These 20th Century Literary Titans Came to Hollywood—and Mostly Hated It

Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and even Hemingway all had turns as screenwriters

Motion pictures weren’t exactly considered high art in the late ’30s, but a number of famed, cash-strapped writers nonetheless headed out to Hollywood to make a quick buck cranking out screenplays under their established (and, therefore, supposedly profitable) names. In some instances, they took naturally to the work and flourished, but more often than not, they found the experience distasteful. These are just a few of the great writers of the last century who left their marks—often somewhat begrudgingly—on Hollywood.

William Faulkner

For Faulkner, author of The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, screenwriting was the side-hustle that kept him afloat when his publisher went bankrupt. After making the trek out west from Mississippi in 1932 to write for MGM, he became increasingly anxious about his ability to actually write movies. “When they took me into a projection room to see a picture and kept assuring me that it was going to be very easy, I got flustered,” he told the L.A. Times. “I was afraid I could never do it. I could think of nothing else to do but run.” And run he did—out to Death Valley with a bottle of booze. After returning and settling into the work, he got tight with director Howard Hawks, for whom he cowrote both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Despite his success, when a student once asked him how he liked Hollywood, he replied: “I don’t like the climate, the people, their way of life. Nothing ever happens and then one morning you wake up and find that you are 65. I prefer Florida.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Five years after Faulkner—and also very broke—Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood, took up residence at the Garden of Allah Hotel in West Hollywood and got to work writing screenplays for MGM. He wasn’t exactly suited to the task. His friend, director Billy Wilder, once noted that Fitzgerald getting hired to write a film is like ”a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job” in that he “did not know how to connect the pipes so the water could flow.” The only movie for which Fitzgerald got formal credit was 1938’s Three Comrades, and from there on out he pretty much experienced failure. Shortly before his death in 1940, he wrote to a friend: “Isn’t Hollywood a dump—in the human sense of the word. A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.”

Dorothy Parker

Parker was known for her acerbic short stories and legendary wit, and in Hollywood, she applied those skills to punching up screenplays with her characteristic snappy dialogue. Having ventured west from New York once in 1929 and again in 1934, she took on the work to earn that Hollywood money that, as she put it, “melts in your hand,” and she contributed to the Bing Crosby vehicle Here Is My Heart, as well as A Star Is Born. When she returned to New York in the ’50s, she complained of her time as a screenwriter: ”I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. ‘Out there,’ I called it.”

Aldous Huxley

The dude may have mercilessly satirized cinematic entertainment in Brave New World and decried talkies as “the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement,” but in 1938 he made the move to Hollywood from the UK. He earned a more than substantial living as a screenwriter—uncredited aside from A Woman’s Vengeance. He also penned a version of Alice in Wonderland that was deemed “too literary” by Disney and rejected. Huxley is unique in that he seems to have come around to the work he once derided and built a thoroughly comfortable life for himself, buying a house in the Hollywood Hills and getting pretty deep into an obsession with the hallucinogen mescaline.

Ernest Hemingway

The oft-adapted author had a single brush with screenwriting, forgetting his tried-and-true maxim for dealing with Hollywood: “You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.” Joining forces with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, Hemingway penned and narrated a documentary on the Spanish Civil War entitled The Spanish Earth. He was present for screenings at the Ambassador Hotel in 1937, partied with Parker and Fitzgerald afterward, and then departed. From there on out, having turned down a chance to work with Howard Hawks on To Have and Have Not, he limited his dealings with Hollywood to wiring derisive comments to studio heads regarding their disappointing movie versions of his books.

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