Credit: Illustration by Adrian Johnson, hand-drawn type by Sarah J Coleman at Inkymole
Films and novels offer quite separate aesthetic experiences, yet the histories of these media have entwined them in a mutual love/hate embrace. Some typical titles of novels about the art and business of film – Contempt, The Disenchanted, I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I Should Have Stayed Home – say much about the rueful attitude literary writers traditionally hold towards the seventh art. Yet, as the 100 novels and short stories described on the following pages show, literary disdain for film’s processes is often tempered by a deep and abiding love and fascination for what ends up on the screen. The proof is in the amazing variety of these fictions that use film as a subject.
Our recommendations make a vivid, pleasurable read. You’ll find works by many major literary stars, including Martin Amis, Paul Auster, Elizabeth Bowen, Angela Carter, Raymond Chandler, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Christopher Isherwood, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Mansfield, Alberto Moravia, Toni Morrison, Luigi Pirandello, Caryl Phillips, Jean Rhys, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, John Updike, Gore Vidal, David Foster Wallace, P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.
As you might imagine, nearly half the titles are related in some way to Hollywood. If several are bitter cautionary tales by writers who themselves have written screenplays and been chewed up and spat out by the system, others are in awe of cinema’s ubiquity and success. Often, it’s not the end product that is soul- or life-destroying, it’s rather the economic and psychological trauma that making films inflicts, not only on writers, but on actors, technicians, stand-ins and extras too. Hollywood in its Golden Age, from the 20s to the 50s, is as much a gift to the send-up novel (Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, P.G. Wodehouse’s Laughing Gas) as it is to the moral put-down of its hedonism and ruthless box-office drive (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge).
The dismissive tone some writers adopt towards the creative ambitions of film people assumes that fiction writing is the superior artform – as if such a competition of forms was ever relevant or productive. This is just one stance in a saga of snobbery and counter-snobbery between the literary and the visual that feels dated in this era of media convergence and image saturation. It goes back to a time – which coincided with that Hollywood Golden Age – when novelists such as Thomas Wolfe were striving for an ornate prose style in imitation of Proust, while Hemingway was honing prose to a terse medium that has had more influence on screenwriting than it’s possible to calculate. In other words, it originates in literature’s own internal warfare. Similarly, a film producer’s lack of respect for a screenplay draft is often mixed with a reverence for novelists who’ve written hits, an attitude that’s a vestige of film’s historic struggle to achieve respectability and to be seen as not just an entertainment form.
None the less, high literary versus popular culture tensions continue to manifest each time a littérateur rubs up against the market imperatives of big-budget film. You can see it, for instance, whenever a British newspaper decides to make a novelist their star film critic. Underlying contempt for the immediacy and effects of films soon mars their reviews and with one or two exceptions, they don’t last long in the job.
The discontent of prose fiction writers with their treatment at the hands of film people is rooted not only in the humiliations of being told to do endless rewrites before being arbitrarily replaced, or being asked to take notes from financiers; there is also the common and jarring experience of seeing your novel adapted for the screen beyond recognition. Yet the hard fact is that money for screen rights helps make the precarious business of novel-writing a feasible activity – if feasible it still is. What writers of literary fiction can justifiably claim – at least until very recently – is that it is they who come up with the stories for so many films. Before the superhero and fantasy franchises came to dominate Hollywood production schedules, titles in the film box-office charts tended to echo those in the book charts of two or three years earlier. Now it’s the writers and graphic artists who created the best superhero graphic novels who are being mined for subject matter. The original screenplay, it seems, remains too tough a bet at the box office.
I found maybe 20-odd of these books on my own shelves, though I can’t claim to have read more than a dozen. Whatever was holding me back, my appetite has now been whetted by so many more described here. Alongside the Hollywood-set thrillers, sagas and melodramas there are many others set in France, Germany and Italy. British cinema is particularly well-served (The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, Farewell Leicester Square, Robinson, Their Finest Hour and a Half, Poor Caroline, Prater Violet).
The return to prominence and popularity of film from the silent era is echoed in many titles (The Book of Illusions, Camera!, A Cinema Girl’s Romance, Shoot!). Several focus on a particular movie star, whether real or fictional (Alain Delon est une star au Japon, Blonde, Fear in the Sunlight, Running Time). There are tales that luxuriate in the kitsch of rich lifestyles (Lady Boss, Valley of the Dolls) and others that tell of the effect of movie-going on everyday people (The Bluest Eye, Les Fanas du ciné, Voyage in the Dark). Perhaps most intriguing of all are the novels that use cinema for more tangential or experimental approaches to fiction (Tanguy Viel’s Cinéma, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden).
We thought when we started to explore this idea that we would reach 50 titles if we were lucky, but it was no struggle at all to find ourselves in three figures. That’s why some entries mention other novels by the same author or in the same category – to give us a better chance of covering all the important works. Writing about filmmaking can take on more forms than this magazine has yet to conceive, even if description of what’s on screen is common to nearly all of them. But it is clear, looking at the contemporary novel, with its multiple viewpoints, rapid cutting and fractured time schemes, that just as films cannot do without novelists, novelists cannot evade the influence of films.
— Nick James
1. ‘The Abundant Dreamer’
Harold Brodkey, 1963
This self-consciously ‘brilliant’ short story, first published in the New Yorker, concerns Marcus Weill, an American Jewish film director who’s made his career in Europe making art films with built-in auto-critique and is in the midst of shooting an opulent love story in Rome when he learns that ‘Nanna’, the rich grandmother who largely raised him, has died. From there on in, the narrative crosscuts between Weill moving around sets in the city and the reverie of images from his adolescence that keeps intruding on his consciousness.
Brodkey was notorious for getting advances from at least five publishers for a patiently awaited epic novel A Party of Animals that appeared in a much-reduced form (albeit at 800-plus pages) in 1991 as The Runaway Soul. Here he evinces a profound understanding of how films and directors work, in prose that yawns as it stretches to show you how expansive his sensual imagination can be, but then coughs up the odd stilted clunker. But much of it is sharp. “People go to movies to spy on a face,” Marcus says in interviews. “If a movie gallops, only children are amused.”
— Nick James
2. The Accidental
Ali Smith, 2005
Cinema and surveillance are the crystalline meeting point of the personal and political in Ali Smith’s shimmering summer state-of-the-nation novel. It opens: “My mother began me one evening in 1968 on a table in the café of the town’s only cinema… On the screen above them the film was Poor Cow, with Terence Stamp.” Stamp was an actor of “such numinousness” that it seems The Accidental’s mysterious central character – “Alhambra, named for the place of my conception” – may actually be a child of the silver screen.
Embodying the cinematic trope of the disruptive yet seductive guest (the debt to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 Theorem is clear), she enters the lives of Astrid (“two vowels short of an asteroid”), her brother and her parents, arriving as Astrid is taping dawns on her Mini DV camera. Alhambra, aka Amber (“an exotic fixative… Amber gave dead gone things a chance to live forever”), punctuates the family’s hallucinatory accounts of her appearance in their lives with swift histories of cinema – “I am born just short of a century after the birth of a Frenchman whose name translates as Mr Light” – and its delirious impact on our culture and sense of self. “Careful,” concludes Alhambra after she has shattered and remade the family. “I’m everything you’ve ever dreamed.”
— So Mayer
3. ‘An Affair, Edited’
Mary Gaitskill, 1988
There are few writers who cut as sharply, as deeply, into the psychosexual currents of human relationships as Mary Gaitskill. The crisp prose of ‘An Affair, Edited’, from her collection Bad Behaviour, follows Joel, a twentysomething employee at a foreign film distributor in New York City (“a prestigious place to work”), as he recollects a university liaison with a girl named Sara after seeing her again, and ignoring her, on the street. If you are a woman who belongs to the world of cinema, you’ve met Joel: he considers himself a good, enlightened guy with impeccable taste (“He had written articles in the student paper on labour unions. He had brought Andy Warhol to Cinema I”), but he is casually patronising and often betrays a lurking misogyny. He is certain he deserves to be more successful than he is. Gaitskill’s short story is thrilling not only for its vibrant recognisability, but for shrewdly aligning the reader with Joel’s perspective while making it unmistakably clear that the story’s emotional and political affinities lie elsewhere, with supporting female characters who would surely have very different, perhaps more interesting, tales to tell.
— Erika Balsom
4. An Arab Melancholia
Abdellah Taïa, 2008
In his essay for Life as We Show It: Writing on Film (2009), Abdellah Taïa vividly remembers his teenage self watching Cyril Collard’s queerly erotic Savage Nights (Les Nuits fauves, 1992) with the volume low in his living room in Morocco, as his mother dozes behind him. Abdellah, the protagonist of his fourth book, An Arab Melancholia (translated into English by FrankStock), is the queer boy who European cinema made, a celluloid golem roving as desiring flesh. He and his first adult lover Slimane slow-dance to Isabelle Adjani’s ‘Pull marine’ (‘Navy Blue Sweater’) in Paris, then Abdellah – who is an aspiring filmmaker – goes to see Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves alone. Returning to Morocco, he finds work on a film set and falls passionately for his Spanish co-worker Javier, the embodiment of his dreams of world cinema – but Javier only wants sex, not love. The book ends with Abdellah in Cairo, pursuing the dead-yetdeathless Egyptian film star Soad Hosny, or the promise of a queer cinema of his own – one that Taïa achieved in 2013 (the year after the English translation of An Arab Melancholia appeared) when his adaptation of his third book, Salvation Army, premiered at Venice.
— So Mayer
5. Alain Delon est une star au Japon
Benjamin Berton, 2009
Benjamin Berton was born in 1974, when Alain Delon was a massively popular star. Later, he discovered his films on television, leading him to write this wonderful comic fantasy-thriller in which a Japanese couple kidnap Delon one morning in Paris because the young man thinks he is the star’s son. Beyond the amusing ups and downs of the story, the book is an irreverent deconstruction of the star’s myth. The ageing actor is both imbued with his own stardom (including, as the title suggests, in Japan) and acutely aware of time passing: his younger child falls asleep in the first five minutes of Le Cercle rouge (1970). Through comic exaggeration, the book offers a perceptive analysis of celebrity, making the star reflect that “for decades, after breakfast he had been getting into his own skin, that of his legend and caricature, existing only for others”.
— Ginette Vincendeau
6. Attaques sur le chemin, le soir, dans la neige
Alban Lefranc, 2005
Lefranc’s bio-fiction novella (‘Attacks on the Path, at Night, in the Snow’) opens with Rainer Werner Fassbinder at work on his contribution to the omnibus project Germany in Autumn (1978): sat at a table with his mother, he discusses the events of the last few months in West Germany – the armed insurrection of a tiny minority from the extreme left against the quiet consensus of too many others from the centre to the extreme right; and the fact that the federal state seems to be following a kill-on-sight policy. But most of the narrative deals with the making of Fassbinder’s epic television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and an (entirely fictional) unproduced project on Muhammad Ali. An off-kilter mix of facts/documents and reveries, written in a French at once rude (in the outbursts of anger) and thoughtfully tender (in its portrayal of the genius’s fragile soul), it’s a fantasy of a younger generation about their elders’ reasons, as well as a French author’s attempt to make sense of a people so close but so far away.
— Olaf Möller
7. In the Beauty of the Lilies
John Updike, 1996
It’s a little surprising that the work of John Updike has been so slenderly represented in screen adaptations – not only because of his standing as one of the greatest of Great American Novelists, but because he was himself so fascinated by cinema. The fluidity of cinematic storytelling inspired his prose; his characters frequently think and converse about films; and in his 17th novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, the movie business becomes a metaphor for 20th-century American life. This weighty family saga, rich in the acute sensory and emotional detail at which Updike excels, opens in 1910: on a summer afternoon, Mary Pickford faints while shooting on location in New Jersey; at the same time, a few miles away, clergyman Clarence Wilmot loses his faith in God, going on to replace it with an intense investment in the burgeoning world of film. Clarence’s bloodline goes on to produce its own secular saint, film star Alma DeMott, who becomes a household name only to see cinema’s predominance shaken by the new phenomenon of television.
— Hannah McGill
8. Blue Movie
Terry Southern, 1970
Stanley Kubrick makes a porno – that’s essentially the plot of Terry Southern’s riotously scabrous novel. As you’d expect from the co-author of the notorious pornographic novel Candy (1958), no holds are barred: buggery, incest, necrophilia and a host of other sexual permutations crowd the pages, all described in gleefully obscene detail. Southern had spent nearly a decade in Hollywood, ever since Kubrick invited him to collaborate on the screenplay of Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Blue Movie is his revenge on the monstrous treacheries, pretensions, rampant lechery and overwhelming greed of Tinseltown. (The Roman Catholic church comes in for a few side-swipes, too.) Along with Kubrick, lightly disguised as the great director Boris Adrian (known as ‘King B.’), numerous other movie-world personalities show up under easily penetrated aliases. Subtle it’s not – Adrian’s crude producer is named Sid Krassman – but it is bitingly funny. Pauline Kael described it as “the best Hollywood novel in a long time” and her judgement still stands.
— Philip Kemp
9. The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison, 1970
Toni Morrison’s first novel unravels the tragedy of young Pecola Breedlove, a dark-skinned black girl living in post-Depression era Ohio, where she is regularly reminded by young and old, white and black alike, that she is “ugly”. For many of the novel’s black female characters, cinema makes for a seductive, ultimately treacherous apparatus of white supremacy. Pecola’s mother styles her hair in the fashion of Jean Harlow and becomes so obsessed with the movies – here synonymous with whiteness – that she neglects her own children. Pecola inherits the same twisted love of beauty and cinematic glamour, embodied by Shirley Temple, and thus becomes desperate for blue eyes, convinced that not only will they make her beautiful, but that the world around her will become beautiful too once she can see it through them. The book is a heartbreaking portrait of the darker side of cinema from the perspective of spectators.
— Kelli Weston
Joyce Carol Oates, 2000
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Oates’s novel – more than 700 pages long reads like one of the more salacious of the 300-plus Marilyn Monroe biographies that have been published. It has a disclaimer asserting that it “should be read solely as a work of fiction”, but it is all so utterly believable, and so close to Monroe’s life story, that it is difficult to pitch how to receive the content. With intimate details of sexual assaults, menstruation and abortion, as well as barelyveiled characterisations of industry players such as Darryl Zanuck (‘Mr Z’) and John Huston (‘H’), and husbands Joe DiMaggio, ‘the Ex-Athlete’, and Arthur Miller, ‘the Playwright’, the book presents the rise and fall of cinema’s most legendary blonde in an industry in which she constantly struggled to be taken seriously. Oates’s protagonist distinguishes between Norma Jean and ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in her relationships and in how she thinks about herself, and the book’s overriding message is that Monroe was “a lost little girl in a whore costume”.
— Lucy Bolton
11. The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster, 2002
“I happened to see a clip from one of his old films on television, and it made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June.”
Paul Auster’s intensely beloved novel The Book of Illusions captures the particularly morbid fascination that silent cinema can exert on the viewer. In this evocative and metaphysical piece, styled as a “book of fragments, a compilation of sorrows and half-remembered dreams”, bereaved college professor David Zimmer (his wife and children died in an accident) becomes a passionate advocate for a silent comedian, Hector Mann. His enthusiasm for the comic produces a perceptive biography but one that verges on the obsessional, a solace for his sorrow. Mann was a ‘Mr Nobody’, born Chaim Mandelbaum, who disappeared from his Hollywood home in mysterious circumstances in 1929 after making a string of promising two-reel comedies. But Mann may prove to be more than a flicker on a screen, when his widow extends an invitation to Zimmer to come to New Mexico to meet him, reclusive and desperate to talk to the academic who has so much insight into his work. For all its intellectual sophistication, Auster’s novel is treasured most of all for its haunting evocation of lost people, missed potential and forgotten stories – themes that reverberate in any study of the early film era.
— Pamela Hutchinson
12. Boy Wonder
James Robert Baker, 1988
This explicitly sets out to be a The Last Tycoon or a What Makes Sammy Run? for the 1980s. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg, Baker zeroes in on a monstrous yet human figure who characterises the industry in which they rise and if he plays up grotesque farce, that’s apt for the cocaine-fuelled, MTV-ADHD movie world of its era. Simpson-Bruckheimer-Spielberg-Lucas movie brat-turned-Tinseltown superpower Shark Trager makes blockbuster after blockbuster, culminating in the hideously convincing big-budget splatterfest disaster Red Surf, based on the crimes of a boyhood friend serial killer, who is employed as a technical adviser. The novel is presented as a mosaic biography – Rudolph Grey’s 1992 Ed Wood bio Nightmare of Ecstasy echoes its technique – as dozens of characters offer contradictory versions of key events, each not quite understanding the protagonist as they collectively paint a horrifying, tragic portrait. The spine of the novel, which is otherwise an assemblage of first-rate cruel jokes and parodies, is Trager’s Gatsby-like hang-up on California heiress Kathy Petro, whom he pursues from high school struggles to industry super-success.
— Kim Newman
Joan Morgan, 1940
Camera! is a clear-sighted, wistful look back on the British silent film industry by someone who had really been there. Fay Howie, the purehearted child star who grows up, is modelled on Morgan herself, spotted for her first role at the tender age of eight. Howie is one of three women at the centre of the novel, along with Rosemary Shaw, Britain’s top actress, and sultry Latvian exile Marija Ringold. Like other writers who cast their eye on the industry, Morgan acknowledges its seductive lure but also its cruel indifference as careers rise and fall. The novel is full of redolently authentic detail, from descriptions of fog-drenched bus journeys to the studio, to evocations of the buzz and excitement of the studio floor, with lights so powerful that, even hours later, they would “keep you awake as soon as you closed your eyes”.
— Nathalie Morris
14. The China Lover
Ian Buruma, 2008
This inventive novelised treatment of one of Asian cinema’s most fascinating characters, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, begins with her birth in China to Japanese parents in 1920 and follows her launch to stardom at the age of 16 by the Man’ei film company, established by the Japanese in the puppet state of Manchukuo during the 1930s. She was renamed Li Xiang Lan (pronounced Ri Ko-ran in Japanese) and promoted as a genuine Chinese star sympathetic to Imperial Japan; this was enough to see her sentenced to death for treason by the Chinese government at the end of the war, a fate she narrowly avoided.
In the 1950s she made a brief transition to Hollywood as Shirley Yamaguchi – she had a starring role in Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) – before a more active political career beckoned. Buruma’s expansive exploration of the centrality of the moving image to 20th-century geopolitics frames his subject through the eyes of numerous fictional characters based on real-life figures, including an American Japanese film scholar living in post-war Tokyo and a producer of erotic pink films who gets involved in Middle Eastern politics.
— Jasper Sharp
15. El cine de los sábados
Terenci Moix, 1994
There can’t be many novelists whose work references cinema as heavily as the Spanish writer Terenci Moix, and never more so than in El cine de los sábados (‘Saturday’s Cinema’), the first in a trilogy in which autobiography and fantasy become inextricably entangled. It’s an immersive, sensory experience, in which 14-year-old non-conformist Moix comes to terms with his homosexuality through watching double-bills in the cinemas of the working-class red-light district of Barcelona where he grew up; here, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and his beloved Bette Davis become celluloid matriarchs, equivalent to the real-life matriarchs who brought him up. El cine de los sábados is a precisely observed, Fellini-esque portrait of the post-Civil War generation; it scrutinises, with brutal honesty but also warmth and humour, the cultural perversities and intellectual famine of life under Franco during the 1950s and 60s, when a window into other worlds through culture, and cinema in particular, was so desperately sought by many a Spaniard.
— Mar Diestro-Dópido
Tanguy Viel, 1999
One of the latterday stars of the publishing house Editions de Minuit – once home to the nouveau roman school, writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras – Tanguy Viel has lately become known for spare novels that take film noir scenarios and drain them of conventional thriller affect. The earlier Cinéma is less novella than philosophical text, a sort of analytical synopsis of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 film Sleuth, delivered by a narrator who has rewatched it obsessively. Cinéma could be read as a psychological study of morbid cinephilia or, more convincingly, as a parable of the reading process. Perversely, what’s almost entirely absent is cinema itself, with little allusion to elements of cinematic language, and no reference whatsoever to the film’s source, Anthony Shaffer’s supremely self-referential stage play. Even more perversely, Viel reveals Sleuth’s notorious twist early on; you could call Cinéma an exploration of the spoiler considered as an artform.
— Jonathan Romney
17. A Cinema Girl’s Romance
Ladbroke Black, 1914
First serialised in the Daily Sketch newspaper in 1914, this behind-the-scenes melodrama is possibly the earliest British novel about the cinema. While it is doubtful whether the author, a prolific journalist and fiction writer, had any first-hand experience of the studio, the story says a lot about popular attitudes towards film at the time. The heroine, Hazel, is a society débutante suddenly thrust on to the job market. She chooses a career in film because it is supposedly less risky for women, financially and morally, than a life on the stage. Oddly (although in line with much of the advice given in early ‘how-to’ guides to screen acting), her job turns out to be very dangerous indeed, involving daredevil stunts of the kind associated with American ‘serial queens’. A film version, directed by George Pearson, was released in 1915.
— Chris O’Rourke
Alberto Moravia, 1954
Moravia’s Contempt (Il disprezzo) explores a wife’s contempt for her husband and expresses a novelist’s contempt for the cinema. Its hero, Molteni, is a reluctant screenwriter – a vocation which he considers “hopelessly subordinate and obscure”, but which he allows to displace his “more exalted literary ambitions” in order to support his wife. She, however, suspects that her husband has implicitly offered her to a film producer, Battista, to secure a scriptwriting opportunity. The suspicion propels the disintegration of their marriage. Contempt was published in 1954, as the esteemed Italian neorealist cinema tradition yielded to what the critic Sandro Zambetti dismissed as “flat composite films put together for a fast profit”. Battista incarnates this commercialism, which he conceals beneath an idealistic veneer, dismissing neorealism as “depressing, pessimistic, gloomy” and “unhealthy”. Molteni, who knows that Battista’s real, though unacknowledged, objection is that neorealism is unprofitable, sets to work on a crudely commercialised film adaptation of The Odyssey. A screenwriter, Molteni insists, “can never say ‘In this film I expressed myself… This film is me’”; that is the director’s privilege. Such auteurist sentiments doubtless appealed to Jean-Luc Godard, who filmed the novel in 1963, changing a critique of cinema into a qualified celebration. In the novel, the director Rheingold is a German veteran “not in the same class as the Pabsts and Langs”. Godard cast the elderly Fritz Lang himself, and the final scene, as Lang directs his Odyssey against a dazzling seascape, seems a respectful tribute to a director who created art in a commercial medium against the odds.
— Alexander Jacoby
19. Dancing in the Dark
Caryl Phillips, 2005
In this deeply poignant novelised tribute to the ‘Two Real Coons’, George Walker and Bert Williams, the cinema only makes a very brief appearance. But those three pages are disproportionately telling. The first African-American stars in late 19th-century American vaudeville, Walker and Williams played black comedy stereotypes, with light-skinned Williams in blackface. Many in the African-American community, and Walker himself, believed that the new century would open a new era for black performers. But Williams could never leave the carefully crafted persona that also filled him with confusion and sadness – except once, in 1914, when he appeared without his burnt-cork mask in a short film. But “outbursts of resentment” from white audiences forced him to return to stereotype and he soon gave up the cinema. The episode prefigures the cinema’s promise to, and betrayal of, African-American performers and audiences: intractable racism defeated any hopes invested in this new mechanism of the modern.
— Laura Mulvey
20. The Dark Masters trilogy
Whitstable (2013), Leytonstone (2015), Netherwood (2018)
Stephen Volk’s script for the BBC’s ‘live’ poltergeist investigation Ghostwatch (1992) memorably blurred the edges between fact and fiction. He explores those shady borderlands again in these elegant novellas speculating about the lives of two of cinema’s most iconic figures, compellingly and convincingly evoked with an astute sense of time, place and psychology. Whitstable is set in 1971, when Peter Cushing, still devastated by the death of his wife, finds himself faced by a real-life monster as evil as any of the vampires confronted by Dr Van Helsing, whom he portrayed so often on screen. In Leytonstone, set in 1906, a greengrocer takes his sevenyear-old son on a visit to the local police station, only for young Alfred Hitchcock to find himself locked in a cell, with traumatic results that will scar the psyches of not just young Fred, but ultimately entire generations of cinema audiences. Netherwood, the final novella in the trilogy – about the occultist Aleister Crowley and novelist Dennis Wheatley, with guest appearances from Hitchcock, Hammer and Christopher Lee – will appear later this year.
— Anne Billson
21. The Day of the Locust
Nathanael West, 1939
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Nathanael West’s extraordinary novel dives into the fractured dream offered up by Depression-era Hollywood (and, in many respects, America itself), one that twists people into a mad delirium, or hardens them with contempt or a deep-seated death wish – people who, as West wrote, “have come to California to die”.
It follows a painfully awkward, repressed Midwesterner, Homer Simpson, who comes to Los Angeles for his health rather than the movies, but winds up with beautiful Faye, a 17-year-old aspiring actress with no discernible talent (she claims if she doesn’t make it she’ll kill herself). Tod Hackett, a Yale-educated Hollywood set painter, befriends and observes Faye (whom he lusts after to the point of masochism and angry, disturbed rape fantasies) and poor Homer, as well as getting to know vaudevillians, dwarfs, cowboys and cockfighters – the edges of Hollywood. Expressed with powerful pathos, dark humour and grotesquerie, the prose is as painterly as the Bosch-like hellscape Tod discusses (‘The Burning of Los Angeles’) but never actually paints. That prophetic painting instead comes to life in the novel’s famous, surreal finale. A terrifying and weirdly beautiful masterpiece, West’s work blends art, tackiness and desperation, like the absurd houses Tod describes beyond the end of Vine St, if you venture up a Los Angeles canyon: “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”
— Kim Morgan
22. ‘Dead Mabelle’
Elizabeth Bowen, 1929
There are many office clerks in British interwar fiction: a dreary mass trudging back and forth across the unreal city, between bedsit and bank, daydreaming of better things. William Stickford, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1929 story ‘Dead Mabelle’ is one of them. The days of this “solitary, self-educated, self-suspicious” man go by “distractedly” until he goes to the cinema for the first time. Here he encounters the silent star Mabelle Pacey, who induces in him “an angry, disordered feeling, as though she were a rising flood and his mind bulrushes”. Soon he is making furtive trips to cinemas in “the remoter suburbs” to see her. Fascinated by the underlying, unspoken spookiness of modern life, Bowen lingers on the illusory magic and sensory peculiarities of film, as experienced by early filmgoers. There’s the embrace of the faces in the “black-and-white world of abstractions”, the bird-like “flutter and clicking” of the projector. How to reconcile real life with this? “In the gaslight it looked rather shabby,” Stickford realises. When Mabelle dies – we never find out how, just that the gory details are splashed all over the papers – she becomes at once more real and unreal to him than before.
— Anna Coatman
23. The Deer Park
Norman Mailer, 1955
Mailer, one of a handful of major novelists who have also directed movies, spent a little time in Hollywood following his early literary success but was sufficiently robust to resist its lure, finding instead the subject for his third novel, set in Desert D’Or, a Palm Springs-like resort where the Hollywood elite go to get their kicks. Ex-air force pilot Sergius O’Shaughnessy falls into this scene and befriends a brilliant but unemployed director, Charles Eitel, who used to pal around with communists but now refuses to name names to a House committee. Studio chief Herman Teppis will give Eitel another shot – to turn out some commercialised “crud” – so long as Eitel will testify before Congress. The Deer Park is named after the notorious harem of Louis XV, and Mailer evidently regards Hollywood likewise as “a gorge of innocence and virtue”. Summoning the courage to renounce Satan is a great Mailer theme, and it’s the test he sets here for both Sergius and Eitel. The novel is hampered a little by some problems with point-of-view, but Mailer’s vision of Hollywood – its vacuous chatter and cold, venal calculation – is consummately clear-eyed and caustic.
— Richard T. Kelly
24. The Director’s Cut
Nicholas Royle, 2000
Royle’s murder mystery is set in a cinephile’s London – one deeply indebted to the films and especially the buildings in which they are/ were projected – that is fading faster than an old Eastmancolor print. Four young ‘buffs’, who of course are male and ‘frame’ rather than ‘look’ at women, seize the opportunity to shoot a film when a dying projectionist offers his last hours up for the camera. Years later, his body is discovered, wrapped in a 16mm print of Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, and a mystery has to be solved. Royle’s narrative structure plays back and forth with time (foreshadowing The Girl on the Train with its precisely dated chapters) and builds to a cross-cut climax set in a pre-Westfield Shepherd’s Bush. Perhaps most intriguing is the background story of the deadly clash between two eccentric filmmakers, rigorous old-school experimentalists who put Peter Greenaway to shame and who are both called Fraser Munro. A film adaptation of the novel never happened, but Royle took his surviving characters into a sequel, Antwerp, which takes Belgian surrealism as its theme.
— David Thompson
25. The Disenchanted
Budd Schulberg, 1950
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Back in the mid-1980s, Budd Schulberg’s 1941 debut novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, found a new audience. Much to the veteran screenwriter’s chagrin, this hardboiled tale of a Jewish Gatsby’s Hollywood ascent was adopted as a yuppie success manual, its shitheel protagonist, Sammy Glick, their amoral role-model. Schulberg’s second Hollywood morality tale, The Disenchanted, is nobody’s self-help book. Based on a disastrous 1939 screenwriting collaboration between the young Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Disenchanted tracks the slow decline of booze-ravaged Jazz Age relic Manley Halliday, enlisted to beef up the dialogue on a throwaway college musical, Love on Ice, by Schulberg alter ego Shep Stearns. As a writer, Schulberg is a middle-rank welterweight – tough, rhythmic, sinewy – but he expertly contrasts Shep’s gauche left-wing earnestness with Halliday’s doomed ghostly grace. Yet it’s in Halliday’s interior monologues that The Disenchanted truly astonishes, as Nembutal, champagne and insulin transform Halliday’s “stopover on the way back to positive work” into a delirious Hollwood purgatory, that, at its dreamlike, desolate best, recalls the swirling tequila death notes of the consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947).
— Andrew Male
26. Eve’s Hollywood
Eve Babitz, 1974
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
It’s all there in that apostrophe. Yes, this is Eve’s Hollywood. But, also, Eve is Hollywood. Babitz was born and raised there in the 1950s by an artist mother and a father who played first violin in the 20th Century-Fox orchestra. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather; family friends included Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Bertrand Russell. As a teenager she hung out with the LA art gang and the West Coast rock scene, designing album covers for Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, dating Jim Morrison and Harrison Ford and, in the 1970s, writing it all down in aphoristic Fitzgeraldian soliloquies of vivid euphoric bliss. This, her debut, a barely disguised memoir of her teenage years, is an elated love letter to a Hollywood “where 1 per cent work and 99 per cent live half lives of expectation”, seductive atomised snapshots of gossipy backlots, parties with Tony Curtis (“He has a kind of smug energy which is still endearing”), female friendships and doomed romances that radiate those twin elusive qualities in literature, music and light – “moments of such unrelated importance,” to quote Babitz, “that time ripples away like a frame of water. Without those moments, your own heaven party can die of thirst.”
— Andrew Male
27. The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
Cameron McCabe, 1937
Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor – the mysterious author’s first and last novel – isn’t so much a box of tricks as several boxes inside one another. Actor Estella Lamare is discovered dead on a film studio cutting-room floor, apparently murdered; her death has been filmed but someone has stolen the incriminating reel. The novel both reconstructs and deconstructs the crime, a dazzling display of metafiction decades before the term was coined. It is also a time capsule of 1930s film lore, a catalogue of inkies, dollies, clappers and winders. ‘Cameron McCabe’ was the pseudonym of 22-year-old Ernest Bornemann, a communist refugee from Nazi Germany, who would go on to collaborate with filmmakers such as John Grierson and Orson Welles and enjoy a long career as, variously, novelist, jazz musician, historian and sexologist. But there would only ever be one Cameron McCabe; the trick was both dazzling and unrepeatable.
— Andy Miller
28. Les Fanas du ciné
Camille Lemercier, 1977
Camille Lemercier’s autobiographical novel Les Fanas du ciné (‘Film fans’), affords a rare glimpse of cinema-going in late 1930s France, focusing on a relatively – impoverished bourgeois family from the 16th arrondissement in Paris. Lemercier’s witty narrative details her adolescent life, struggling with school essays, squabbling with her brother and sister, and helping her widowed mother. The highlight, however, is the cinema: regular family outings to the Royal Passy or Ranelagh on Wednesday and Saturday nights and occasional excursions to the Champs-Elysées to see Hollywood releases, such as Three Smart Girls (1936) with Deanna Durbin. Family, friends and neighbours enthusiastically debated the relative merits of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) versus the latest French comedy, like Vacances payées (1938; about paid holidays in a couture house), with a preference for the latter. While tinted with nostalgia, the book bears witness to a time when the cinema reigned over popular culture, across social classes.
— Ginette Vincendeau
29. Farewell Leicester Square
Betty Miller, 1941
Completed in 1935, Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square was not published until 1941, having been rejected by her regular publisher for being too controversial in its depiction of the Anglo-Jewish experience in 1930s Britain. The novel opens with the glitzy premiere of protagonist Alec Berman’s new film but soon flashes back (the novel is rich in literary cinematic technique) to his beginnings as a working-class Jewish boy in Brighton, determined to build a career in the movies. In some respects, Alec appears to be modelled on Alexander Korda, the hugely successful Hungarian-Jewish mogul who transformed the British industry in the 30s, but it’s hard to imagine the charismatic and cosmopolitan Korda being beset by the same sense of alienation and self-loathing that come to dominate Alec’s life and relationship to British society, and which drive the narrative of Miller’s novel.
— Nathalie Morris
30. Fear in the Sunlight
Nicola Upson, 2012
Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey novels reimagine the notoriously private real-life author of detective fiction as a closet lesbian and detective in her own right, whose work draws inspiration from the murders she finds herself embroiled in. The fourth book in the series, Fear in the Sunlight, follows Tey to the Welsh village of Portmeirion in the summer of 1936, to negotiate a fee for the rights to her novel A Shilling for Candles with no less than the great Alfred Hitchcock (who really did adapt the novel that year, as Young and Innocent) and his wife Alma, who are throwing a party. Among the guests gathering for cocktails are trusted crew members and actors he is interested in – one of whom is soon discovered slashed to death in the cemetery. Upson excels at conjuring an atmosphere of gathering suspense, but the novel’s tour de force is its evocation of the Hitchcocks – his sinister genius, her quiet pragmatism. A page turner with a twist to match the master’s finest, it’s also a rather beautiful love story between a highly strung genius and the woman who is, in his words, “the only person who knows me”.
— Catherine Wheatley
31. The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner, 2013
Kushner’s book is feminist film criticism in novel form. A Nevada woman, nicknamed ‘Reno’, moves to New York in the 1970s, where she finds work as a ‘China Girl’ – a white girl barely glimpsed in a film’s leader (a length of film at the start of a reel) to help calibrate skin tones. Reno dates an older and more famous artist named Sandro. They see movies, like Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), that become part of their relationship, running gags. Reno also watches and describes Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), but never names it. The feminism in this book is the kind that isn’t named.
In Italy, Sandro is asked if his abstract images indicate he’s more of a “leg man” or an “ass man”, and Reno watches him take in the moment with glee as a story he’ll tell in the future. Men tell stories and women live. “I had been listening to men talk since I arrived in New York City. That’s what men liked to do. Talk. Profess like experts.” In Rome, Reno watches two men take video of a pregnant homeless girl (suggesting the 1975 documentary Anna) while exploiting her. Reno watches on and then loses her camera, crushed in a crowd.
— Miriam Bale
Theodore Roszak, 1991
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Among the first novels about film to delve into the arcane mysteries of the medium itself rather than simply poke writerly fun at the crass buffoons who make (and watch) movies, Roszak’s labyrinthine modern gothic novel explores the notion that the moving image itself is deeply embedded in the darkest, worst parts of human history and that ‘Hollywood’ is merely the culmination of a centuries-old occult conspiracy. Film fan and critic Jonathan Gates, the narrator, has a lifelong obsession with Max Castle (think Edgar G. Ulmer), a German expressionist filmmaker (Judas Jedermann) who came to Hollywood in the 1930s, made horror films (‘Zombie Doctor’), and disappeared. Gates’s investigations of the Castle mystery weave together established cinematic history, like Orson Welles’s abandoned film version of Heart of Darkness, and a perhaps invented shadow of the medium. Meanwhile, albino movie brat Simon Dunkle (think David Lynch), auteur of ‘American Fast Food Massacre’ and ‘Sub Sub’, seems to be recreating the most dangerous elements of Castle’s style, and the novel proposes, playfully, yet with a great deal of persuasive detail, that the movies may be eating culture alive.
— Kim Newman
Charles Bukowski, 1989
Lifelong resident of Los Angeles Charles Bukowski was the poet laureate of the alcoholic, whose Hollywood was characterised by blue-collar jobs and dimly lit drinking dens rather than the so-called bright lights of the film industry. But his fifth novel tells how these worlds collided with an autobiographical script for the feature film Barfly (1987), directed by Barbet Schroeder. Narrated by Bukowski’s alter-ego Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski in typically deadpan prose, the story details the maddening stop-start production process of the movie, dubbed ‘The Dance of Jim Beam’, as the reader tries to figure out the true-life identities of its thinly disguised cast of filmmaking folk. “Listen,” rails the writer against his leading actor (Mickey Rourke), “he’s got to stop smiling all the time when he doesn’t know what else to do. And he’s got to stop beating refrigerators with his fists.” Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway – called ‘Francine’ in the novel – plays Hank’s girlfriend Wanda, a stand-in for Bukowski’s real-life lover Jane Cooney, a hotel maid who died of alcoholism. Both absurd and poignant, Hollywood is a Chinese box in which the writer watches himself as a young man reunited with his woman as she seizes at life, while his current wife stands by his side.
— Jane Giles
34. I Lost My Girlish Laughter
Silvia Schulman (aka Jane Allen), 1938
In 1938, Silvia Schulman had good reason to publish her comic novel I Lost My Girlish Laughter under the bland pseudonym ‘Jane Allen’. She had been a secretary to David O. Selznick at MGM, and she ruthlessly – and recognisably – caricatured him as the crass, childish and tyrannical producer Sidney Brand. (Another character is based on future blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr, whom Schulman met while working for Selznick and married in 1937.) The epistolary novel is written in the chatty, wised-up voice of a young woman who arrives in Hollywood without the customary stars in her eyes, a literary sister to the competent, smart-mouthed working women played in 1930s films by Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur. Schulman exposes an industry in which women were overworked, underpaid and sexually harassed, but she also captures a time when women wielded considerable power behind the scenes, and when Hollywood catered to female audiences. A well-reviewed bestseller, the novel was optioned by MGM, but – unsurprisingly – never made it to the screen, though it was adapted for radio in 1939 by a Hollywoodbound Orson Welles.
— Imogen Sara Smith
35. Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace, 1996
This gargantuan novel is not only 1,000-plus pages; it also contains 388 footnotes. In one, more than eight pages long and boasting footnotes of its own, the reader finds the annotated filmography of James O. Incandenza. Foster Wallace fabricates an entire oeuvre for his character, clearly drawing on knowledge of the American experimental tradition.
This alone might suggest that Infinite Jest is a cinephilic novel, but it is nothing of the sort. The sprawling plot orbits around the recovery of a missing master copy of Incandenza’s most consequential work, a video cartridge dubbed ‘The Entertainment’, one so engrossing that it proves fatal to its viewers. Québécois separatists hope to obtain it and distribute it widely, turning screen addiction into a terrorist weapon. An eminent professor of literature, keen to assert the superiority of his object of study over mine, once smugly told me that Infinite Jest “got it right” by vilifying the moving image, but he was wrong: as much as the book is a wordy indictment of our commodity-driven age of chemical and audiovisual consolation, its invented filmography – with its nods to the minor and conceptual, however parodic they sometimes are – is a reminder that other cinemas are possible.
— Erika Balsom
36. Innocents and Others
Dana Spiotta, 2016
Innocents and Others evokes both the randomness of life and the cruel, clear progression of history in a way that perfectly replicates our 21st century existence. Through a variety of perspectives but almost always relegating its conventional romcom director Carrie Wexler to a conventional romcom ‘sidekick’ role – Dana Spiotta’s novel draws out the power dynamics within female friendships, filmmakers and their subjects, phone-sex operators and their clients, and romantic flings. The way class, race and gender tip the scale one way or the other comes to the fore: who gets to tell the Truth is more often than not the ultra-privileged documentarian Meadow Mori, whose confessional blogpost about her barely legal affair with a director that could only be Orson Welles opens the book. Thankfully, her story is debunked in the comments section, but not after a lot of moralistic judgement and gossip; the way out of our unequal reality seems to be paved with such stuff.
— Violet Lucca
37. The Invention of Morel
Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940
Jorge Luis Borges called it “perfect”. Argentinian Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel is written as the feverish diary of a Venezuelan fugitive who finds refuge on a cursed, deserted island in the South Pacific. There, inexplicable phenomena occur. One day, a group of tourists appear suddenly and the hero hides while trying to understand the mystery of their presence. The Invention of Morel is a vibrant theoretical fiction about immortality, eternal return and the universe of images – and is imbued throughout by the cinema. Inspired by Louise Brooks’s abrupt disappearance from movie screens, the novel embodies an ancient desire (to counteract an absence) while anticipating preoccupations and operations (dissolving the gap between spectator and film; image appropriation, manipulation, montage) that are very much of our time. Written in the mad prose – testamentary and visionary – of a man haunted by death, The Invention of Morel is best read in one breathless burst. Bioy Casares brilliantly mixes the urgency of an adventure novel, the strangeness of a metaphysical mystery and the pathos of a tragic love story. Abolishing the divide between logic and superstition, science and fantasy, archaic belief and futuristic vision, it imagines an invention that is not cinema, but the latent, wildest dream of cinema.
— Cristina Álvarez López
38. I Should Have Stayed Home
Horace McCoy, 1938
Horace McCoy’s masterpiece remains They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), but I Should Have Stayed Home, while a less lyrical work, is intriguing for its blunt despairing prose – all those kids who come into town thinking they’re going to make it, and ending up hustlers, thieves and, in one case here, a suicide. By writing from the perspective of a young actor/movie extra who believes movie stardom could be his, McCoy allows us to watch an unsophisticated kid learning as he goes along. Even as he loathes the malignant pursuit of his dream, blaming fan magazines and damning the likes of Robert Taylor, he walks around hoping he’ll become another Gary Cooper. (Is he? We really don’t think so, but who knows?). Half-heartedly indulging a relationship with an older, wealthy socialite, he receives lavish gifts and the promise of opportunities that never really materialise. It’s a bitter, sensitive book, and McCoy (who was an actor for a time: he failed his first screen test in 1931) must have known a kid like this – angry and yearning, yet perceptive of the toxicity surrounding him. Hollywood here is only attractive in the dark; the coveted sun is something to fear, illuminating “a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left… not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about.”
— Kim Morgan
39. The Kinema Girl
Bree Narran, 1919
The free-spirited Nancy Jones is the ‘kinema girl’ of the title. Escaping a strict religious household, she finds film work in a rundown studio on the outskirts of London and is quickly promoted to leading lady. When an affair with her director grows complicated, she turns to opium. The novel ends with a nightmarish journey to Limehouse, the reputed centre of the London drug trade, after which Nancy retires to the countryside. Bree Narran – probably the pseudonym of the writer Mercy Lehane Willis – specialised in sensational paperbacks, but this is her only novel set in the film world. The likely template for Nancy was Billie Carleton, a musical theatre actress whose death in 1918 was widely blamed on ‘dope’. The novel also taps into anxieties about screen-struck young women obsessed by dreams of stardom, who were the theme of multiple novels and newspaper scare stories in 1920s Britain.
— Chris O’Rourke
40. L.A. Confidential
James Ellroy, 1990
L.A. Confidential is the third in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, alongside The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988) and White Jazz (1992) – all hard-boiled crime novels set in and around Los Angeles and covering a period from the mid-1940s to the 60s. All four touch on the world of Hollywood, even if only peripherally. The Black Dahlia concerns the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, a would-be movie actor found mutilated in January 1947; The Big Nowhere deals with the anti-commie witch-hunts that raked the movie industry; and White Jazz features a vindictive Howard Hughes trying to blacklist an actress. L.A. Confidential (the only one of the four to have been adapted into a successful movie) explores the intersection of two deeply corrupt worlds: Hollywood and the LAPD. The plot follows three cops, all flawed in their very different ways; one of them, ‘Trashcan’ Jack Vincennes (“I’m a cop and I’m Hollywood”), is virtually a movie-world celebrity in his own right, dating starlets, and official adviser on the TV series ‘Badge of Honor’ (a thinly disguised Dragnet). He also leaks info to the scandal mag Hush-hush (aka Confidential) and visits a brothel where the hookers are movie-star lookalikes.
— Philip Kemp
41. Lady Boss
Jackie Collins, 1990
Lady Boss sees Lucky Santangelo, the dangerous and beautiful heroine of Collins’s Chances (1981) and Lucky (1985), decide to buy Panther Pictures, one of Hollywood’s last independents. Its owner will only sell if Lucky proves she’s got what it takes to survive in Hollywood. At his suggestion she goes undercover as a secretary to find out what’s really going on at the studio and encounters a cast of characters as colourful and ruthless as those of Collins’s earlier novels, the naughty and now notorious Hollywood Wives (1983) and Hollywood Husbands (1986). British-born Collins moved permanently to LA in the 1980s claiming: “If you wish to be successful, there’s a place you should be at a certain time. Los Angeles in the 1980s was it.” Her research was conducted in restaurants and at parties, fuelling her writing and inspiring both affection and contempt: “If I didn’t censor myself I could really skewer this town.”
— Nathalie Morris
42. The Last Tycoon
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1941
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
F. Scott Fitzgerald spent tons of time in the employ of the studios but for his trouble only managed one screen credit, this on Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades (1938). For someone who didn’t have the slightest clue as to how to operate within the Hollywood machine, however, Fitzgerald understood the spirit that animated the town, and it is perhaps precisely because he believed so fervently in the possibilities of cinema that he failed to become a successful – and impersonal – clockpuncher. His understanding is reflected in The Last Tycoon, a manuscript left incomplete when Fitzgerald collapsed with a fatal heart attack at the home of his lover, the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. (The event is dramatised in a middling DeLuxe color film of 1959, Beloved Infidel.) What made it onto the page is his fullest engagement with Hollywood, reconfiguring the character of the late Universal and MGM ‘boy wonder’ Irving G. Thalberg into the figure of Monroe Stahr. In his romantic nature, as well as in his edicts on storytelling, Stahr was also a sort of idealised self-projection by Fitzgerald, the flipside being his character Pat Hobby, a silent-screen title-card writer still floating around town and trying to turn a deal, who recurred in a series of Esquire stories in 1940-41 – a stand-in for the city’s discarded drifters, in whose company Fitzgerald must sometimes have felt he belonged.
— Nick Pinkerton
43. The Late Great Creature
Brock Brower, 1971
Well before Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets and Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images, Brock Brower set out to explore the gothic history of cinema and the history of gothic cinema in a bitterly satirical horror novel, which opens with an epigraph from Lon Chaney – “a clown isn’t funny in the moonlight”. Ageing, perverse horror star Simon Moro – whose filmography parallels that of Peter Lorre – plays a role in a remake of The Raven, allowing Brower to paint waspish word portraits of Roger Corman and Vincent Price, while setting out on a campaign to terrify America during a promotional tour which escalates into carnage at a premiere more excessive than those depicted in Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust and Peter Bogdanovich’s film Targets (1968). Brower lovingly imagines non-existent Moro masterworks like Fritz Lang’s ‘Zeppelin’ and the Frankensteinian botch ‘Ghoulgantua’, contrasted with a beating pulse of true-life terror woven into the American psyche.
— Kim Newman
44. Laughing Gas
P.G. Wodehouse, 1936
On becoming the new Earl of Havershot, gorillafaced Reggie Swithin is dispatched by his Aunt Clare to Hollywood to rescue his bibulous cousin Eggy before some Klieg-lit beauty entraps him in marriage. Eggy doesn’t need help because he’s engaged to Reggie’s reforming ex-fiancée Ann Bannister. It’s Reggie who falls for a movie star, April June, and is about to propose when he gets a severe toothache. At the dentist Reggie meets resentful child star Joey Cooley, who also needs an extraction. So far, so Wodehouse, but under the influence of the titular gas, the two patients experience a most inconvenient body swap, said to have taken place in the fourth dimension. Luck of the draw brought me two entries that involve toothache (see Money on page 30). Here Wodehouse experiments with an old money/new money version of The Prince and the Pauper identity swap in a mildly sciencefictional mode. One learns little about movie folk – though Wodehouse himself was under contract with MGM in 1930 and wrote the dialogue that year for Those Three French Girls – but the atmosphere feels spot-on.
— Nick James
45. Laughter in the Dark
Vladimir Nabokov, 1932
Respected Albinus, married, a scholar, lusts after Margot, 17, cinema usherette, would-be actor – no talent, all in his head. Was it written (in Russian in Berlin) after Josef von Sternberg’s TheBlue Angel (1930) enshrined sexual paranoia? Yet surely it foreshadows Lolita’s rapture at a man of letters anagrammed by desire? So Albinus funds Margot in the movies, suckered by tricky Axel Rex. In that bitter plot the wordy life is worried by movies – not just Margot’s lying close-ups but the threat of stories all aglow in glamour and glances, a shining to eclipse reading. Alfred Appel, in his loving book, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (1975), tells of Vlad forever impaled by film’s temptations and wordsmithing in the screen’s spilled light. Laughter blinds Albinus (literally), but it’s literature fumbling in the dark. Von Sternberg should have filmed it – later on, Kubrick was stunned at how reverential Nabokov was over cinema, his sin-amour, as the butterfly hunter wondered if Tuesday Weld could do Lo, or let her be sly Sue Lyon?—
46. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Anna North, 2015
The second novel by American journalist Anna North stands out for centring upon a female genius: the selfish, socially awkward, groundbreaking American film director Sophie Stark. North does much more here, however, than simply place a woman in a conventionally male role. In serene prose, and with a deep empathetic understanding of the complexities of both creative work and adult relationships, North anatomises a millennial entertainment industry hellbent on turning its most fragile prodigies into money machines. But the book also turns a no less exacting gaze upon the moral responsibility held by artists. Does the making of important work justify the breaking of promises and the stealing of stories? Can you freely love someone who’s likely to cannibalise your most personal moments together in the name of their art? And at what cost to the creator does such oversharing come? Most gratifyingly of all, and unlike many who have used the film world to inject glamour into their fiction, North really knows her movies: readers will enjoy piecing together the real-world inspirations for Sophie and her onscreen oeuvre.
— Hannah McGill
47. The Little Sister
Raymond Chandler, 1949
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
One of Hollywood’s most famous fictional residents is Philip Marlowe, the private investigator with an office on Hollywood Boulevard who featured in seven novels by Raymond Chandler. In The Little Sister, Marlowe’s case involves a blonde movie star with ties to a gangster, and it leads him into encounters with smarmy agents, man-eating Mexican starlets and an elderly studio mogul who succinctly lays bare the secrets of the movie business. Chandler hilariously, and bitterly, skewers the industry for which he had written Double Indemnity (1944, with Billy Wilder) and The Blue Dahlia (1945), and which had been snapping up his books for film adaptations since 1942. The Marlowe novels distilled an enduring and influential vision of Los Angeles as corrupt and perfumed, decadent and lonely; a violent, neon-lit city of lost dreams. Above all, Chandler invented a language often imitated but never equalled, full of baroque similes and laugh-out-loud wisecracks, saturated with his trademark disillusioned romanticism.
— Imogen Sara Smith
48. The Lost Girl
D.H. Lawrence, 1920
The power of novels, just like the power of films, often resides in an evocative prologue, brief exchanges of dialogue, seemingly throwaway moments. The Lost Girl, one of D.H. Lawrence’s lesser known works, is a spiritual biography of an upright woman named Alvina Houghton, who lives a subdued, respectable life in an English mining village before being derailed by a sensuous Neapolitan actor. When I first read it as a nervy, aspirational teenager I was derailed too. Its account of working-class villagers abandoning the live performance of variety theatre for cinema – “I can’t believe they want everything in the flat,” bemoans one character; “Pictures don’t have any life except in the people who watch them,” claims Alvina, “And that’s why they like them. Because they make them feel that they are everything” – chimed with my own adolescent snobbishness. Film, The Lost Girl told me, was modern, mendacious, a collective hoodwinking. Consequently I didn’t step foot inside a cinema until I was 26.
— Sukhdev Sandhu
49. Love and Death on Long Island
Gilbert Adair, 1990
Cinephilia suffuses Gilbert Adair’s first two novels, unsurprisingly given his extensive contributions to this very magazine. The 1988 Cocteau/Melville homage The Holy Innocents (revised as The Dreamers in 2003 after he adapted it for Bernardo Bertolucci) opens with a vivid description of “les rats de la Cinémathèque” scurrying from screening to screening. Love and Death on Long Island (filmed by Richard Kwietniowski in 1997), about a stuffy British academic wandering into the wrong auditorium and finding himself unexpectedly entranced by an American teen idol, was inspired not only by Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti as much as Thomas Mann) but also Adair’s S&S review of Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983), whose paean to the incisive fossa (“one of the most charming if unsung glories of the human face, the narrow, moist little furrow which separates the nose from the flowing, monogrammed M of the upper lip”) flowered into the novel’s lengthier raptures.
— Michael Brooke
50. The Loved One
Evelyn Waugh, 1948
Fitfully a film fan – his diaries of the 1920s are flecked with references to silent comedies by Harold Lloyd and the like – Evelyn Waugh first travelled to Hollywood in 1947 to work on a screen adaptation of his smash novel Brideshead Revisited for MGM. The movie was never made, but Waugh went home with bile enough to fill this slender, scabrous volume, subtitled “An Anglo-American Tragedy” in what seems a jibe at Henry James. In its pages Dennis Barlow, a minor poet, comes to southern California from England to work for the Megalopolitan film studio, only to find himself in the employ of a posh pet cemetery, the Happier Hunting Ground, and drawn in by the idiot allure of Aimée Thanatogenos, cosmetician for the dead at Whispering Glades, a spoof of state-of-the-art Forest Lawn cemetery. A biting burlesque of the death industry in the capital of screen immortality as later exposed in The American Way of Death, a muckraking nonfiction work by Jessica Mitford, who Waugh had known as a little girl in his Bright Young Things days. Tony Richardson drew on both Waugh and Mitford’s works for his film of The Loved One, released in 1965, and excoriated in a series of transatlantic cablegrams by Waugh, who after a sudden heart attack went to his own reward the following year, administered conditional absolution by the attending priest, though denied the much-desired active participation in last rites.
— Nick Pinkerton
51. Lucky Us
Amy Bloom, 2014
Only the first quarter of Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is set in Hollywood, but what a glorious depiction of Golden Age Hollywood in all its decadence and venality it is. When half-sisters Eva and Iris Acton arrive in Los Angeles from small-town Ohio to launch the latter’s screen career, canny Iris knows how to play the game: she’s punctual, well-presented and polite, and is soon earning invites to the most glamorous Hollywood parties. One unforgettable scene follows her to a soirée where topless maids and turbaned dwarves serve champagne and oysters, and naked actresses make love on every surface: “Shmundies on parade,” as the beautiful Rose Sawyer so ripely puts it. Iris falls madly in love with Rose; soon the pair are skinny-dipping off Malibu beach, and before you know it gossip columnist Hedda Hopper is moving in to extinguish Iris’s fledging star. The sisters, with make-up artist Francisco, hit the road for the East Coast, where a career on stage eventually beckons, but Iris’s brief heady moment in the sun leaves an indelible trace on their subsequent adventures.
— Catherine Wheatley
52. Me Cheeta
James Lever, 2008
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
This ‘autobiography’ of the chimpanzee who played Johnny Weissmuller’s sidekick in the Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 1940s is the most scurrilous chronicle of Hollywood’s golden age since Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1965), but with a lot more heart. Cheeta’s faux-naïf recollections of the predilections and peccadillos of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford, and his enduring rivalry with Maureen O’Sullivan, Jane to Weismuller’s Tarzan, are often laugh-out-loud hilarious. But beneath the racy narrative is a sobering reminder of Hollywood’s callousness towards not just its animal performers, but its human actors too. The one constant is Cheeta’s unconditional love for his co-star, Weissmuller. Their last encounter, after the ex-Olympian actor has been laid low by a series of strokes, is almost unbearably affecting. Not just the memoirs of an ape, then, but also a bittersweet tribute to the beautiful dead people whose ghosts we still see moving across our screens.
— Anne Billson
Marie Darrieussecq, 2013
Winner of the 2013 Prix Médicis in Darrieussecq’s native France, Men tracks the love affair between Solange, a French actress forging a career in Hollywood, and actor-director Kouhouesso, a Canadian citizen born in English-speaking Cameroon. The pair’s courtship follows them through a series of Los Angeles parties to Congo – where Kouhouesso is shooting a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a remake of Apocalypse Now – and back again, ready for awards season. Darrieussecq is so beautifully acerbic on Hollywood that one feels she may have missed her true métier, as critic. “George”, for example, has reached a “level of self-confidence to be himself in role after role”, while of Matt Damon she writes, “There are women who think Damon is good looking. Solange thinks he’s white.” The African-set scenes are both a hallucinogenic evocation of otherness and an object lesson in the arrogance of cultural appropriation. A love letter to the movies, Men is also a bittersweet critique of clichés about gender and race, best read alongside Zadie Smith’s recent Swing Time, which casts a similarly sceptical eye over our age of celebrity culture.
— Catherine Wheatley
54. Minnie Flynn
Frances Marion, 1925
In 1924, screenwriter Frances Marion was at the heart of the Hollywood elite, and through her friendship with Mary Pickford she had seen the life of a film star up close. This is the moment she chose to write a novel about the “tragedy of success”, as a warning to young girls everywhere who dreamed of making it in the movies. “I call it propaganda,” said Marion, “but the publishers call it a novel.” The predatory producers, financial risks and emotional toll of the movie business are all laid bare in this gripping and frank book. The eponymous heroine is a “chippy” shopgirl living in a New York tenement, who is discovered by a sleazy actor and eventually becomes June Day – a phenomenon in a fur coat. Marion lambasts the gossip, pretensions and desperation of studio folk as well as offering an insider’s view of silent moviemaking. Minnie’s path to the top is hardly easy, but it’s the disillusionment and humiliation of her inevitable decline that resonates the most – including a delicately heartbreaking final scene. As one of the novel’s few morally upright characters says: “Hollywood is a little, narrow house, Minnie, and some of us have made of it a cell.”
— Pamela Hutchinson
55. Missing Reels
Farran Smith Nehme, 2014
Summoning the cherished fantasy of every silent cinema fan, Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels is a detective story of sorts about hunting down a lost film. The heroine of the tale is Ceinwen, a twentysomething film buff obsessed with vintage fashion, scraping by in New York in the late 1980s. While Ceinwen is au fait with classic cinema, styling herself after Jean Harlow and haunting the rep cinemas of Manhattan, a conversation with her mysterious neighbour about acting in a gothic film for a German director in 1920s Hollywood sends her on an odyssey into the silent era. This isn’t a book about filmmaking so much as about film culture: the fans, academics, obsessives, collectors and even hoarders who populate the silent film community. Over the course of a diverting novel, peppered with film references and in-jokes, Ceinwen falls in love with this world, and with the silent cinema, as she attempts to track down a lost German silent film, which is just one accidental nitrate fire away from utter oblivion. Along the way she kicks aside a certain amount of snobbery about early cinema, which is summarised by her neighbour as “the dark ages, before everybody figured out how it was really done”.
— Pamela Hutchinson
Martin Amis, 1984
“God I hate this movie,” says John Self on page three. It’s not surprising that he does, since Self is a monster of 1980s greed and mind-bending consumption – “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food,” his voiceover tells us – and he’s got a major toothache to add to all the self-inflicted comedowns. A successful ad director trying to set up his first Hollywood film, Self’s movie involvement is mainly via the old-fashioned phone, and in between the nurturing of actors Lorne Guyland and Caduta Massi, some of the calls he takes include death threats. Self’s narration is a satirical binge of self-loathing, parts Chandler and Ballard and not as much Bellow as expected. Amis drew on his experiences working as the screenwriter on 1980’s Saturn 3 (Guyland is his take on Kirk Douglas). His famous sentences crackle with shards of Americana and London pub-talk bitten off by English teeth and rechewed into a flash dystopian transatlantic patter. Everything that #MeToo is trying to expunge from the culture of the movies is leeringly present. Self is a mid-Atlantic proto-Weinstein, except that financially he’s a mark, not a predator. He is predatory with women, even though he dimly understands their predicament: “It must be tiring knowledge,” he says, “the realisation that half the members of the planet, one on one, can do what the hell they like with you.”
— Nick James
57. The Moviegoer
Walker Percy, 1961
William Holden plays a crucial role in Walker Percy’s novel. The narrator, Binx Bolling, notices a young man who spots Holden on the streets of New Orleans and becomes depressed. “He can only contrast Holden’s resplendent reality with his own shadowy and precarious existence.” But after he offers Holden a light he wins, in Percy’s words, “the title to his own existence”.
The Moviegoer is about depression and class. Binx’s movie-going habit is an earthly pleasure that keeps him from the malaise of his upper-middle-class life. Only that and a string of dalliances with his secretaries make him feel alive. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015) was allegedly inspired by Percy’a novel, a book he had always wanted to adapt. But that film lacks the novel’s humour and rhythms: a series of rotations, repetitions and certifications, like when a place only seems real when it’s glimpsed on a cinema screen.
— Miriam Bale
58. ‘Mrs Bathurst’
Rudyard Kipling, 1904
The arrival of film had a powerful impact on fiction writers from the medium’s early years. Rudyard Kipling’s 1904 short story ‘Mrs Bathurst’ was among the first to ponder the mysterious power of film. In it, some naval officers are reminiscing about a mutual acquaintance, Vickery, who had been on shore leave in Cape Town for Christmas. Going to a film show of English scenes, he believed he saw a widow he had known in Auckland, Mrs Bathurst, approaching the camera at Paddington Station, as if looking for him. Vickery returns to the show obsessively, taking the story’s narrator with him, before disappearing up country, where his body is eventually found, burned to a cinder by lightning. Kipling probably saw films en route to the Cape before the Anglo-Boer War, and he long remembered a barmaid he had met in New Zealand. By combining these elements in this story of an obsessive viewer, he was anticipating much later fiction about the hypnotic power of cinema. Eeriness and coincidence, however, were recurrent themes from the outset.
Perhaps the very first was the American James Brander Matthews’s story ‘The Kinetoscope of Time’, published in December 1895, which had the narrator visiting a gothic version of an Edison Kinetoscope Parlour, where he witnesses a series of historical vignettes before the proprietor offers to show him his own future, which he refuses. A picture he sees later reveals that the impresario was in fact the notorious magician and mystic Cagliostro. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was serialised in the same year, famously inspiring Robert Paul to conceive a ‘time ride’ entertainment, but it also appears that Wells had previously seen the Kinetoscope.
The earliest crime drama involving film was probably the 1897 ‘Our Detective Story’ by George Sims, a popular English journalist and playwright. This takes place in the real-life setting of London’s Alhambra music hall, during a screening of Paul’s success of the previous autumn, A Tour Through Spain and Portugal. A detective is accompanying an ex-client and his wife, who had been suspected of adultery. Suddenly, one of the films reveals the wife embracing another man. The story ends in court, with the film being shown again as evidence for divorce.
The most gleefully outrageous version of this theme must be Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1907 story A Great Film, in which a band of cynical entrepreneurs creates a successful film company by staging outrageous events for the camera. Needing a murder film, they kidnap a young couple on the street and film them being killed by a hired assassin. The resulting footage makes them a fortune, once the couple are revealed as a Balkan minister’s wife and her royal German lover.
— Ian Christie
59. My Face for the World to See
Alfred Hayes, 1958
British-born Hayes’s story of the troubled love affair between two unnamed Tinseltown casualties was written after he had spent a decade in Los Angeles working on such films as Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952) and Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954). Before then he had lived in Italy, contributing to neorealist cornerstones Paisà (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), and it’s tempting to credit that experience as much as any observations he had made while in Hollywood for the way his short novel rejects any descriptions of glamorous soirées or divulgences about studio boardrooms. The man, a screenwriter, is “writhing not writing” in an industry he holds to be beneath him, and the young woman is one of so many who had come to town dreaming of her face on screens “for the world to see”, only to see those illusions turn sour as the “men in power” at the studios pass her around from bedroom to bedroom via their “hidden mechanisms”. Written with an often painful intensity, Hayes’s novel expresses like few others the exploitative toll in aspirations and dignity wrought by a misogynistic industry on those for whom the dream of Hollywood will remain only ever just that.
— James Bell
60. Myra Breckinridge
Gore Vidal, 1968
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
A love for the most obscure, esoteric and campy American cinema of the 1940s animates the first-person narrative voice of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, a character who started out in life as a gay male movie scholar named Myron. The megalomaniacal Myra, a new woman of the 1960s who is devoted to the 40s, seeks to “realign the sexes”, and over the course of the novel and its 1974 sequel Myron she teaches actors and somehow finds herself on the set of the 1949 movie Siren of Atlantis.
Her purple prose often falls into an outright imitation of the oracular style of film critic Parker Tyler, and Vidal sends up Tyler while also acknowledging his own attraction to Maria Montez pictures and the physical appearance of actors like James Craig and Tim Holt. The rather unpleasant 1970 film version of Myra Breckinridge, starring Mae West and Raquel Welch, has not tarnished the thunderbolt power of Vidal’s achievement in these two highly successful movie-mad novels, arguably his most original fictional works. Surely a new film version starring a charismatic transgender performer is in order?—
61. The Negative
Michael Covino, 1993
Within just a few years, Doug Lowell has gone from being an all but unknown maker of avant-garde productions to one of the most powerful people in the movie industry. His science-fiction epic ‘The High Plateau of Stars’ was a huge critical and commercial success, and everyone is aching to see the sequel. But Doug is in big trouble. The sequel took him two years to make, and went millions over budget, some of those millions being his own. And then a trio of chancers steal the only negative of his movie, and tell Doug that if he doesn’t pay them a hefty ransom, they’ll burn it. That’s the main plot, and it’s a good one, but the real delight of The Negative is also in its vivid, funny characters – notably the ransom-merchant who is also a professor of popular culture – and in its insights into cinema of every kind, from Alphaville to Zulu. The Negative is addictively readable: wisecracking but also genuinely wise.
— Kevin Jackson
62. The New Confessions
William Boyd, 1987
“Sometimes I look back on my life and feel like a maddened stink ant driven on by my one random fungus spore.” Recounting in memoir form the life of John James Todd, born in Edinburgh in 1899, William Boyd’s The New Confessions offers a personal and eccentric history of the 20th century. It’s an improbable chronicle, modelled after Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions, a book Todd reads obsessively while incarcerated in a PoW camp. That book is the fungus spore, but Todd makes his living not as a writer but a filmmaker. He first picks up a camera in World War I, and enters the British industry in the early 1920s, before being tempted over to the more exciting scene in Weimar Berlin. Todd’s cinematic achievements and ambitions grow until he’s plotting out what could be his masterpiece, an epic adaptation of The Confessions. However, a move to Hollywood and an encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee will complicate his plans. It’s a brilliantly engrossing and darkly funny novel. The cinephile pleasure in spotting the references – which filmmaker is Todd channelling at which moment? – is deepened by the level of atmospheric detail provided and the audacity with which Boyd jumps between industries and eras.
— Pamela Hutchinson
63. Nobody Ordered Wolves
Jeffrey Dell, 1939
Dell’s humorous novel is set in the British film industry of the 1930s, when its somewhat conservative production methods were being shaken up by the arrival of dynamic figures from Europe. Playwright Phillip Hardcastle is put under contract by mogul Napoleon Bott (based on Alexander Korda) and embarks on a crash course in the follies of the movie business, taking the reader with him. After several years of fat paychecks, impenetrable script meetings and a lot of hanging around, the only time his name appears on screen is in a film he had no hand in. Meanwhile, everyone he meets has a surefire hit movie idea – such as the linoleum magnate who pitches his ‘original’ story to studio staff, none of whom recognise the plot of Othello. Dell was himself a screenwriter, whose first assignment was as co-author of Zoltán Korda’s Sanders of the River (1935), but he later found the ideal outlet for his comic talents collaborating with the Boulting brothers on films such as 1957’s Lucky Jim.
— Jo Botting
64. Nosferatu in Love
Jim Shepard, 1998
If any great director merited a novel it’s Murnau, and Jim Shepard draws him on the page with a suitably haunted elegance and a shading of speculation. We begin in pre-war Berlin, and in a rather remote third person; but soon we are lured into the inner life of F.W. Plumpe – a boy itching to be free of his stolid Westphalian upbringing so as to liberate what’s inside him. He meets Max Reinhardt and Conrad Veidt, and finds a kindred spirit (and lover) in Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, who spurs his change of name. Murnau cheats on Hans, however, and feels something devilish in the infidelity. Serving in the war as a flyer, he also feels the travelling force that will become his directorial signature. But Hans dies in that war, leaving Murnau mired in loss and guilt. We switch to first person for Murnau’s life in film, as he struggles to realise his intensely personal vision through the industrial process: cinephiles will recognise debts, acknowledged by Shepard, to Jean Cocteau’s diaries and Robert Bresson’s maxims. But, ultimately, lost love is seen to be the exquisite wound at the core of Murnau’s life and art, his masterpieces only “a nearly endless stream of substitutes”.
— Richard T. Kelly
Yoshida Shuichi, 2015
While there are a fair few Japanese novels that explore the darker sides of a sometimes shady entertainment business through the eyes of innocent idols, there are relatively few which actively use the film industry as a setting. Yoshida Shuichi’s Parade (translated into English by Philip Gabriel) is an exception in taking as one of its central protagonists a young man, Naoki, struggling to make a career in the movies but finding himself shackled to a demanding desk job, working extremely long hours and often forced to compromise his artistic integrity for commercial concerns. Though not writing from direct experience, the picture Yoshida paints of life in the indie distribution business is a fairly bleak one, culminating in a dark epiphany when Naoki is left behind when his colleagues go to live the high life in Cannes, with violence the only outlet for his ever increasing frustration.
— Hayley Scanlon
Katherine Mansfield, 1920
Writing during the early part of the 20th century, Katherine Mansfield was fascinated by a new type of woman born in that era. Unmarried and untethered from the social conventions that governed the lives of their mothers, many young women sought to make their way in the world via the burgeoning entertainment industry, working precariously as chorus girls, film actors and extras. Like many of Mansfield’s short stories, ‘Pictures’ begins with a single woman surviving in a freezing-cold single room, sustained by dreams (perhaps delusions) of fame and fortune – or at least enough money for a “Good Hot Dinner”. We follow Miss Ada Moss, an out-of-work singer, over the course of a day from being woken by her landlady clamouring for rent, through to traipsing from production company to casting agency with hoards of other hopefuls (“‘Oh, you weren’t to have been paid, the North East never pay their crowds.’”), until she finally relents and – it is suggested – resorts to prostitution. Throughout, she stoically denies the truth of her situation, as revealed in the mirror: “‘Now what’s the good of crying: you’ll only make your nose red.’”—
67. The Plains
Gerald Murnane, 1982
Australian writer Gerald Murnane – a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature recently declared that he has not watched a film in 25 years. But his second and third novels, A Lifetime on Clouds (1976) and The Plains (1982), both place cinema at the centre of their fictions. Where the former is a touching and comical account of a male teenager’s erotic obsession with movies, the latter is a rivetingly abstract, minimalistic tale of a filmmaker hoping to make his masterpiece in a vast, flat, mysterious landscape all but hidden in Australia’s depths. The years go by and the narrator remains in situ, caught in the labyrinth of contending theories, memories and desires laid by the plainsmen. Simultaneously a droll satire of nationalist preoccupations and a metaphysical musing on a “scenery fit only for dreams”, The Plains would have offered ideal material for a director such as Alain Resnais.
— Adrian Martin
68. The Player
Michael Tolkin, 1988
The life of power lunches, expense accounts and studio insider manoeuvrings was back in vogue in 1980s Hollywood, and Michael Tolkin was there as a fledgling screenwriter. His debut novel skewers the town he saw in close-up and does it with remorseless brilliance. Griffin Mill is a young studio exec who’s near the top, but not quite there yet, and from the novel’s opening line – “Just as Griffin suspected, there was a meeting in Levison’s office without him” – every move and every conversation is laced with status anxiety. Pitching meetings with sensitive screenwriters are a particular chore, and when Griffin starts receiving threatening postcards, he assumes they must be from a writer whose career he brushed off with the stroke of a pen. But in a town where getting the right seat at a restaurant table means more than murder, Griffin’s attempts to find his correspondent take us into a tale that’s as much a morality play as it is a wickedly revealing despatch from the inside of an industry that’s flush with money and vacuity. Tolkin adapted his own novel for Robert Altman’s cameo-filled 1992 adaptation, and returned to the indelible Griffin Mill character again with his 2006 sequel The Return of the Player.
— James Bell
69. Play It as It Lays
Joan Didion, 1970
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
“I mean it. Take me somewhere.”
“You got a map of Peru?” She said nothing.
“That’s funny, Maria. That’s a line from ‘Dark Passage’.”
The showbiz ‘banter’ in Joan Didion’s novel is like tumbleweed rolling over a parched desert. It moves, but it’s dead. Told in close third person, Play It as It Lays is the most despairing of Hollywood novels, bitingly funny, bleakly dissociated. Didion’s fragmented snapshot of the industry is a brutal, hallucinatory parade of beach parties, hypnotists, location shoots and agents’offices. She doesn’t set up scenes and develop them. She drops us in, gives us a glimpse, then yanks us back out. It’s a portrait of desolation, an emotional wasteland. Actor Maria Wyeth, estranged from her director husband (who got her started in the movies), floats through a series of increasingly traumatic events, and we know from the first pages it is all leading to murder and incarceration in a psychiatric institution. But until then, she drives the freeways, wearing a bikini or a silver dress, a restless mad spirit, insubstantial and yet weighted down by grief, accumulated loss, a fear that no matter how far she drives, she will always end up at “the dead still centre of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing”.
— Sheila O’Malley
70. Point Omega
Don DeLillo, 2010
It is telling that European and Asian cinema of the 1960s profoundly influences the unsettling fictions of US novelist Don DeLillo. What formally unites his 17 novels, five plays and many short stories is a cinematic way of telling. Spare and allusive dialogue; striking use of the edit;associative, atmospheric, elliptical narratives that play with time, space and linearity: DeLillo crafts a screen on the page before he even deploys the medium within his plotlines. Running Dog (1978) turns on pornographic reels allegedly involving the Führer, while The Names (1982) proposes the risky filming of an enigmatic cult. In Point Omega, however, the Möbius strip of relations is most evident. Opening on a New York viewing of artist Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho, the novel swiftly relocates to the California desert, where a young filmmaker is trying to make a documentary about an elusive military adviser who is seeking to conceptualise war as a ‘haiku’. (Gordon is allegedly planning an adaptation of the novel.) There’s a reason why DeLillo is perhaps the greatest creative explorer of the numerous, obscure systems that govern our lives, the “world(s) inside the world”. He knows that showing less is more revealing, and he learned this from the giants of 20th-century film.
— Gareth Evans
Sharlene Teo, 2018
“Visionary – Film-Maker – Auteur”: so reads the business card of Iskandar Wir Yanto, an Indonesian director who discovers Amisa Tan, an impossibly beautiful ice queen actor who briefly gains notoriety as the bloodthirsty star of his 1978 cult horror film ‘Ponti!’ Sharlene Teo’s debut novel weaves the stories of three women across three timelines in Singapore, but its most fascinating thread is the heady story of the coldly indifferent Amisa as she moves from a small village in Malaysia to the sweaty metropolis of Singapore in the 1970s. Iskandar discovers her sweeping popcorn in the Paradise Theatre where she works as an usher, plucking her from obscurity at the age of 19, struck by her face – “a perfect mask” that “also unveils”. Just the face for a giallo seductress by way of Singapore: a B-movie goddess, a sexploitation vampiress. Teo’s exploration of the uneven power dynamic between actor and director is fascinating, articulating the “strong, disorienting twinge that straddled fear and pleasure” between the two. He “broke her spirit and built her up again within the hour”; she “respected” him. He “scared” her; she “wanted to prove him right”.
— Simran Hans
72. Poor Caroline
Winifred Holtby, 1931
Cinema was a big part of Holtby’s life as a novelist and journalist between the wars, and her sympathy for the place of the ‘talkies’ in women’s everyday lives found a prominent place in all her fictions. What Holtby does particularly well – with unlucky-in-love heroine Muriel in the brilliant and underrated The Crowded Street (1924), for example, or with cinemagoing widow Mrs Brimsley in South Riding (1936) – is take a reader by the hand and lead them into the familiar space of the local picture palace. Once inside, her fictions poignantly reflect on the pleasures and discomfort that the movies could offer those for whom the cinema was educator, social space and weekly ritual. Poor Caroline, her fourth novel, follows earnest spinster Caroline Denton-Smyth as she founds the Christian Cinema Company to “clean up” British cinema. In describing the company’s board members and their dubious motivations for being there, the novel offers an amusing snapshot of the debates that formed around cinema and its cultural value in the early sound era.
— Lisa Stead
73. Postcards from the Edge
Carrie Fisher, 1987
Thirty years before movie stars tweeted every passing thought to their grateful public, Carrie Fisher’s darkly funny, fiercely candid roman à clef, about a drug-addicted Hollywood actress falling into rehab, made an artform of oversharing. Through a spiky experimental collage of diary extracts and flashbacks, its flailing self-destructive heroine Suzanne Vale finds post-rehab life a bemusing perpetual audition, as she struggles to please suspicious producers, slippery boyfriends, and her movie-star mother. One of the few female-authored fictions about high-concept, drug-riddled 80s Hollywood, its acerbic commentary on the glitzy but hollow Los Angeles fakery of parties, film sets and talk shows has a tangy insider’s acuity. Despite Fisher’s status as second-generation Hollywood royalty, she skewers the industry as mercilessly as she does the self-discovery nostrums of rehab culture. A relentlessly solipsistic but oddly relatable tale of female insecurity in a boys’-club business, it’s the bleaker, truth-telling sister to the glossy, toothless mom-and-me film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols in 1990.
— Kate Stables
74. Prater Violet
Christopher Isherwood, 1945
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
“The film is an infernal machine,” says Austrian director Friedrich Bergmann to Isherwood. “Once it is ignited and set in motion it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause[…] It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice.” Isherwood never wrote an operetta-film called ‘Prater Violet’ with a director called Bergmann, but he did co-write Little Friend (1934) for Berthold Viertel, and that provided the autobiographical material transmuted into this novel. The disorganisation of the pre-war British film industry is brought to farcical life, giving a sardonic insider’s view of Gaumont British Pictures, here called Imperial Bulldog. Under his director’s tuition, Isherwood’s fictional avatar comes to learn the craft of screenwriting, while Europe teeters on the brink of war and the director’s family is endangered. Viertel is sadly forgotten today: Isherwood’s loving portrait preserves him. If ever a book and DVD set was demanded, Little Friend and Prater Violet would be the one.
— David Cairns
75. Promised Land
Cedric Belfrage, 1938
Budd Schulberg, in 1940, the year before he published What Makes Sammy Run?, called Promised Land “the most interesting and comprehensive novel yet to be written about Hollywood”. Comprehensive, presumably, in that it begins in 1857 with the settling of the Owens Valley, the source of Los Angeles’s water supply, and the subsequent massacring of the Native American population, and goes on to treat the coming of the movies to Hollywood around 1910 from the perspective of the Midwesterners who had arrived there a generation before, intent on establishing a godly community devoted to temperance and rising property values. Inevitably the movies prevail, picking off the younger generation, one of whom becomes a film journalist, another an actor. Belfrage, who had been at Cambridge with Christopher Isherwood, had himself been a film journalist. He was a communist sympathiser (and, it later emerged, a spy); his novel appeared as the Left Book Club selection for February 1938.
— Henry K. Miller
76. Pubis Angelical
Manuel Puig, 1979
The Argentinian author Manuel Puig spent his life in thrall to the campier aspects of movie lore. He once threw a close friend – the cinematographer Néstor Almendros – out of his Greenwich Village flat for impugning Lana Turner’s acting talent. His novels, which include Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), are high-camp fantasias on old movie themes. Possibly the best, and the least well-known, Pubis Angelical was inspired by 1930s movie goddess and inventor Hedy Lamarr. Here Puig spins a haunting narrative web, alternating fictionalised episodes from the star’s life with the stories of two imaginary women: an Argentinian political dissident, exiled in Mexico and dying of cancer, and a political prisoner in some future Ice Age dystopia. All three women, ultimately, have only their dreams to sustain them. In this, they are true Puig protagonists.
— David Melville
77. The Public Image
Muriel Spark, 1968
It’s one of the paradoxes of cinema that its audiences demand that actors be the same person on screen and off. In The Public Image, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1969, Muriel Spark sifts coolly through the implications. Annabel Christopher, its protagonist, is an English actor whose sudden stardom has lumbered her with a public image, a brand value which she must protect with as much care as her infant son. Christopher’s acting, writes Spark, “consisted in playing herself in a series of poses for the camera”. But stardom has only come with a skilful repackaging of her persona by her Italian director, Luigi Leopardi. Yet everyone, Spark suggests, is an act. In one conversation with his star, Leopardi falls silent “and forgets for a while to be a film man”. With her every success, something dies inside her husband, Frederick, and in the aftermath of a brutally vindictive trick that he plays, Christopher is left to tend, or smash, her public image.
— Sam Davies
Connie Willis, 1994
In 1994, about the time we were first discovering email, sci-fi writer Connie Willis imagined a Hollywood of the near future where multinationals have complete control over classic studio product on a jealously guarded live digital feed and employ “hackates” to endlessly recycle content, matting in the latest stars to classic films and making tacky VR experiences. One such cynical and wise-cracking hack, high on designer drugs like ‘klieg’, loves movies enough to know them literally frame by frame. He is on a slash-and-burn for the politically correct studio boss, editing out “AS’s” (addictive substances) from films like Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story. Replacing Humphrey Bogart’s smouldering cigarette with a lollipop is killing him; that’s why he drinks, until he meets a girl who loves the real thing – no cuts, no colourising, no CGI, she just wants to dance in a musical. Prescient (it’s happening now) and very funny. One for the buffs.
— Bryony Dixon
79. Rhinestone Sharecropping
Bill Gunn, 1981
New Hollywood is known as the era when artists reigned; Bill Gunn’s Rhinestone Sharecropping offers a much-needed caveat that only a certain type of person was chosen to thrive. Drawing on Gunn’s own experiences with 1970s studio filmmaking (particularly those around 1977’s The Greatest, starring Muhammad Ali as himself), his novel captures the unique, degrading agony of taking on a creatively unfulfilling job in the hope of advancing your career and getting paid – and then being told you’re not good enough to see it through. Writing in fitful first person, Gunn offers alternately comic and caustic sketches of life as ‘The Token’ and morally bankrupt industry types who weaponise niceness by peppering every statement with “darling” or “chum”. (“He’s a blackman like yourself, darling. Maybe he’ll tell you things he’d feel uncomfortable telling me,” says producer Carl ‘Cubby’ Steinbeck to Sam Dodd, the Gunn stand-in.) Transcripts of these games stand in contrast to Dodd’s lyrical digressions and intellectual idiosyncrasies, which offer a rich perspective on the hazards of being a black creative artist.
— Violet Lucca
Christopher Petit, 1993
Robinson is a notably porous conceit, leaking into London from the celluloid and garlic reek of old Soho, a destination electively suiciding in 1993. Here is a seductive cine-novel composed by an active filmmaker, on the drift between the hierarchic indiscipline of the industry and a more liberated (and indifferently commissioned) essay form. Glaringly unoptioned, Robinson is replete in its writing. Petit has carried off an obituary for the ripe-to-rancid projects by Polanski and Michael Reeves, facilitated by clubland hustlers and skinflick operatives seeking legitimacy. But Robinson is also an obituary for film criticism as sanctioned priesthood. There are telling meditations on Welles (as artist and con man) and Fassbinder (as subversive collaborator). Petit adopts the metaphor of the labyrinth from Borges and his detached tone from J.G. Ballard – whose back catalogue, unlike Robinson, was being thoroughly asset-stripped for future features.
— Iain Sinclair
81. Running Time
Gavin Lambert, 1982
An epic spanning six decades of Hollywood history – from the silent 20s to the Reagan 80s Running Time tells the story of a hapless child star, Baby Jewel, and her pushy but weirdly likeable ‘screen mother’ Elva Kay. In diaries and memoirs, the pair recall adventures with Howard Hughes and Bugsy Siegel and sail from crisis to crisis with unflagging optimism and panache. This is the culmination of Lambert’s ‘Hollywood Quartet’, which also includes The Slide Area (1959), Inside Daisy Clover (1963) and The Goodbye People (1971). Set on the darker and more eccentric fringes of Tinseltown, these books reflect the life of Lambert (1925-2005) as an outsider who enjoyed (occasional) inside access. Once an editor of Sight & Sound, Lambert wrote screenplays and biographies and lived for many years in Morocco. There he directed an odd but rather splendid feature, Another Sky (1955).
— David Melville
Luigi Pirandello, 1915/1925
Known among anglophones only for a handful of his plays, especially Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello took filmmaking as the theme of his sixth novel, first published in 1915. Just as Six Characters created a metatheatrical framework for exploring the paradox of theatrical ‘truth’, so Shoot! took the diva genre popular in Italian cinema during the second decade of the 20th century as a framework to explore alienation in modern life. The protagonist – named in the second version’s subtitle, The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator (1925) – has become an impassive observer of the studio life taking place around him. He explains to an interested outsider (apparently representing the author) how he cranks at different speeds for different effects, and through what is supposed to be his journal we see the offscreen drama involving an excitable Russian-born diva, Nesteroff, her jealous admirers and the boss of the Kosmograph studio, pushing for ever greater sensation and realism – which is finally achieved in a tragicomic climax where reality invades the set, while Gubbio continues impassively recording. C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s original translation has been reissued, but badly needs updating to give this early vision of film as a metaphor for modern life wider currency.
— Ian Christie
83. Short Letter, Long Farewell
Peter Handke, 1972
For anyone who reveres John Ford while cherishing the line in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road about America having “colonised our consciousness”, Peter Handke’s novel is a must. Handke was the writer behind some of Wenders’s best films, but Short Letter, Long Farewell manages to be both a ‘road novel’ and brilliantly metacinematic. Its unnamed German hero roams across America, pursued by or pursuing the wife he’s parted from. The rooms and the landscapes are familiar to us Europeans from Edward Hopper’s paintings and Robert Frank’s photographs, and of course from movies, while the structure evokes American cinema’s quintessential genre. But – spoiler warning – it’s the pair finally reaching Los Angeles, and their meeting with an avuncular Ford, that crowns this meditation on Americana. Can it really be an authentic portrayal of the normally crusty Ford (who died a year after the book appeared), we might wonder? No matter, his benign advice and the evening light that bathes the scene transcend authenticity. Handke truly wrote the legend.
— Ian Christie
84. Show Business
Shashi Tharoor, 1992
Indian diplomat, politician and author Shashi Tharoor’s satire Show Business is set in the world of Bollywood. Superstar actor Ashok Banjara fights for his life in a hospital room as his nearest and dearest drop in and talk at him, while millions of fans across India pray for his survival. Anyone who grew up in India in the 1970s and 1980s knows the story of the rise of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, his near-death experience on the sets of Coolie (1983), his brief stint in politics, and his implication and acquittal in a scandal around a deal the Indian government made with the Swedish armaments company Bofors. Banjara’s novel hews closely to that in a series of flashbacks, and also hilariously sends up the kind of escapist Bollywood films made in the era, complete with scripts and treatments. Though Bollywood is now corporatised and much more professional than it used to be, many of the practices depicted in the novel, such as nepotism and factionalism, still exist today. For further Bollywood-related reading, see Irwin Allan Sealey’s Hero: A Fable (1990), loosely based on the life of actor M.G. Ramachandran, who went on to become the chief minister of the southern Indian state Tamil Nadu.
— Naman Ramachandran
85. Slow Fade
Rudolph Wurlitzer, 1984
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
The fourth novel of ‘Rudy’ Wurlitzer, a remarkable writer better known for his screenplays (including those for Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971; and Walker, 1987), is the only one about movies. Following his psychedelic Nog (1969), minimalist Flats (1971) and apocalyptic Quake (1974), Slow Fade is more of a page-turner – as is The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), a western that grew out of an unrealised script. Slow Fade focuses on a wasted septuagenarian macho filmmaker, Wesley Hardin, contemplating his own demise. Many assume it’s a portrait of Sam Peckinpah, whom Wurlitzer worked with on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), though he also suggests John Huston and Nicholas Ray. And the surrounding deadbeat hustlers, all hoping to turn some aspect of his legend into coin, include Hardin’s alienated son and a roadie Hardin hires to write a script recounting what happened to his equally alienated daughter when she ran off to India on a spiritual quest. The script’s progress is intercut with the director’s drift back to his modest origins, so that the Beckett-like/Buddhist theme of identity loss that featured in Wurlitzer’s earlier novels is here combined with a road-movie ambience.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum
Elmore Leonard, 1983
Get Shorty is Elmore Leonard’s definitive takedown of Hollywood and, coincidentally, one of the few adaptations of his novels he was happy with. But Leonard’s gimlet-eyed portraits of Tinseltown grifters had begun much earlier – and perhaps the most acidic comes in Stick. Leo Firestone, an independent producer-director of low-budget potboilers, comes to Miami to pitch a group of investors on a buddy cop film about two narcotics agents. His riff on drug traffickers as vermin bombs somewhat with his audience (unbeknown to Firestone, they are all drug dealers looking for ways to launder their money). He then has the tax fraud underlying his pitch exposed in painstaking detail by one of the dealers’ financial advisers. “You learn anything?” Ernest Stickley, the main character, is asked in the aftermath. “Never open your mouth when you’re full of shit,” Stick replies. In revenge, Hollywood adapted Stick two years later, as a Burt Reynolds-directed mess of studio revisions, which Leonard loathed.
— Sam Davies
87. Suite for Barbara Loden
Nathalie Léger, 2012
In her novel Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Léger shifts seamlessly between evocative textual analysis, personal memoir, detective work and fiction in a portrait of Barbara Loden, director, writer and star of Wanda (1970). Faced with the task of distilling Loden’s biography into a single entry for a film encyclopaedia, Léger’s research spirals rapidly. She begins to feel as though she is managing a huge building site, trying to excavate the texture of her subject, as if she is unearthing the reverse imprint of a fossil. In the absence of much recorded information about Loden’s life, documentarian Frederick Wiseman encourages her to make it up. Through Léger’s writing, Loden’s elusive presence in film history slips into and reflects the drifting eponymous protagonist of Wanda. Submerged in her search for facts, Léger identifies Loden’s essence not just in Wanda, but in Léger’s own mother and in herself. Léger’s openness in allowing her own identity to connect with and deepen her understanding of Barbara Loden, creates a remarkable text that fuses the imagined and the experienced and relinquishes the myth of objectivity.
— Sophie Brown
Glen David Gold, 2009
Among the impossible challenges Glen David Gold sets himself in his (over?)ambitious second novel, which interweaves three stories of World War I and Hollywood, is entering the mind of a genius, Charlie Chaplin, immersed in his creative process. It helps that Chaplin is making the worst film of his mature period, from which this melancholic book takes its self-deprecating, ironic title, so Gold only has to show him floundering, piling bad ideas together, frustrated by the knowledge that while a great comedy remains to be made and he’s the man to make it, this isn’t it. (It would be a shame to reveal the movie-making connection of the second story, as it’s a delicious surprise if you don’t know it.) Gold, author of the historical mystery thriller Carter Beats the Devil, is a supremely engaging spinner of yarns, afflicted with a streak of pessimism: Carter kept it in check; here it explodes all over, to impressive, sometimes dismaying effect. The book has the impetus of a true page-turner, but you sense that each page turned brings you closer to something awful: the forced smile of the clown revealed in all its horror.
— David Cairns
David Thomson, 1985
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Is Suspects a novel? In its form, David Thomson’s book bears a strong resemblance to his Biographical Dictionary of Film, consisting of nothing more than a series of profiles, but the difference here is that the people being indexed are fictional characters, mostly drawn from the golden age of film noir. As we flick through the (often surprising) histories and (often bleak) futures that Thomson has concocted for them, unexpected connections start to emerge. Could Chinatown’s Noah Cross have had an affair with Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond? Might the child Desmond conceived with Joe Gillis have grown up to become Julian Kaye in American Gigolo (1980)? Perhaps Charles Foster Kane’s mother used her fortune to build the Overlook Hotel?Well, why not? The threads that Thomson draws between his characters can be tenuous, eccentric and strained, but he succeeds in creating a fascinating interconnected universe, with the book’s narrator – himself a beloved figure from a Hollywood classic – ultimately emerging as a key player in this dark tale of lost souls and broken dreams.
— Philip Concannon
90. Ten Days in the Hills
Jane Smiley, 2007
Jane Smiley’s snapshot of Los Angeles in the early 2000s describes, in tedious, entrancing detail, ten decadent days in the mansion of Oscar-winning writer-director and Vietnam veteran Max. A modern recasting of The Decameron, the novel sees Max, his girlfriend Elena, ex-wife Zoe, daughter Isabel and various other members of his extended circle holed up in Beverly Hills. While on the other side of the world the Iraq war is in its early stages, they eat, drink, have a lot of sex, watch movies, gossip about the industry and argue about politics. Max, whose star is fading, is planning an indie film, a kind of My Dinner with Andre but set in bed with Elena, “a movie about an unmarried couple talking about the Iraq war and making love”. His agent dismisses it as a joke, telling him “it has every single thing that Hollywood producers hate and despise, and that American audiences hate and despise – fornication, old people, current events and conversation.” So, too, does Ten Days in the Hills. But in the novel’s case, that’s no bad thing at all.
— Catherine Wheatley
91. Their Finest Hour and a Half
Lissa Evans, 2009
Their Finest Hour and a Half – aka Their Finest in Lone Scherfig’s faithful 2016 film adaptation was Lissa Evans’s third novel, an immaculately researched depiction of home-front life during World War II and a telling account of the ways in which women were both marginalised and emancipated by the war effort. As might be expected from someone whose credits as a TV producer/director include Father Ted and Room 101, it is also very funny, light in tone but broad in scope. Catrin Cole is conscripted to help write the script for Just an Ordinary Wednesday, a largely fabricated ‘true story’ based around the retreat from Dunkirk; “authenticity with optimism,” as one Whitehall mandarin puts it. The novel is a love letter to films such as In Which We Serve (1942), Millions Like Us (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), and to the women and men who wrote, directed and acted in them; by doing so, Evans suggests, they also served.
— Andy Miller
92. ‘The Tumour with a Human Face’
Tanizaki Junichiro, 1918
During the 1910s, the author of such acclaimed literary works as Naomi (1923), In Praise of Shadows (1933) and The Makioka Sisters (1948) was an active member of the Pure Film Movement, which argued for a modern Japanese cinema divorced from its stage roots; and also, for a short stint at the dawn of the 1920s, a screenwriter. Many of Tanizaki’s early essays and short stories explored the industry and imagery of cinema. ‘The Tumour with the Human Face’ (1918) features an actor returned to Japan after several years in Hollywood to discover that a mysterious movie in which she is top-billed, but which she has no recollection of making, is doing the rounds in Tokyo. Investigations into its origins reveal “a certain Frenchman in Yokohama came and sold it. The Frenchman said he had acquired it along with many other films in Shanghai.” Meanwhile, rumours abound of viewers who have witnessed its trick effects alone at night and go on to suffer terrifying, feverish dreams. The story is a clear precursor to the J-horror Ringu (1997) and offers a fascinating insight into the culture shock provided by early cinema’s profound globalising effect.
— Jasper Sharp
93. 24 Hours in a Film Studio
Mario Soldati, 1935
Mario Soldati’s novella was written at a particularly inauspicious time in the Turin-born writer’s career. Returning after two years at New York’s Columbia University, he began writing screenplays, and one of his first jobs was rewriting a script by Luigi Pirandello. The proto-neorealist drama Steel (1933) was based on Pirandello’s own short story and directed by the noted German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann. Despite the high calibre of the collaborators, the project turned out a financial disaster and the studio, looking for a scapegoat, fired Soldati. It was after his unceremonious dismissal that Soldati began work on a book that would provide fascinating insight into life on a film set. “The purpose of this volume,” he writes in the foreword, “is to give all those who are curious about the cinema a lively impression of a working studio, the kind of impression a layman would glean from a quick visit, with occasional explanations and digressions by the expert.”
— Pasquale Iannone
94. Two Weeks in Another Town
Irwin Shaw, 1960
The period of the so-called Hollywood on the Tiber in the 1950s and 60s – when Rome’s Cinecittà studios welcomed a parade of stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner – has spawned several books over the years, with recent nonfiction accounts including Giuseppe Sansonna’s Hollywood on the Tiber (2016) and Shawn Levy’s Dolce Vita Confidential (2016). Irwin Shaw’s 1960 novel tells of Jack Andrus, a middle-aged former film star working for Nato in Paris. Andrus is contacted by a Hollywood producer friend to work on a picture in Rome and he accepts, eager to once again breathe the air of a film set. Shaw’s book was adapted for the big screen just months after its publication, reuniting the main collaborators of an earlier Hollywoodset melodrama, 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful (director Vincente Minnelli, producer John Houseman, screenwriter Charles Schnee, composer David Raksin and star Kirk Douglas).
— Pasquale Iannone
95. Valley of the Dolls
Jacqueline Susann, 1966
It’s remembered chiefly as a slab of pleasurably exploitative trash, and the source of a blindingly successful movie often ranked among the worst of all time. While even its diehard fans would be unlikely to quibble with that reputation, the frankness, cynicism and mordant wit of Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller have all worn well – and it’s still an addictive pleasure to read. The book stands as an intriguing monument to a Hollywood crashing out of its Golden Age, and a testimony of the double-think endured by those women who came of age between World War II and the sexual revolution. Susann called upon her own experiences as a low-billing stage and TV actor (“I got cast as what I looked like,” she once said, “a glamorous divorcée who gets stabbed or strangled”), as well as thinly veiled aspects of the lives of stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Grace Kelly, in her depiction of actresses called upon to appear both independent and subservient; sexually knowing and respectably pure; career-minded, and yet willing at any moment to throw it all up for a man. Little wonder they had need of ‘dolls’ – the book’s obscure slang term for the prescription pills that help to keep these far from doll-like women dreaming.
— Hannah McGill
96. Voyage in the Dark
Jean Rhys, 1934
No one writes outsiders like Jean Rhys. Her stories centre on the other woman, the peripheral character – the frustratingly passive protagonist. Between 1928 and 1939, she published a quartet of short novels from the vantage point of four such characters, all of whom regularly wander in and out of urban cinemas. For Rhys, cinema was a useful staging ground for depicting the experience of being inside/outside, performing belonging while feeling utterly alienated in the unsympathetic cityscapes her novels depict. In the dream-like Voyage in the Dark, for example, Rhys takes us into the grimy fleapits of pre-war London. Seated in a seedy Camden theatre, immigrant chorus girl Anna Morgan and her friend watch Three-Fingered Kate, a popular real-life British crime serial from the early 1910s. As Anna’s companion berates the actor playing Kate for being a “foreigner”, each dismissive remark reinforces Anna’s own sense of displacement, while Rhys’s ingenuous choice of serial reflects the repetitive cycles in which all her heroines find themselves: doomed to repeat their mistakes and remain outsiders.
— Lisa Stead
97. A Voyage to Purilia
Elmer Rice, 1930
Two astronauts journey to a distant planet not unlike our own. In fact, it resembles 1920s America reconfigured by Hollywood, for although cinema is never mentioned, Purilia is movies. The plot’s frequent twists – as the protagonists fall in love and are pursued by countless villains – don’t prevent the narrator, an ethnologist, from observing the conventions of Purilian life, and with them, those of the cinema. Music is ever-present, faces are subject to fade-outs and close-ups (“her face distended, until it blotted out the cottage itself”) and a “strange disembodied voice” introduces characters and describes their emotions. A classic adventure novel à la Jules Verne, where the rules of cinema apply: all is resolved by a deus ex machina and marriage is the ultimate goal. Written decades before space travel was a reality and when talkies were still in their infancy, A Voyage to Purilia is inevitably dated and now largely forgotten.
I discovered it through the filmmaker Thom Andersen, who quotes from it in his essay ‘The Time of the Toad’ (reprinted in the anthology Slow Writing), and for whom Rice’s book is a satire of an image of American society – affluent, post-industrial and essentially classless – that the movies could no longer sustain after the crash of 1929.
— María Palacios Cruz
98. A Way of Life, Like Any Other
Darcy O’Brien, 1977
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
Hollywood the company town is powered by fame, but novelists love to contemplate the other Hollywood, that of fortunes reversed and eventual failure. Darcy O’Brien’s brief and delicious roman à clef describes a gilded childhood swiftly tarnished by his father’s inept way with money and his mother’s selfishness and alcoholism. Clearly recognisable are O’Brien’s father George, the strapping star of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), whose later career was in B westerns, and mother Marguerite Churchill, a stage-trained beauty who acted in 25 films, including The Big Trail (1930) with John Wayne. Other boldface names drift through the narrative, some under well-disguised pseudonyms (‘Sam Caliban’, an openhanded and joyously vulgar director of trashy films whose life and wife are undone by gambling) and others in person (there is a poignant description of a visit to an ailing John Ford). While A Way of Life’s events are often downbeat, even tragic, O’Brien mixes tart humour with a sad gentleness of spirit. All of Hollywood’s faded denizens should wish for so sympathetic a chronicler.
— Farran Smith Nehme
99. Wise Children
Angela Carter, 1991
“What a joy it is to dance and sing!” reads the closing line of Angela Carter’s final novel. Published just a year before the author’s death at 51, Wise Children is a celebration of life: a bold, bawdy love-letter to Shakespeare, sex, sisterhood – and showbiz. For the identical Chance twins, Dora and Nora, the 20th century is their stage. Dora’s narrative begins on their 75th birthday, with the pair slapped in “warpaint… an inch thick”, and rattles back through their intertwined lives – including a long and eventful stint in 1930s Hollywood. Dora recalls arriving to perform in a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The most democratic thing I’d ever seen, that California sunshine.” Once on set, they are “marooned in Wonderland”. Of the movie business, Dora complains: “The same routine, the same song, the same line – over and over… And what did all our hard work add up to? Just another Sunday night at the pictures… Your helping of dark.”
— Anna Coatman
Steve Erickson, 2007
Credit: Etienne Gilfillan for Sight & Sound
The epigraph to Steve Erickson’s stunning novel is from Josef von Sternberg – “I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world” – and by the book’s end you could believe it, so potently are the medium’s mythical, even mystical, properties evoked. The novel opens in Hollywood in 1969, as the Manson murders happen, and takes us through to the early 80s; protagonist Vikar is a cinema-obsessed refugee from a toxic Calvinist background with a tattoo on his head depictingElizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a scene from George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), “the two most beautiful people in the history of movies”. Despite (or maybe because) he is “cineautistic”, as one character describes him, Vikar becomes an acclaimed editor – one who decries the notion of continuity – and is finally able to discover the meaning of one haunting image that seeps from his dreams into the films he watches. Zeroville is poised on the fault-lines between cinema and dreams, reality and fiction, and old and new Hollywood, which makes it something of a must-read for cinephiles.
— Kieron Corless