E.L. Doctorow's collaboration with the 'enemy'
Sag Harbor, N.Y. — "I resent the impact film has in this culture. As a writer, I find it's the enemy. All the regorous and passionate moviegoing . . . makes me very jealous. With its variations, like TV, it has probably done more than anything else to create a kind of profound illiteracy in the world today."
Such sentiments wouldn't be surprising from a man of works like E. L. Doctorow, except that he has been collaborating with the 'enemy' lately -- writing the screenplay for "Daniel," based on his novel "The Book of Daniel." And he has "very mixed feelings" about doing this.
On one hand, he fears some "Daniel" viewers will feel there's no need to read the novel, which treats the story -- about the children of two radicals executed for espionage -- in more depth and detail. It's also possible, he says, that his reputation as a serious writer will suffer.
On the other hand, he knows the film will reach a large audience that would never read the book anyway. And he made sure it would reflect his ideas. He insisted on having a say in all matters from casting to the final cut, and he worked closely with director Sidney Lumet.
Critics and audiences have had mixed opinions about the movie, which keeps the novel's main themes while scaling down the plot and sanitizing some of the action. (The rating is R, reflecting vulgar language and a clinical execution scene.) Doctorow himself is pleased with it, preferring its condensed energy to the talkiness of "Ragtime," the last film made from one of his books.
What prompted this noted novelist to tackle the movie world? Just an impulse. "When I have a choice between caution and recklessness," he told me recently at his modest Long Island summer home, "I'll choose recklessness. It was the more dangerous alternative -- and therefore more interesting -- to make the film rather than block it. All my life, I've done the most important things instinctively, without sufficient thought," he concluded with a smile.
From the start, Doctorow wanted "Daniel" to echo his book closely, even though he feels "most movies are short stories rather than novels in their content and linearity." Once into it, he found screenwriting a snap. "It's another language," he says, "but you pick it up quickly if you deal in language. The principles of composition are the same, and you worry about the same things: Does it work? Are you repeating yourself? . . . Once you learn the tech-talk they use, you just move right in."
The only frustration, he said, was having to collaborate, an unfamiliar activity for most novelists.And he still seems awed by the expense of filmmaking , even though "Daniel" was a relatively cheap movie at $8 million, with many of the participants working for minimum pay. "I used to tease my friends about this," Doctorow remarks. "They said they brought in 'Ragtime' for $32 million. I said I brought in my novel for $78 -- a few boxes of paper and some typewriter ribbons!" Now that he's an accomplice in the movie business, though, his teasing days are probably over.
A controversial aspect of the "Daniel" film and book is the resemblance of two characters to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for stealing atomic secrets.
Doctorow stresses that his characters are fictitious. "If I wanted to write about the Rosenbergs, I would have called them that. Anybody who knows me at all knows this," says the author, whose "Ragtime" put such people as Houdini and Freud into a fictional plot. "My interest was not in writing a documentary novel. I began not with the Rosenberg family, but with the extremity of their situation, and the law that was applied in their case. I used this for my own imaginative responses . . ."
Doctorow is surprised that his fact-fiction blending causes a flap. "Fiction and the imagination are another way of knowing," he says, "as opposed to empirial investigation, legal discovery, journalism. I've never believed this is life over here and art over there. They mix up, and always have. I'm against precious and aseptic ideas of literature having nothing to do with life. So many of the great masters have jumped in with both feet -- Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Tolstoy, Dickens . . . They were steeped to the eyebrows in what was going on."
The themes of "Daniel" are diverse, including a child's fear of abandonment, capital punishment, and the effects of idealism on a family. Many are related to political ideas or circumstances. Yet the writer doesn't see the movie or novel as essentially political.
"What art does is to enlarge our own humanity," he says, "by allowing us to live vicariously the experiences of others -- with whom we might not otherwise be in sympathy. We find ourselves living intimately with people we probabLY would not invite to dinner at our home, like Raskolnikov. A major function of all art is to keep us alive to each other. And that's not political at all . . . At its best, in the great works, it's almost a religious function."
Since some of its key events are rooted in politics, however, is "Daniel" the kind of work that could prompt social change? "Once an Englishman called me the Balzac of the petrol pumps," remarks the writer, "because I want people who work at gas stations and wait on tables to read my books . . . . Of course, you want your work to have an impact. But I must admit my doubts about the efficacy of this . . ."
These doubts are the same ones W. H. Auden had "when he said art didn't change anything, and all the antifascist poets of the '30s did nothing to stop Hitler . . . If a book or film can make any kind of change, it's usually quite slow. Art never quite catches up to ouutrageous reality. It's always lumbering behind history."
Sounds gloomy. Yet later, Doctorow agrees that culture includes "a process by which myth takes over from history. Today, a writer's function must partly be to investigate the myths of the past -- the myths we've accumulated and live by -- and contravene them with some kind of additional intelligence.Otherwise, they'll run rampant."
Here, then, is the social role of "Daniel" and others of its ilk. "This film probes some very uncomfortable things," Doctorow says. "But if people stop examining their national myths -- as they have in Russia -- something monstrous happens, and true totalitarianism sets in."
Isn't the movie itself, though, just another step in the mythmaking process? Doctorow listens to this suggestion, and admits there is a built-in paradox.
"But if enough people do this kind of work, he remarks, "things will be healthy and free-flowing, and no one vision will become entrenched. It's true, we add to the clutter, and use up some paper and trees in the bargain. But the alterntive is silence. And I don't see how that's a more positive contribution . . ."