by Bernard Selling
The writing of a motion picture screenplay is both a subtle art form and a maddening craft. By their very nature, screenplays are incomplete, in the same way that plays are incomplete: they provide only the text with which the actors and director must work. Creating a sub-text that breathes life into the screenplay and the film is the job of the actor and director. A job well done by the screenwriter means nothing until the screenplay gets to the screen.
Every writer, whether novelist, short story writer, playwright or screenwriter has three basic tools with which to work: narrative, dialogue and inner thoughts and feelings. The novelist and short story writer must be skilled at narrative, good at dialogue and have the advantage of being able to express inner thoughts and feelings directly.
The screenwriter must be skilled at creating narrative that can be communicated through action and dialogue. His success, however, will derive from the way that he handles inner thoughts and feelings that can seldom be expressed directly. Since a great many scripts are adaptations from novels, short stories and plays, let’s take a look at a classic American short story and see how it might be adapted to the screen. I have in mind Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” An example of American short fiction at its best, “Macomber” was one of Hemingway’s favorites. It was also made into a 1947 movie, Macomber, starring Gregory Peck. The story is typical Hemingway: every moment in the story is a test of a man’s manhood.
In the story, “Macomber,” a handsome, athletic, very rich, rather naïve man goes on safari in Africa, accompanied by his wife and their guide, Wilson. Let’s look at the opening:
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
“Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?” Macomber asked.
“I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.
“I’ll have a gimlet, too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.
“I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”
This seems like idle conversation, yes? Except for the line, “…pretending nothing had happened.” What does this line mean? Hemingway goes on:
‘Francis Macomber had, half an hour before, been carried to his tent from the edge of the camp in triumph on the arms and shoulders of the cook, the personal boys, the skinner…he had shaken all their hands, received their congratulations and then gone into his tent and sat on the bed until his wife came in. She did not speak to him when she came in and he left the tent at once…to sit in the shade.’
So the public perception of Macomber is that he has done something to be proud of, but Mrs. Macomber doesn’t share that view. Next, Hemingway describes these characters:
‘Mrs. Macomber looked at Wilson quickly. She was an extremely handsome and wellkept woman of the beauty and social position which had, five years before, commanded five thousand dollars as the price of endorsing, with photographs, a beauty product which she never used. She had been married to Francis Macomber for eleven years.’ (Page 4)
“He’s a good lion, isn’t he?” Macomber said. His wife looked at him now. She looked at both men as though she had never seen them before. One, Wilson, the white hunter, she knew she had never truly seen before. He was about middle height with sandy hair, a stubby mustache, a very red face and extremely cold eyes with faint wrinkles at the corners that grooved merrily when he smiled. He smiled at her now.’ (Page 4)
Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five-years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big game fishing records and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.’ (Page 4)
Ah, so there it is. Macomber has shown himself to be a coward. What kind? Since this is a safari—probably a wild animal hunt, we can suppose that Macomber ran from a lion or a rhino. If so, what will the consequences be?
Early in the paragraph Hemingway damns Macomber with faint praise: “if you didn’t mind the length of bone…” (gangly) “thin-lipped…” (unsensual) “…good at court games…” (a too-civilized form of mano-a-mano competition).
“Here’s to the lion,” he (Macomber) said. “I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”
Margaret, his wife, looked away from him and back to Wilson.
“Let’s not talk about the lion,” she said.
Wilson looked over at her without smiling and now she smiled at him.
“Hadn’t you ought to put your hat on, Mr. Wilson…you have a very red face.”
“Drink,” said Wilson.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Francis drinks a great deal but his face is never red.”
“It’s red today,” Macomber tried to joke.
“No,” said Margaret, “It’s mine that’s red today. But Mr. Wilson’s is always red.”
From this we see that Macomber has done something to be ashamed of, apparently something cowardly, such as running away from danger. In all likelihood, Wilson saved his life and shot the beast. Macomber tries to joke about his cowardice, as if it’s a small thing—maybe it is to Macomber. But it’s a big thing to his wife. She is ashamed. Or is it something else? Perhaps they have a relationship in which each struggles for power and now Mrs. Macomber has the power on her side. It seems that way, from the way she flirts with Wilson.
The two men talk about the natives, Wilson allowing that a good beating every now and then keeps the natives in line. Macomber replies, “We all take a beating every day, you know, one way or the other,” a line suggesting that Mrs. Macomber has been indulging herself in exercising her power over her husband quite often.
Moments later, Macomber says, “I’m awfully sorry about this lion business. It doesn’t have to go any further, does it? I mean no one will hear about it, will they?”
So now we see that Macomber is ashamed of his actions and he doesn’t want the world to hear about them. Or is he? It is an odd line, so–as we say—“on the money.” If we repeat the line to ourselves, remembering that Macomber is a very rich man, one gets the impression he is more concerned about the annoyance of having failed at this sport than the shame. He certainly sounds more matter-of-fact than deeply wounded. Wilson is put off.
“You mean will I tell it at the Mathaiga Club?” Wilson looked at him coldly. “No, I’m a professional hunter. We never talk about our clients. Supposed to be bad form to ask us not to talk, though.”
Hemingway follows with several of lines Wilson’s inner thoughts and feelings:
He had decided now that to break would be much easier. He would eat, then, by himself and could read a book with his meals. They would eat by themselves. He would see them through the safari on a very formal basis—what was it them French called it? Distinguished consideration—and it would be a damn sight easier than having to go through this emotional trash. Insult him and make a good clean break.
“I’m sorry,” Macomber said. “I didn’t realize that. There are a lot of things I don’t know.” So what could he do, Wilson thought. He was all ready to break it off quickly and neatly and here the beggar was apologizing after he had just insulted him. He made one more attempt. “…you know in Africa no woman ever misses her lion and no white man ever bolts.”
A moment later, Macomber says, “I bolted like a rabbit.” He’s matter of fact, honest, strangely non-evasive, as if not ashamed, just nonplused.
Hemingway reveals more of Wilson’s thoughts. Now what in hell were you going to do about a man who talked like that, Wilson wondered.
Wilson looked at Macomber…(who)…had a pleasant smile if you did not notice how his eyes showed when he was hurt.
“Maybe I can fix it up on buffalo,” he (Macomber) said. “We’re after them next, aren’t we?”
Here, the exposition comes to an end. Macomber has shown he is a coward but not a blustering, silly coward–just a matter-of-fact coward, not a man for whom Wilson can summon any contempt.
Mrs. Macomber, however, enjoys her husband’s vulnerability to the fullest, savaging him like a picador teasing a bull before sticking the sword in its shoulders.
“Why not let up on the bitchery just a little Margot,” Macomber said.
“I suppose I could,” she said, “since you put it so prettily.”
So, Robert Wilson thought to himself, she is giving him a ride, isn’t she? Or do you suppose that’s her idea of putting up a good show. How should a woman act when she discovers her husband is a bloody coward? She’s damn cruel but they’re all cruel. They govern, of course, and to govern one has to be cruel sometimes. Still, I’ve seen enough of their damn terrorism.
Before going on to the development of the story, Hemingway takes us into a back-story that allows us to experience—and taste every bit of Macomber’s cowardice in facing the lion.
Returning to the present, Hemingway begins the development section of the story, having Margot to continue Macomber’s humiliation by sleeping with Wilson.
Yet Macomber does not go to pieces. Like one of the animals being stalked, he’s wounded…hurt…but not crippled. Despite her infidelity—which has taken place many times before—he is alert and ready for the hunt.
The next day they engage several buffalo and, though Macomber acquits himself well, the largest one escapes into the bush.
“Then it’s going to be just like the lion,” said Margot full of anticipation. “It’s not going to be a bit like the lion,” Wilson told her. “Did you want another drink, Macomber?”
“Yes, thanks.” Macomber said. He expected to have the feeling he had about the lion to come back but it did not. For the first time in his life he really felt wholly without fear. Instead of fear he had a feeling of definite elation. “Can we go in after him now?” asked Macomber eagerly.
Wilson looked at him appraisingly. Damned if this isn’t a strange one, he thought. Yesterday he (was) scared sick and today he’s a ruddy fire eater.
Wilson tells Macomber they will wait a little while. Hemingway then slips into Macomber’s point of view and stays there for a while.
Macomber felt a wild unreasonable happiness he had never known before.
“By God that was a chase,” he said. “I’ve never had such a feeling. Wasn’t it marvelous, Margot.
“I hated it,” she said bitterly. “I loathed it.”
“You know I don’t think I’ll ever be afraid of anything again,” Macomber said to Wilson. “Something happened in me when we saw that first buff and started after him. Like a dam bursting. It was pure excitement.”
“Cleans out your liver,” said Wilson. “Damn funny things happen to people.”
Macomber’s face was shining. “You know, something did happen to me.”
His wife said nothing and eyed him strangely.
“You know, I’d like to try another lion,” Macomber said. “I’m really not afraid of them now. After all, what can they do to you?”
“That’s it,” said Wilson. “Worst they can do to you is kill you.
It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying before-hand, to bring this about with Macomber, but regardless of how it happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the beggar now, Wilson thought. He liked this Macomber now. Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry, too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.
“You’re both talking rot,” said Margot. “Just because you chase some helpless animals in a motor car you talk like heroes.”
So here we have it. In this struggle for power, Margot had always gotten the upper hand—their reason for staying together. She stayed in order to assert her power. He stayed because he had to find what it would take to release him from her death grip around his neck—to find his balls. So now the question remains: what will happen in the next four pages? Will Macomber prove himself as capable and fearless as he believes? How will Margot handle it.
…the gun bearer shouted wildly and they saw him coming out of the bush sideways, fast as a crab, and the bull coming , nose out, mouth tight closed, blood dripping, massive head straight out, coming in a charge, his little pig eyes blood-shot as he looked at them. Wilson who was ahead was kneeling shooting, and Macomber, as he fired, unhearing his shot in the roaring of Wilson’s gun, saw fragments like slate burst from the huge boss of the horns, and the head jerked, he shot again at the wise nostrils and saw the horns jolt again…and aiming carefully, shot again with the buffalo’s huge bulk almost on him and his rifle almost level with the on-coming head.
Wilson had ducked to one side to get in a shoulder shot. Macomber had stood solid and shot for the nose, shooting a touch high each time and hitting the heavy horns, splintering and chipping them, and Mrs. Macomber, in the car, had shot at the buffalo with the 6.5 Mannlicher as it seemed about to gore Macomber and had hit her husband about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.
So this is Hemingway’s solution to what happens after Macomber’s emancipation. His wife sees to it that he pays the price. As she cries hysterically, Wilson comes up to her:
“That was a pretty thing to do,” he said in a toneless voice. “He would have left you too.”
“Stop it,” she said.
She repeats this over and over.
“Oh, please stop it,” she said. “Please, please stop it.”
“That’s better,” Wilson said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.” Wilson sees this as a game in which Macomber had been stalked all right, but not by the wild African game he no longer feared. And while he had grown to fear his wife no longer, she had not ceased her hunt. If she couldn’t wound him any longer, she at least could kill him—all because, with her beauty fading, her power was ebbing before her eyes.
How might we translate parts of this story into the language of the motion picture. Let’s look at the beginning, this time cast in motion picture script format.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
EXT. AFRICAN DESERT – TENT — DAY
On a vast plain of the Serengeti Desert, several small tents dot an oasis. Two Land Rovers sit behind the tents, as the “beaters” eat their lunch at some remove from two men and a woman who sit beneath the fly of the dining tent.
EXT. UNDER THE TENT FLAP
A tall man leans back in his chair. He is Francis Macomber, rich, wealthy, mid-forties. A sportsman. Next to him sits his wife, Margot, a once-beautiful woman, now a bit lined in the face. Across from them sits the guide, Robert Wilson, middle height, and red-faced from living outdoors all his adult life.
MACOMBER: Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?
WILSON: I’ll have a gimlet.
MARGOT MACOMBER: I’ll have a gimlet, too. I need something.
MACOMBER: I suppose it’s the thing to do. Tell him to make three gimlets.
This is the scene almost exactly as Hemingway wrote it. The physical descriptions, the dialogue, everything. Except that it means nothing. The most pregnant line in the beginning, “…they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened,” has not been dealt with in any way. Consequently, there is no opening.
Let’s start by asking ourselves what each character wants. According to Hemingway, Macomber is here to shoot lions. But we realize that, in reading the story, he’s here for some other reason. His wife taunts him as she has done in the past. So he’s looking for a way to get past her taunts. And perhaps her taunts serve a purpose—to goad him into facing what he has never faced: his basic cowardice.
So that’s what he wants: to gain his manhood.
And that’s what she wants: to remind him of his smallness, his insignificance, his impotence. Is that what she wants, really? No, the author has something else in mind.
What does she really want? To feel powerful. Yes, that’s it.
Having used her beauty all her life to get what she wants, she knows her power lies in her face and her figure. But now that both are fading into middle-aged wrinkles—and that her husband looks a hell of a lot better than she does, she must find some other way to feel powerful. Yes, that’s good. How does she go about it? By reminding Macomber of his impotent insignificance. Thus he will stay close because she’s smarter and stronger. Uh huh, that’ll work.
What does Wilson want? We know from the story, he loves the opportunity to match wits with and to test the mettle of wild animals. He also loves bailing these “sporty” fellows out of trouble, and bagging their wives, if the occasion warrants, as his bounty for saving their skins. So he wants to feel superior to these rich people. But if a man, who has shown himself to be a cowardly sort, suddenly turns out to be ready to test his mettle in some earnest way, Wilson will give him all the credit in the world. So his secret desire is to help men become men, as would a top sergeant who brings his infantry troops to the front lines for the first time.
What does he want? To free men of their cowardice? Yes, good.
So if Macomber want to find his manhood, running away feels bad, feels like a defeat, or perhaps he’s trying to overcome some inability to focus when panic surfaces. How would we express this in action and dialogue.
* * *
EXT. UNDER THE TENT FLAP
Francis Macomber leans back in his chair. Rich, wealthy, mid-forties, a sportsman with a surprising innocence about him. His smooth cheeks and bright eyes suggest a man who has not been out in the sun more than necessary. Next to him sits his wife, a once beautiful woman, now a bit lined in the face, who has been out in the sun too often. Across from them sits the guide, Robert Wilson, middle height, and red-faced from living outdoor all his adult life, coupled with a pint of whisky at the end of each day.
A servant brings them vodka gimlets, frosted, out here in the desert.
MACOMBER: (raising his glass) A toast.
MARGOT MACOMBER: (giving him a look) How you do love your toasts.
WILSON: I’m in. He lifts his glass, just barely. Macomber clinks his glass against his wife’s.
MACOMBER: To Mr. Wilson. A crack shot.
MARGOT MACOMBER: (eying Wilson) Umm, yes. A crack shot. Put it right where he wanted it. I suppose you’re always pretty much on target, aren’t you Mr. Wilson?
Macomber’s eyes narrow as he gives her a look. Wilson catches their look.
WILSON: Paid to do it, Mrs. Paid to do it.
MARGOT: My husband’s a crack shot, aren’t you, dear?
Macomber eyes her, holding back something.
MACOMBER: (shrugging) No one’s perfect, my dear. Margot leans toward Wilson. MARGOT: A perfectly wonderful shot, Mr. Wilson. Yours, I mean. A work of art I should say, you—standing there waiting —until the last moment. Then Pow! The crack of the rifle. Down it goes, poor helpless, frightened beast.
She gives Macomber’s arm a patronizing pat.
MACOMBER: (shrugging) Helpless, eh? (looking up) Tomorrow, Mr. Wilson? He clinks Wilson’s gimlet glass. Wilson who has closed his eyes to the two of them, awakens with the slow rattle of a snake uncoiling.
WILSON: Tomorrow, Mr. Macomber? I should have thought You might want to wait a day. Gather yourself.
MARGOT: (laughing) Oh, you know how we Americans are. Fall off a horse, get right back on. We’re taught that from birth.
Wilson, fully awake now, sizes up the two of them. He downs his gimlet.
WILSON If you’ll excuse me. (getting up) Tomorrow, eh?
He gets up, taking his gimlet glass with him, walks over to where the “beaters” are eating and tosses the glass to an elderly black man who washes dishes.
SERVANT: (laughing, showing rotten teeth) Americans, boss?
WILSON: (shrugging) Americans. They say the women all have one breast— So they can draw back the bow string a little better.
He motions as if to draw a bow string across his chest and shoot an arrow then swings around as if to send it into the servant’s heart. They laugh.
Macomber plays with a hunting knife he has drawn from its case on his belt. He picks up a stick and begins to carve until it has a sharp point.
MACOMBER: I thought we agreed you’d were to stop playing the bitch, Margot.
MARGOT: Does the queen take her pawns off the board, just because the bishop whines in her ear?
He takes the stick he has been whitling and runs in under her chin. She looks a little startled, even worried.
MACOMBER: Nice chin. I should say, a very nice chin. If anyone ever said, ‘Macomber your wife is losing her looks,’ I would answer them, ‘On the contrary, she has never looked more beautiful than at this moment.
She gives him a cold look, gets up from the table and stalks into their tent. Macomber gets up from the table and wanders over to Wilson who is packing rifles, ammo and the rest of their kit in one of the vehicles.
MACOMBER: (sotto) I say Mr. Wilson….Eh, no one needs to hear about what happened this afternoon, do they?
WILSON: We never talk of these things, guides I mean.
MACOMBER: (musing) Ran like a rabbit, I did.
WILSON: Wouldn’t think much on it, governor. Or talk about it. Macomber shrugs as he turns and looks out at the desert.
INSERT – Macomber points his rifle at a lion some distance away, but never fires. The lion races toward Macomber, who turns and runs for the bushes. A shot rings out. Macomber turns and sees the lion drop at his feet. Macomber is covered with sweat, his eyes filled with fear. Over and over again those eyes brimming with fear.
INT—TENT – NIGHT
Macomber rolls over restlessly then suddenly awakens at the sound of footsteps. He opens his eyes as Margot enters, disheveled, straightening her hair.
MACOMBER My God, Margot. It’s practically morning.
MARGOT: Go to sleep.
MACOMBER: You said you were done with that kind of thing. She takes off her shirt, revealing her well-toned shoulders and arms, full bosom and slim waist. She drops her trousers, no longer hiding a pair of lacy panties that cling to her very shapely bottom. Leaning over, her butt practically in Macomber’s face, she pulls open the bedding on her cot and climbs under the blanket.
MARGOT: Sleep well, Francis. You have a big day coming up tomorrow, don’t you? (suppressing a throaty laugh) Tomorrow—. Ummm.
She smiles to herself, pleased, and falls asleep. In the background, Macomber stares at the top of the tent from his cot. No sleep for this man.
* * *
As we evaluate the job we’ve done on this section of the story, we must consider six questions:
Q: Have we reduced this 37 page story into a much shorter screenplay or a longer feature length screenplay?
A: So far we are doing well. These ten pages of short story have been compressed into four pages of script. That’s a plus.
Q: Have we been faithful to Hemingway’s intent?
A: We have established what each one wants: Macomber to test his manhood again, Margot to make him pay for all the ways in which he has failed her, imagined or not, Wilson plays a waiting game.
Q: Have we found a way of keeping the inner thoughts and feeling of the characters present through dialogue and action.
A: Wilson’s inner thoughts and feelings are difficult to reveal in a story such as this so they must be externalized somehow. Thus the moment with the elderly black man—“Americans”.
Q: Have we managed to keep the dialogue interesting, that is, have we kept the dialogue from being too much “on the money” (obvious).
A: We’ve kept alive the sense that something went wrong and these people are reacting to it, trying to make everything normal, as happened in the story, but on the other hand Margot is not going to let an opportunity like this go by unchallenged.
Q: Are the character qualities of the actors faithful to the author’s intent and do these qualities still work to make the story interesting.
A: We’ve kept alive Macomber’s sense of innocence, his singular focus on getting his manhood back “tomorrow.” We’ve kept Margo’s sly bitchiness in sight as well. “Always on target, Mr. Wilson?” Wilson remains slightly contemptuous, but open to possibilities—to Margot’s in-your-face infidelity as well as Macomber’s intent on righting his ship and proving he’s a man.
Q: If we’ve made changes, do they work in behalf of the story?
A: The changes we’ve made have been in the direction of shortening the dialogue while keeping Hemingway’s sense of characters in conflict. A film has a life of its own so being too faithful to a book or story can be a drawback. But if we move too far away, we lose the feel of Hemingway’s life experience. Hopefully we’ve found a happy medium.
We have made every effort to create a script from which actors and directors can draw upon their talents to bring the conflicts into focus. At the same time, the script must be visual enough and sufficiently readable that a producer will be satisfied that the script will serve his purposes: to raise money and excite the right talent to want to work on the project.
by Bernard Selling
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