Images that Move

by David Madden

My writing in all genres originates in moving images. Long before the first book I read, the movies inspired my writing. In junior high, I wrote outlines for almost a hundred novels, really movie scenarios, with actors listed beside the names of the characters. The voices and sounds of radio dramas of the 1940’s activated my imagination. As I carried newspapers or lay abed at night, I imagined my stories as movies. While I worked as a movie-crazed usher at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, standing with my back to the screen, I unreeled an ongoing novel in the cinema of my mind.

My third novel, Bijou, vividly recreates my immersion in movies and in all literary genres. My publisher reported getting more interest from movie people in that novel than any other novel they had published. But just then the Italian movie, Cinema Paradiso, became very popular in America, and Hollywood producers were afraid Bijou would be considered a knock-off, causing the flood of option inquiries to dry up.

During my time in the army, I adapted a Henry James novella into a television script, using the company commander’s typewriter. Walking guard duty in knee-deep snow in Alaska, I saw and spoke aloud the images and dialogue of my first novel (my second to be published), Cassandra Singing, as a short story, then a novel, and simultaneously as a play.

Adapting Cassandra Singing, I was the last writer-in-residence on the Warner Brothers lot. One day John Milius, who was writing the script of “Jeremiah Johnson” for Robert Redford in the office next to mine, appeared suddenly in my doorway wearing two huge pistols, a huge dog at each side, smoking a big cigar, declaring, “Now, you—you are a real writer! You write novels.”

By radically changing my novel, I was experiencing the difference in their very nature between words in a novel and moving images in a film.

But you can take that difference too far. Although he won the Humanitas Award for his CBS Movie of the Week adaptation of my fourth novel, The Suicide’s Wife, the scriptwriter retained little more than the title, which for re-runs was renamed “A New Life.”

Brothers in Confidence also almost sold, but Tony Bill went instead for The Sting.

Cassandra Singing was never made because the group that bought Warner Brothers had a craving for making movies about hippies.

Meanwhile, two savvy high school kids optioned for one dollar one of my best-known, often anthologized short stories, “The Day the Flowers Came,” which had appeared in Playboy. After years of trying, they failed to raise the money to make it.

One of my former students at LSU adapted my latest novel, Abducted by Circumstance, but also failed to raise backing money for it, even though he has had two movies at Robert Redford’s Sundance festival.

I have unreeled this chronicle of my involvement in movies to emphasize what reviewers and readers have said of my fiction since I wrote my first story six decades ago, based on the movie version of Jack London’s novel, Call of the Wild. “David, I can just see and hear your story so clearly, like a movie.” Readers are eager to tell me that, in effect, images are the beating heart of my fiction. The other thing they often tell me is this: “Oh, that would make a great movie!"  In a vital sense, the two declarations are the same.

In the earliest years, it was simply in my nature to write stories rich in images; images that move, that seem to move even when they are still. But a few years before my first novel was published, I created images very deliberately, especially in revision, in patterns as motifs, images that beget images, a tissue of images, to make my fiction organic, alive. Any abstract statements, generalizations, passages of inert exposition in my fiction are there because I nodded off in the long revision process.

Ezra Pound exhorted poets to “Go in fear of abstractions.” Pound also taught me that “great literature is language charged with meaning,” and that ignited a major artistic concept in my own intellect: the charged image.

The charged image is that most powerful image in a story, the one that electrifies all other images, as does the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, Huck and Jim on the raft on the river, the spider web in All The King’s Men, and, above all, that image from Don Quixote, from a page in the middle of that mammoth novel, that comes universally to mind when one hears the title. You know the one I mean.

The charged image illuminates every element (character, narrative, theme) and every other technique in the story, especially point of view and style. Look at Huck and Jim on the raft on the river, and listen to them. Recall all the characters and narrative incidents in which they together or separately become involved. The image of the raft defines the other characters by contrast with Huck and Jim. The incidents on and off the raft parallel or contrast with the charged image of the raft, and from that image all the meaning of the novel derives. And when we look closely at each image in the novel we see that it moves; it is not static. Each is related in some way to all the other images.

Almost everyone sees Huck and Jim on the raft on the river whenever they recall the novel or merely hear its title spoken. And almost no one is satisfied with any of the many movie versions because literal moving images on the screen are not nearly the same as word images set in motion by you in the cinema of your mind.

David Madden is the author of two collections of stories and nine novels and some 40 works of nonfiction, including Revising Fiction. His latest novel is Abducted by Circumstance. His next novel, London Bridge in Plague and Fire, will appear in the spring of 2012. He is Robert Penn Warren Professor of Creative Writing Emeritus at LSU; he continues to teach and lead workshops in the Asheville area and was a faculty member of the Great Smokies Writing Program during spring 2011. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, David now lives in Black Mountain.