Which Lie Did I Tell?
William Goldman
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Get *Which Lie Did I Tell?* delivered to your door! Which Lie Did I Tell?
More Adventures in the Screen Trade
William Goldman
Pantheon Books
March 2000
480 pages
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The great lesson of William Goldman's last great book about screenwriting, Adventures in the Screen Trade, was that in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything." The suits, the directors, the reporters, the actors. None of them. In the seventeen years since that book was published, the amount of "insider" knowledge of the filmaking process available to the general public has grown exponentially. ET, EW, Premier, Movieline, dozens of web sites, all tell us what really happens in Hollywood: who threw a shit-fit, how much a movie is over its budget, what the weekend box office totals were. So we are now a country of insiders. And you know what? We still don't know anything. At least that is what William Goldman maintains in Curled Up With a Good Book his new book, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. While many books purport to blow the lid off Hollywood, mistakenly believing that tales of sex, drugs or hyper-inflated egos are somehow instructive, William Goldman is one of the few people working in the film industry with the experience, intelligence and guts to write this combination how-to book and survival manual.

Goldman divides Which Lie into four parts: his own post-Adventures experiences, discussions of the work of writers he admires, what constitutes a movie-worthy story, and, finally, the first draft of a screenplay with commentary by Goldman's contemporaries. In other words, the book functions as a graduate workshop in screenwriting with a great, if occasionally fractious, professor. He tells tales of his two great loves, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, and his worst failure, The Year of the Comet. His failures, or near failures, provide the best opportunity for instruction. Every person who has ever complained that the movie was not as good as the book should read the chapter on the difficulties of adapting the novel Absolute Power to the screen. Also, the original screenplay offers the novice writer a marvelous illustration of screenwriting process.

But like many great teachers, Goldman can oversimplify in the name of clarity. For instance, his distinction between "Hollywood" and "independent" films seems grotesque. According to Goldman, Hollywood films most often reaffirm and reassure us while independent films challenge us. To me, Goldman is really using the two already misleading categories (What constitutes independent anyway? Non-studio financing? Alternative distribution channels?) to split two basic types of films: the ones he likes and the ones he doesn't. Let's be clear here. Goldman likes movies that entertain, that have coherent narratives, that do not aspire to anything beyond popular art. He's not interested in, to paraphrase Kafka, breaking the frozen ocean of the soul.

Despite his roguish attitude, Goldman embodies Hollywood at its best. In his grumpy way, he demands recognition of the importance of the screenwriter, as well as the difficulty of her craft. Goldman's sage advice is welcome, but one wonders how long it will reflect the reality of movie making. When you can make a movie for ten thousand dollars, distribute it on the web, and ignore Hollywood and all it stands for, will Goldman really have anything to say that doesn't seem quaint? Absolutely. Because what Goldman understands, what he really knows, is how to write a story for the screen that people actually want to see.

© 2000 by Martin Schmutterer for Curled Up With a Good Book

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