Sometimes a fruitful writing life starts off in one direction and ends up moving down a different and much more fulfilling path. That’s exactly what happened to the screenwriting team behind a series of films that are considered classics today: The Long Hot Summer, Hud, and Norma Rae.
Irving Ravetch started out as a screenwriter of pot-boiler westerns, but he was stage struck and wanted to write plays. Though he almost made it to Broadway, he never caught fire as a playwright. But when he and his wife, Harriet Frank, who was a script polisher, joined forces, the sparks began to fly. Together, they set an ambitious goal: putting well-crafted, powerful tales on the screen that would move people emotionally.
They began, as so many successful screenwriters do, with a hard-hitting novel — The Hamlet, by William Faulkner. In their version, it morphed into The Long, Hot Summer starring a young Paul Newman. There wasn’t much of the novel in the film — the final cut was about “10 percent Faulkner,” according to Irving.
Interesting how a well-told story can be reinvented: Another novel, Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry morphed into Hud, in which a bit player in print became the main character in the film. The spine of the movie Norma Rae was the true story of a Southern mill worker captured in a biography about her.
“We have found, as screenwriters, we’ve often needed an outside story to get us started,” Irving once observed. “It sparks us. It sets us in motion. In the end, we may salvage only one character, perhaps, or a situation, or a few strong scenes — and on this we build a whole new drama.”
“Movies can’t correct human injustice all by themselves, but they can show it, they can touch you while showing it, and they can seed ideas and wake up dormant minds.” Surely, worthy goals whatever medium you’re writing in.