Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: James M. Cain Talks Theme vs. Plot

James M. Cain, tough guy novelist & screenwriter, was interviewed before his death in 1977. 

Many of his great works were made into movies, ex. "Double Indemnity" & "The Postman Always Rings Twice."  His novel, "Mildred Pierce", was recently remade for HBO with Kate Winslet.

I thought his words re: the difference between theme vs. plot were so helpful.  It is in the 3rd to last paragraph.

Here's an excerpt from the interview: 

[I've changed the paragraphing for your viewing pleasure.  All parentheticals are mine.]

Q: What are the events behind Mildred Pierce?

A: Jim McGuinness, my old producer friend at Columbia, once made a remark that led to "Mildred Pierce."  Out in Hollywood all they talk about is story - secretaries, everybody - story. 

Well, one day we were going to lunch, talking about stories, when he said, "There's one that's never failed yet, and that's the story of a woman who uses men to gain her ends."  I though, well, if it's never failed yet that sounds like a pretty good story to me.

Secretly, then, I began to try to adjust this formula.  For a while I had the woman as an airline stewardess.  Then she was a girl who won a beauty contest & came to Hollywood.  Neither of these came to life, so I thought, maybe it makes some difference what ends.

I suddenly thought it might help if her children were the ends she used men for, & naturally it would be better if it focused on one child.  But I had to have another child in there so it wouldn't seem so pat & easy.

Then  made her not a femme fatale at all, just a housewife, but she had that instinct to use men. 

Every time I had trouble with that book I thought, "My friend, you've forgotten what your story is about.  This is not the story of a woman who is devoted to her daughter & is nuts about her [plot]; it's a story about a woman who uses men to gain her ends [theme]."

Every time I'd remember that & reinstate that theme in the book, it would go.

No reviewer or anybody who read it ever detected that that's what the book is about. I didn't highlight it enough.  I don't take much pride in "Mildred Pierce," I have to confess to you.  It's not my kind of book. I made some egregious mistakes in it, especially right at the end, which is a very costly place to make mistakes.

From "Backstory:Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age," by Pat McGilligan (1986).

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