Agony Column Feature Review



A Screenplay
Neil Gaiman

Hill House Publishing
US Hardcover Signed Limited
Publication Date: 10-15-04
146 Pages; Free With Subscription to Hill House Neil Gaiman Preferred Editions Series
Date Reviewed: 11-05-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004

The provenance of a book can be nearly as fascinating as the work itself. Exactly 552 people are going to be able to get their hands on 'A Screenplay' by Neil Gaiman. Produced as a bonus and given away to the subscribers of Hill House's Neil Gaiman Author's Preferred Editions series, this history-making artifact takes their private publishing expertise to new heights. It's one thing to offer extended, author's preferred texts in gorgeously deluxe editions. It's another thing entirely when the author excavates a legendary manuscript from "a dusty and cobwebbed place on my hard disk, where people never go" and offers it up at no cost for the subscribers to a series of deluxe editions. It's pretty much unprecedented in my experience.

Hill House offers an amazing piece of art that looks exactly like a book, and even better is in fact a book -- written by Neil Gaiman.

As for the reader's experience, 'A Screenplay' is also unprecedented. 'A Screenplay' seamlessly melds the writer's life with the writer's words, as the light, which enables us to read this work casts shadows over our collective experience of reading Neil Gaiman's work. As you read 'A Screenplay', you're re-reading nearly everything you've previously read by Gaiman.

'A Screenplay' by Neil Gaiman offers a melancholy look into the mind of one of the world's most talented writers. There's the text itself, and the many subtexts that can't help but flit about the readers' minds as they enjoy this authentically mind boggling gift. Let me say that again: A gift.

Yes, you needs must subscribe to Hill House's Neil Gaiman series, and no, that's not by any means cheap. If you're not up to speed on this, it's worth talking about. Expensive, yes. Still, it's a bargain by any evaluation. Just the texts printed in a trade paperback format, carefully corrected, edited and extended by the author would be worth the cost. And you get that as part of the series; the taqueria copies, I'll call them.

Click image for a gander at the real deal.
But Hill House's limited editions are something else entirely, books as sculpture, say. They have the heft, the weight, the look of the pages. They're clean and precise monuments, inscribed with runes by the artists, each page a new revelation, adding nearly infinite layers of diverse emotional impact. For those of us who love the physicality of books, Hill House stands alone.

Or, as Hill House collaborator Peter Atkins put it: "I'm a book whore."
And I'll admit it. I love the actual physical presence of books. Pages and paper. The smell and the weight. The tangible pleasure of holding them in your hands. Hill House provides precisely what I crave in this regard.

The point here being, that just the series of corrected and extended versions of previously published works is a gift to readers, to book collectors who look upon their shelves as more than stacks of words, but rather compact art galleries. That's all we really need to keep us happy, to take our reading experience to levels of purity that few experiences of human art can match. The connection between the reader and work being read is heightened on so many levels, personalized on so many levels that the reading experience takes on hidden dimensions and reveals new mental pleasures that ordinary reading only hints at. (As long as you wear your Demco reading gloves!)

Having established a baseline that's above the peaks of most publishers, with 'A Screenplay', Hill House adds a poignant and fascinating dimension to the proceedings. Gaiman's frank though brief introduction offers some insights into the screenwriting process that you might have heard elsewhere, but not quite so straightforwardly. Combined with the text of the screenplay itself, they turn 'A Screenplay' into a rewarding, unusually personal reading experience. It's your chance to chat with Neil about a time not so long ago when the first blush of fame had come his way, and he was a younger writer.

"In February of 1991 it was cold and rainy in Los Angeles, and Sovereign Pictures flew Terry Pratchett and me from England to LA, to talk about turning our book Good Omens into a film."

"It was a very odd time. In the afternoons and evenings Terry and I would write outlines for the movie. In the mornings we would have meetings with a tableful of producers and studio development people, where they would ask us questions that would indicate that they hadn’t read the latest draft of the treatment, and ask for changes in the next draft of the treatment."

"It was not much fun."

There's a melancholy at work here, that of a now-famous writer -- who has 'Mirrormask', a brand-new movie coming out next year -- reflecting back on his early career. What's interesting is what followed.

"Eventually, Terry and I went home and we wrote a script...We sent it in...'It's too much like the book,' said the Sovereign pictures person on the phone, as if this was the worst crime a script was capable of committing....Terry, extremely sensibly, resigned from the project at this point. I probably should have as well, but I didn't. I was curious. I wanted to see what would happen next."

Signed, sealed and delivered. I can't guarantee that your copy will be personalized.

What happened next was 'A Screenplay'.

"They didn’t want Good Omens...They wanted something else. Something heartwarming. Something small. Something relatively straightforward. And for reasons I no longer remember, the producer desperately wanted an abandoned pier with a miniature town in it. Also, they wanted Satan to appear."

And all this does come to pass in Gaiman's screenplay. But something else arrives in the reading of Hill House's production. Between the content of the screenplay itself, Gaiman's short introduction and our own knowledge of what's happened in the intervening years, Gaiman achieves more with the current publication of his screenplay than the screenplay itself.

In large part, however, 'A Screenplay' itself does the work. First and foremost, Hill House presents this in an authentic screenplay format, but uses a large font courier type and a large page size to make reading particularly easy and pleasurable. This is a one afternoon read. Find a slot of time when you will have enough wine / bubbly water / beer and will not be disturbed. Choose a mellow winter evening or a rainy weekend day. (Gaiman apparently conceived much of this whilst trapped in the rain in hotels away from home. There's some of that feeling here.)

If you think that the screenplay format and style is by definition anonymous, you might be in general correct. Most screenplays are anonymous, and perhaps that's why most movies are so vapid. This is certainly not the case with Neil Gaiman's 'A Screenplay'. Readers who enjoy his humorous monologues, filled with self-mocking wit, will find that Gaiman's entertaining voice is largely intact. Even his stage directions make fun of themselves.

'A Screenplay' has three major elements. There are the stage directions, nicely rendered in Gaiman's usual witty style. Then there's the story, which by and large, reads as Gaiman himself says in the introduction as "a parallel universe Good Omens." Gaiman's nabbed the essentials of the story that he and Pratchett concocted and done the best he could to shoe-horn them into the rather bizarre constrictions he was handed by the pencil-sharpeners as he got his wish to see what happened next.

Beauty and the box. Dueling dual spines.
As one reads 'A Screenplay' there's a strong and sincere sense of melancholy running through it. The alternate universe story introduces Aziraphale, the angel, and Crowley, the demon. They've been around for a good 6,000 years. Everything's been peachy. Good and evil have managed to not only co-exist, they've gotten along and become rather good friends, while those in their charge -- that's Us -- are, if not completely perfect, at least capable of happiness. That is, until Satan decides it's time to bring an end to it all by handing his child off to Crowley, who promptly loses him. Accidentally taken by an aging hipper-than-thou club-going queen, the Antichrist is raised in comparative comfort in a small English seaside town. Eleven years after handing his child to Crowley -- eleven years during which Crowley's been unable to find the child -- Satan announces that the time has come to get his kid into the Family Business. Crowley, helped by Aziraphale, must find the child and somehow stop the Apocalypse in a heartwarming final act. It's a tall order, even for a supernatural being.

One can sense that Gaiman himself identified with his lonely Anti-Christ, trapped in a small town with a decrepit pier. Gaiman nails the atmosphere of these places in 'A Screenplay', and he successfully evokes the loneliness of his unlikely protagonist. And it's here where he manages to be authentically heartwarming, not in the Hollowood-ified scenes. Yes, there are a couple of moments in here where Gaiman bends the plot to the pressures at hand, but he does his best given the constrictions he was working under. The story is strong, shot-through with a sadness and homesick feeling even if the protagonist never leaves home. In certain scenes, 'A Screenplay's' plot does stray from the type of writing that Gaiman's readers expect. Oddly enough, one feels Gaiman's genuine affection for his anonymous creation most in these scenes. He wants it to be a successful movie-type Movie. But it's just Gaiman -- which is so much better than Movie.

The third -- and major -- element of 'A Screenplay' is the dialogue. Here, Gaiman readers will find themselves on largely familiar ground. You crack a smile as you start reading that will not go away until after you close the book. They can lock Gaiman in a hotel room in North Carolina during a rainstorm but they apparently cannot lock up his subtle, enjoyable wit. The demands of the form do exert a certain gravity. Readers will find words here that do nothing more than the scene requires. But by and large, as in the screen directions, Gaiman's style seeps through the demands of the form.

Reading 'A Screenplay' is a pretty peculiar experience. It's thoroughly enjoyable, but on a blurry level that's not quite fiction and not quite non-fiction. As a reader, the movie I manufactured for myself reading 'A Screenplay' was not the movie that Gaiman's written, but rather the documentary about Gaiman writing the screenplay, expressed in the form of the screenplay itself. I know that doesn’t quite parse, but then -- does reading a screenplay parse? Only if you can step back from the screenplay itself and wrap yourself in the writer's prose, in your knowledge of what the writer has written since. Years of Sandman; novels like 'Stardust', 'American Gods' and 'Coraline' all play on our inner-big screen as we read these words. 'A Screenplay' is a small piece of the past that slots into a large part of our reading present.

In the proper conditions, a small figure can cast an enormous shadow. 'A Screenplay' allows readers to step behind that shadow, to know the small things that create the large darknesses. Shadows and darkness, the endless rains from Los Angeles to North Carolina, anonymous hotel rooms, Aziraphale and Crowley. They're our friends, our intimate friends now. Even more so as we get to see what casts those shadows.