22 September 2011 3 Comments


Whenever a novelist’s biography tells me that he’s “working on a screenplay,” my heart falls. I feel pity for the poor fellow who’s no doubt heading for disappointment (most scripts don’t get made) and for the novel, which exerts such a lesser lure than the glamour of the movies that a perfectly good novelist will put off his next book for a chance to write a film.

Having said that, don’t feel sorry for ME. Even though I’m working on a script.

My first novel THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM has been optioned by Michael Desante, a US actor and producer who was born in Bethlehem. As part of the deal, Michael asked me to write the script. I’m in between novels at the moment, so I’ve been busily converting from the page toward the silver screen.

It isn’t such a leap as one might think. Much of THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM is internal, rather than visual – because it’s the story of schoolteacher Omar Yussef’s psychological hesitation in becoming a detective. Yet it’s still a crime novel. And for a long time crime novels have been structured more or less like films.

Probably that’s the result of many crime novelists wanting the Hollywood cash, and therefore modeling their storytelling on films. But essentially it means that the way most of us are accustomed to having a story told is in highly visual, filmic terms.

Even in a fairly psychological/internal novel like THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM, I planned the book with the three act structure common to the movies these days. As Syd Field put it in his book “Screenplay,” a script is 120 minutes/pages long; by page 30 the main character needs to be faced with the dilemma which he’ll spend the next 60 pages investigating, and from page 90 on we’ll see the dilemma resolved.

That’s a useful way to think of any story, no matter in what medium it’s written. Because it gives you as a writer a spatial sense of where you are in the story. It allows you to visual the arc of your story in physical terms. That has been useful to me in all my novels.

Of course, there are some things movies require which aren’t necessary to a novel. For example, my hero Omar Yussef is in his late fifties and in rather poor health. In the movie, he’ll be at least 10 years younger. That requires some changes in his family structure – he can hardly have a 12 year old granddaughter, after all.

But I had already made some compromises in Omar’s age for my novel. He’s based on a friend of mine who was somewhat cagey about his real age, but was probably about 70 when I wrote the book. I made him young enough to still have a job and to get around a bit in the novel. The movie just needs him to be more sprightly still. After all, if there are to be action scenes, we can’t shoot them at the pace at which a 57-year-old diabetic with bad knees would carry them out.

Take the money and run, Hemingway said. Now, I say: Run? How fast?

3 Responses to “Screenplaying”

  1. Tom Mulrooney 22 September 2011 at 5:05 am #

    This is exciting news, Matt. I hope the film gets made and earns you pots of money! I remember speculating with you about what actor should play Omar; I pulled for Dustin Hoffman and still do. I hope you don’t make Omar too young and fit; his age and infirmity are part of his appeal.
    And then they have to cast his policeman friend. I’ll ponder that…

  2. Joseph D'Agostino 22 September 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Hemingway said “Take the money and run”? Sounds like bull to me.

  3. Matt Beynon Rees 23 September 2011 at 6:28 am #

    J D’A: If you’ve ever seen what Hollywood did with Papa’s novels, you’d know why he said it… And TFM: Khamis Zeydan, at least, is staying at a relatively advanced age!

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