“I personally do not believe that you can tell if a movie is ‘good’ or bad’ when it comes out. All you can be sure of is this: Does it ‘work’ or not? For audiences.”
When William Goldman, one of the greatest screenwriters ever seen in Hollywood, died in November 2018, the hard job for reporters was to pick which film made the headline: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “Misery,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Marathon Man,” and “The Princess Bride.” The first two scripts won Academy Awards for Goldman, and the last two were adapted from his own novels – the mastery and wide range of his craft, both literary and cinematic, are not in question.
However, what was also mentioned, in practically every report, was the work I mostly know Goldman for writing: a book, part-memoir, part-diatribe, part-screenwriting manual, that both defined and hindered his career in Hollywood, and defined Hollywood itself forever more. “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” was published in 1983, by which point Goldman’s scripts were either made into bad films, like a musical version of “Grand Hotel,” or were not made at all, like a version of “The Right Stuff.” The New Hollywood era that was ushered in alongside “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had also been killed off by the self-indulgent production of “Heaven’s Gate,” putting power back into the hands of producers.
“Adventures in the Screen Trade” lays bare Goldman’s cynicism about the Hollywood machine, through explaining how awards should be given for holding meetings, explaining the types of first pages that guarantee a script will never be read, and notably repeats a phrase used by production managers when calculating the cost of having a star in your film: “add one third for the shit.” However, the most enduring phrase from the book, a phrase Goldman later said he expected to be written on his gravestone, was “Nobody Knows Anything.” When it first appears, it is repeated for emphasis. The phrase refers to how nobody knows what film is going to be a success – the then-recently-released “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is mentioned, as every major studio passed on it except for Paramount, while the Julie Andrews musical “Star!” bombed when released, despite going over well in previews.
The middle section of the book recounts Goldman’s scripts one by one, success and failure. It is as valuable a passage to read as all the other scriptwriting manuals you can buy although, this time, the writer has a recognisable track record. The main lesson here is, also repeated for emphasis, “Screenplay is Structure,” regardless of having well-written scenes or dialogue – for example, “Back to the Future” is all structure, to the extent that the “Johnny B. Goode” performance scene was nearly cut by its writers for being technically superfluous. The last section of the book takes a detailed look at Goldman adapting “Da Vinci,” one of his own short stories. You are given the original story, and the finished script, which is then analysed by a production designer, an editor, a cinematographer, a composer, and a director, to give you a good idea of how your script is to be used – for all the creativity, a script is an instruction manual.
William Goldman would later write a sequel, titled “Which Lie Did I Tell?” in 2000, and titles his time around his writing of the first book as “The Leper”. “The Princess Bride” was still to come, a film that gained a cult following on home video, after doing less well in cinemas – in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. Crucially, his ex-wife had told him she realised the time alone was getting to him, and “the socialness of moviemaking” was what he missed. He ended the first book by wishing his readers, “...may all your scars be little ones...” He was right about his own.