The Novel vs. The Screenplay: Se7en

If you’re quickly asked to name three of your favorite books and their authors, you probably won’t have to think about it too long. However, asking anyone to name their three favorite movies and then asking to name the people who wrote the screenplays for them is definitely harder. Even the biggest movie buffs have a hard time doing that. For most of us, movies are formed by the directors and actors. Who came up with the story seems less important. With novels we have almost the exact opposite: authors are celebrated, and sometimes who wrote the book weighs more than the story being told. But why? Aren’t screenwriting and novel writing just different ways of telling stories?

On the surface, screenwriting and novel writing seem very similar: you take interesting characters, create a story that makes them go through events that conflict with their beliefs, and eventually reach the end of the story with changed characters. Or that’s how it goes if you’re writing a monomyth. How much you can develop the characters and how many life-changing events you can throw in your character’s journey differ a lot between screenwriting and novels; a book you read for 6 hours has too much content to fit into a blockbuster movie, and script for a feature-length movie can easily be read through in under an hour.

Underneath the surface of screenwriting, the differences between novels become evident. While many novels are treated as exemplary students who proudly carry the author's name, screenplays are disowned offspring, monospaced bastards. As the script goes through the adoption process of becoming a movie, it sheds its familial connections to the original screenwriter. It becomes a product of the tribe of actors and directors.

Perhaps because it’s easier to strip the story to its central themes than it is to build a compelling book from a simple story premise, it seems to be more common for novelists to end up writing scripts or modifying their original stories into screenplays. Take for example Gillian Flynn, author of books such as Gone Girl, Sharp Things, and Dark Places, all of these have been turned into movies or television productions, Flynn being a screenwriter on Gone Girl and co-writer of Sharp Things.

Screenwriting is also a rather weird and disrespected profession. You churn out scripts and submit them; if you’re really good, someone might pick up your script for further development. Eventually, even a movie might come out that vaguely resembles your original screenplay. Or if you wrote the script for the 2003 Daredevil, you get a version that got run over by a movie exec in a Humvee and reanimated with Evanescence. That’s just the nature of movies. After all, they are “productions,” communal art projects rather than singular visions.

When you watch the video above, you think the kids on playground are going like "Yeah, blind guy! Beat that woman's ass!" or are they more on the side "Fuck yeah, girl power! Kick the shit out of that blind dude!"?

It’s no wonder that screenwriting does not get the attention that it (in rare cases) deserves. Hollywood seems to treat screenwriters akin to sperm donors: you give out the goods, we raise your kid, and in turn, you get to enjoy reverse child support. Alternatively, you might get paid only once when handing in the script for the first time, just like the good old times when selling little jack to the mines could net you enough food to survive the winter.

The 1995 movie Se7en is the aptest example of the nature of screenwriting. Our story starts in the early nineties, with an aspiring screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (other notable works: The Killer, 8mm, Sleep Hollow) landing in New York City and getting so depressed about the bleak city and its crime problems that they decide to write a thriller about police officers on the hunt for a serial killer with a biblical thirst for committing murders in the style of the Se7en deadly sins. If that does not sound like the simplest but, at the same time, the raddest plot line, read the premise again while listening to Nine Nine-Inch Nails Closer.

Now, a good script isn’t enough by itself. You also need someone to produce it into a movie. In the case of Se7en, the script went through a few studios before eventually landing at Newline Cinema, which was finally ready to adopt this child. However, as it often is with foster kids who get bounced from one home to another, Se7en was considered too dark. The infamous ending was considered so bleak that Walker had to do multiple rewrites. You can find one of these rewritten scripts on the internet, and the ending part is definitely a choice with the story ending in a shootout in a church. I can just picture movie execs going “a movie about Se7en deadly sins ending in a church, get it? Eh? Eeeh?”

As mentioned, the movie we know has a different ending, which can only be attributed to someone accidentally sending the original script to David Fincher, who would become the movie’s director, instead of the alleyway doctored version. Fincher mixed in some of his signature style (if you ever find your life having desaturated colors and corruption in seemingly prosperous settings, you’re either depressed or in David Fincher movie), baptizing the script into the violent neo-noir classic we know as the Se7en.

At some point, before Se7en came to theaters in September 1995, someone decided that the movie needed a book tie-in. I’m not sure how common this was at the time or how common it is even nowadays, so one can only guess who thought the movie needed this and why. Perhaps someone at Newline was worried that the movie would bomb and hoped that a novelization would regain some of the dollars that went into production. Whatever the reason, Anthony Bruno was commissioned to write the novelization (with Walker getting credit for the original screenplay in the books).

There is not much information concerning Bruno or his thoughts on writing the novelization. Based on a quick Goodreads skim, it seems Bruno has made his career writing non-fiction and fiction crime books, with the latest published in 2014. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Se7en novelization appears to be his highest-rated work, with 4.23 stars on Goodreads (although this is based on only a bit over 4000 reviews).

With around 250 pages, Se7en is a very short book, something an average reader would go through in 7-8 hours. Now, considering that the book revolves around Se7en deadly sins-themed murders, we can quickly calculate that on average, the murder discussed in the book would get only 35 pages to introduce the murder victim, murder scene, and characters related to the murder. This is very little page estate to use, making Se7en feel like sprinting through cliff notes.

Although the book feels like it was written very quickly, with both redundancy and continuity errors, the novelization does develop the characters of Somerset and Mills a bit further. Somerset’s nihilistic worldview, for example, becomes more fleshed out, turning Somerset’s “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” quote into something that reflects more on the character inner turmoil rather than being a cliche of forced positivity it is in the movie.

But does reading the novelization bring additional value over watching the movie? Well, it’s certainly more difficult to get through if you’re glancing at your Instagram at the same time, so it must feel like there’s more depth to it. But I think the real question is whether the novelization beats reading the original script. For that, the answer is more multifaceted. Reading scripts requires you to picture the scene to bring depth to the story actively:

Part of Se7en's script

In the above scene, for example, very little is explained about how the characters talk to each other: the focus is on what is being said. This is deliberate, allowing actors to bring personality and depth to the characters. If you’re capable of putting yourself into the shoes of an imaginary director and reading the script as if you were getting ready to shoot it, then go with reading the script instead of the novelization (also it’s available for free on the internet).

Despite its shortcomings, the novelization of Se7en has had a special place in my heart ever since I accidentally stumbled on it in my father’s collections when I was ten. It is one of the only two books I’ve ever read more than once, the second time being after I had seen the movie more than 5 times already. I enjoy both the book and the movie for different reasons. The movie’s acting, characters, cinematography, and camera work are something I find myself coming back to because similar combinations seem to be much rarer in this age of comic book movies. For me, the movie is a video essay on how to tell a great story on a screen.

The book has none of those qualities. It’s a clumsily written movie tie-in from an unknown author, and for most people, that’s all it is. But for me, it’s a love letter to how a good story transcends its medium.