The Greatest Screenwriter Who Never Was

The Greatest Screenwriter Who Never Was

All readers have books that they’d love to see adapted to the big screen, but not every great book makes a great movie. As a former screenplay development executive, H.B. Lyle knows this firsthand. Lyle’s job involved judging a book’s ability to translate to film, and he spent a lot of time thinking about which elements of a novel work best in a screenplay. To celebrate the release of The Irregular, a mystery inspired by the great Sherlock Holmes, Lyle shares his thoughts on the legendary novelist who would’ve made a top notch screenwriter.

Before I became a novelist, I was a screenplay development executive, specializing in assessing books for their film adaptation potential. When I told people this was my job, they would inevitably bombard me with suggestions of books that would make “amazing films.” Almost invariably, they’d be wrong.

The elements that make a good novel are not necessarily the ones that make a good screenplay. This was driven home to me when I began adapting my own novel, The Irregular, for the screen. While any adventure story, in prose or on screen, needs crackling dialogue and exciting action, how you go about creating characters and rendering this action is often done very differently.

This got me thinking about the issue in reverse: Who of the great literary writers of the past might have been best at writing screenplays? Who was the best screenwriter never to write a script?

William Shakespeare is constantly talked about as someone who could have turned his hand to screenwriting, and his work certainly forms the basis for an awful lot of films. In the UK we often hear that if Charles Dickens were alive today, he would be writing for television—with his passion for ordinary people’s lives and his larger-than-life characters. And who wouldn’t want to see a horror movie penned by Edgar Allen Poe?

In the early days of Hollywood, the studio heads even played this game for real—shipping in literary stars like F. Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Wodehouse, and William Faulkner.

There is one writer, though, that leaps out when considering this question: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Not only did he create the most-portrayed character in the history of the screen, ever; not only does he currently have two hit TV shows and a huge movie franchise running eighty-seven years after his death; this is a writer whose character descriptions are imitated by T.S. Eliot, the greatest poet of the twentieth century.

Conan Doyle obviously had superb ideas and an eye for a good clue, but he also had some of the specific traits necessary for a successful screenplay.

Item One: Great Dialogue (from The Adventure of the Silver Blaze)

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident.”

Item Two: Hooks to Keep the Reader on Their Toes (from The Hound of the Baskervilles)

“Footprints?”

“Footprints.”

“A man’s or a woman’s?”

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered.

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

I ask you, who wouldn’t want to carry on reading after that?

Item Three: Building Characters Economically (from The Final Problem)

This is the description of Professor Moriarty:

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.”

“He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.”

There isn’t that much more written about Moriarty than these two paragraphs in the whole of the Conan Doyle canon, yet Moriarty is one of the greatest supervillains of literature. That’s the kind of economy necessary when writing a screenplay—conjuring up a character in a few words, but bringing them to life in such a way that will appeal to big name actors.

Finally, an often-overlooked attribute that screenplays need to have is readability: they have to be read by actors, directors, producers, financiers, and the like, all of whom have to enjoy the read, before it even gets close to becoming a film. And just consider the examples above—despite being written over a hundred years ago, the Sherlock Holmes stories are as readable today as anything you’ll find on the bestseller lists.

So whenever I’m struggling for ideas to keep the reader interested, be it in the screenplay of The Irregular, or in the second novel, I only have to look at the sign taped above my desk to be reminded of the question: What would Conan Doyle do?

H.B. Lyle lives in South London with his partner and their twin daughters. After a career in feature film development, he took an MA in creative writing—and then a PhD—at the University of East Anglia, an experience which led to the creation of The Irregular, his first novel. He also writes screenplays and teaches undergraduates.

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