Goldman’s film script was “shelved,” as my own scripts for Ender’s Game were. Wouldn’t it be cool to see what he did, and whether he recognized the same problems I did, and whether his solutions resembled mine in any way?
But that’s a writer’s vanity — to want to compare myself with the earliest work of one of the titans. What matters right now is to recognize: This writer lived, and worked, and changed our world, however much one writer can change it. Good-bye, William Goldman, and thanks for all the truth.