I’ve been on something of a minor William Goldman kick for the last couple of weeks.
Although probably best known as a screenwriter (his screenplays include The Princess Bride, A Bridge Too Far, The Ghost and The Darkness, The Great Waldo Pepper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men, the last two both being Oscar winners for him) Goldman first came to prominence as a novelist. Although I have seen and enjoyed most of his screen work I had not, until recently, read any of his novels (although his insider account of Hollywood, Adventures In The Screen Trade, is an old favourite of mine and I have gone through at least three copies over the years). This is an oversight which I have now rectified, reading both Marathon Man and Magic and enjoying both of them immensely.
First published in 1974, Marathon Man is arguably Goldman’s best known novel – a story of Nazi diamonds, mysterious government agencies, love (both romantic and brotherly), loss and marathon running. The movie version, directed by John Schlessinger from Goldman’s screenplay, put a whole generation off going to the dentist and, for me, the expression ‘Is it safe?’ uttered in a Mittel Europa accent never fails to send chills down my spine.
Very often good novels suffer in translation from page to screen, but thanks to Goldman’s deft touch and a source novel that (I suspect) was written with one eye to the screen anyway, there is little to choose between film and novel in terms of narrative quality. Where the novel succeeds is in its depiction of the character’s inner life – from the once-steely resolve of Scylla the assassin to the mounting frustration and paranoia of Christian Szell and, most of all, the hopes, dreams and fears of the title character Babe Levy. More than that, Goldman has fun subverting the traditions and conventions of the thriller novel, bringing the workings of a (quote/unquote) serious novelist to genre concerns, a subversion that isn’t always apparent in the subsequent film version.
Similarly, in his 1976 novel, Magic, Goldman takes a fairly well-worn trope (that of the ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy) and turns it into a chilling novel of character and an unflinching study of the fear of failure. Magic was also brought to the screen (in 1978) but, unlike Marathon Man, the novel has a much more powerful central narrative than the film, due in large part to the flashback structure that Goldman utilises and – with only a little pun intended – his literary sleight-of-hand in keeping the exact nature of Corky Withers’ relationship with his dummy, Fats, an enigma until almost a third into the book.
Like Marathon Man, one of the strengths of Magic lies in its cast of supporting characters. In both books even the minor characters are beautifully realised and never one-dimensional no matter how brief their flit across the page.
I’ve been a fan of William Goldman as a screenwriter and Hollywood commentator for quite some time now – and it turns out that I’m a fan of his as a novelist as well.