Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

R.I.P. William Goldman

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, when I was in my teens, was this: “You want to know what movies are good? Look at the WRITER, not the actors. The writer is the guy who actually makes up the story and the words the actors are saying.”

So I got interested in screenwriting, and the people who did it successfully, at a very early age. This led me to one of the best books ever on the subject; William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I was already a fan; his adaptation of All The President’s Men remains to this day one of my favorite movies ever made, though he himself didn’t much like the way it turned out.

A lot of things people remember as facts were actually Goldman’s words, invented for the movie. In particular, the stuff with Deep Throat like “Follow the money.”

I also really liked a largely-forgotten classic of his, Magic, adapting his own novel.

But Adventures in the Screen Trade was a revelation. It is revered not just by me but also by pretty much anyone who writes. Here’s Mark Waid…

Goldman was an immense, immense influence on me–not just with his fiction but with his instructional think-pieces. Other books have come and gone on my list, but ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE has always been and will always be the first (and only must-read) book I recommend to aspiring writers in any medium. It would take me hours to recount all the things I’ve learned from William Goldman about craft.

Goldman was absolutely a writer’s writer, a guy we all looked up to and sought to emulate, and he generously gave of his knowledge and shared his own struggles in dozens of memoirs of the craft over the course of his career.

Any of them is worth your time if you write for publication– ANY publication, from screenplays to books to magazines to blogs– but Adventures in the Screen Trade is the one to start with.

Goldman preferred to think of himself as a novelist, but the movies are where he made his mark on American culture. The number of lines he wrote that have since become catchphrases is probably higher than any other writer’s ever to work in Hollywood. The Princess Bride (probably the most beloved of Goldman’s movies, even more than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) alone has at least a dozen.

(Worth noting that this movie is, again, adapting his own novel.)

Whether he was doing an original, or something based on one of his own books…

…or adapting something from someone else…

… he was never less than good, and very often he was brilliant.

Here’s his author page at Amazon, and here are his IMDb credits. I guarantee you, he wrote SOMETHING you loved. Treat yourself and seek out some of the rest.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. Le Messor

    For many years, it’s been an ongoing competition among my friends to see who can be the first to work a Princess Bride quote into any given conversation. (We say ‘kings to you’ to that person.)
    Just a couple of weeks ago, I was waiting outside a Bill Bailey show, in a very heavy crowd, and we heard from some random stranger: “Ev’ybody move!”

    He was one of the greats.

  2. Greg Burgas

    All the President’s Men is waaaaaay overrated

    Good movies are tough to parse, because everyone knows good or even great movies where the writing wasn’t that good, but the actors made it work. Or the directing. I get what that advice is trying to say, but it’s not necessarily true. Heck, even comics operate that way. Solitary pursuits, like novel writing, are different, but in collaborations, anything can make it great. Cary Elwes, who’s not a particularly great actor, is perfectly cast in The Princess Bride. So while the screenplay is super, could another actor have sold the lines as well as he did? It’s a conundrum.

    Goldman was terrific, though. The coolest thing about him was that he refused to be pigeonholed, and he was good at so many different genres. Very impressive.

    1. I don’t think it’s a conundrum at all. There are at least a dozen other actors who could have done as good or better than Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE; I doubt if there’s anyone else who could have adapted Goldman’s book as well. “Making something work” is not the same thing as greatness.

      Likewise, I’ve never felt great art could save a badly-written comic, though I’ve adored many comics that were wonderfully-written with just so-so art.

      Basically what you are arguing for is what I always think of as “the Tim Burton defense,” which I didn’t buy into for Batman 1989 or The Nightmare Before Christmas or any of the other times someone’s offered it when I said his movies were empty and stupid. The ones that work at all have the skeleton of a good script that he didn’t completely destroy. And so on. I guess mileage varies on this one, but I bet I find more good movies looking at writers than other folks do looking at directors.

      1. Greg Burgas

        We’re going to have to agree to disagree to a certain extent here, because while yes, you can probably find more good movies by looking at the writers, I don’t think the disparity is as big as you think. Directors and actors can turn a bad screenplay into great stuff, just as writers can overcome bad directing.

        In comics, Claremont always seems a bit better when he’s working with great artists. Alan Moore’s Miracleman issues drawn by Chuck Austen are brutal, even though we can see the words and know that they’re good ones. The art drags it down. That happens a lot in collaborative art.

        Just look at All the President’s Men. A very big reason why that works is because of Redford and Hoffman and the direction – the writing isn’t particularly special. It’s fine, but not as good as Goldman could be (The Princess Bride, since that’s so famous, has absolutely stellar script). But that’s why we probably need to agree to disagree, as you probably disagree with me about that! 🙂

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, Magic is a good movie, although it creeped me out something awful.
    Goldman, though, was pretty damn awesome. I always thought of him as a screenwriter first, although as I was looking over his biography after news of his death was announced, I was pretty surprised to see how many novels he had written – and then adapted into movies. Like I said, he was pretty awesome.

  4. Mark.Rouleau

    Although I found a lot of his books frustrating– too many twists”= that were the result of deliberately withholding information that didn’t need to be withheld, one of my favorite books by him is The Silent Gondoliers. It’s an S. Morgenstern book (with a wonderful forward by Morgenstern himself, in which he explains that the Princess Bride’s report of his death was in error: “I am old, but alive. Perhaps, as you age, you will find the two are not mutually exclusive.”

    It is a slight book, and therefore overlooked, but it has a big heart, a lovely message, and the trademark Goldman/Morgenstern wit.

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