All Posts By Michael Kahn

The Perfect Ending? Hollywood Versus the Novel, Part 1

220px-The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_poster[1]T.S. Eliot opened his poem “East Coker” with the line: “In my beginning is my end,” and he closed it, “In my end is my beginning.”

I wrote about beginnings in my last Poisoned Pen Press blog post–specifically, the form and function of a great opening line to a novel. My next post for that blog, still a work in progress, is on the form and function of a great closing line, and whether the end is indeed “in the beginning.”

In the process, I became intrigued by a related issue: the contrast between what works in a movie versus what works in a novel. A recent New York Times article on the struggles of adapting a novel (or other written source material) to the screen highlights those challenges. One way to look at the issue is to compare the closing lines in a novel to the closing scene in the movie-adaptation of that novel.

I picked three great movies, each of which has a famous closing line and each of which is based upon a highly regarded novel.

This first post examines the endings of Silence of the Lambs, which was a bestselling and well-written suspense novel about a serial killer that got turned into a blockbuster movie that swept the Oscars that year, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

While both the novel (by Thomas Harris) and the movie (directed by Jonathan Demme) are ostensibly about the FBI’s efforts to track down a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, what drives that story, and elevates it above the typical serial killer tale, is the intense, complex relationship between Clarice Starling, the young FBI trainee, and Dr. Hannibal Lector, the brilliant forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic sociopath who is serving 9 consecutive life sentences in a mental institution for a series of horrific murders. Lector has insights into Buffalo Bill’s psyche, and Starling tries to develop a relationship with him in the hopes of finding the serial killer before he murders again. The result is one of the oddest love stories in literature or Hollywood.

But what about the endings? Both need to include a reference to the phrase “silence of the lambs.” The phrase dates back to Clarice’s childhood on the farm and her trauma when she awoke at night to the sounds of the lambs screaming as they were being slaughtered. Dr. Lector concludes that Clarice wants desperately to save Katherine Martin, the missing Senator’s daughter, because she feels that by saving her, she’ll be able to silence her memories of those lambs that she was unable to save.

So, too, both endings need to include some mention of Hannibal Lector’s nemesis, Dr. Frederick Chilton. He is the pompous, incompetent director of the asylum near Baltimore where Dr. Lector has been imprisoned. Dr. Lector has masterminded an escape from the asylum. Surely he must have something nasty in mind for Dr. Chilton.


Thomas Harris ends his novel on a soft, almost poignant coda. Dr. Lector is somewhere in South America. He has just finished an note to Dr. Chilton suggesting that he would be paying him a visit in the near future, after which it would “make sense for the hospital to tattoo feeding instructions on Chilton’s forehead to save paperwork.” But then he starts a gentler letter to Clarice Starling: “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” He ends the letter by gazing out the window at the constellation Orion, telling Clarice that “I expect you can see it too. Some of our stars are the same.”

The final paragraph begins: “Far to the east, on the Chesapeake shore, Orion stood high in the clear night, above a big old house, and a room where the fire is banked for the night, its light pulsing gently with the wind above the chimneys. On the large bed there are many quilts, and on the quilts and under them are several large dogs.” That paragraph, and the novel, ends: “the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.”

The movie version ends on a wittier but macabre note that takes full advantage of the big screen. Dr. Lector calls Clarice from an undisclosed Caribbean location near an airport. He starts by asking her, “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?”  But then he spots his nemesis, Dr. Chilton, getting off the plane. “I do wish we could chat longer,” he says, “but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” He hangs up as she keeps repeating into the phone, “Dr. Lector? Dr. Lector? Dr. Lector?” The scene and the movie end with a long tracking shot of Dr. Chilton walking through a noisy, crowded street while Hannibal Lector, in a cream-colored suit and panama hat, leisurely strolls behind him. Here’s the clip.

Two endings, each terrific, and adapted to its medium.

Schadenfreude and the Bad Sex Award

My last post was on the Bulwer-Lytton competition, where contestants submit a bad opening line to an imaginary novel. What makes that competition such innocent fun is that the contestants themselves compose and submit a sentence that they hope will garner first prize as the worst opener. And “worst” in that context means “funniest” or “cleverest.” The winner is thrilled, and the rest of us are delighted.

But there is another prize out there that taps into a far darker emotion for we observers, all of whom hope to remain just that: observers. That emotion, which literally has no name in the English language (perhaps because we’re too ashamed to acknowledge it), is “schadenfreude,” a German term that means “the enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”

Fiction writers in need of a shot of schadenfreude can look to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award given out by Britain’s beloved Literary Review. This annual award goes to the author whose novel contains the worst description of a sex scene that year. The aim of the award  is to discourage the “crude, tasteless and often perfunctory passages of sexual description in modern novels.” And to make the rest of us grin.

Keep in mind: we are talking about a prize for “serious” writers who write “serious works of literature” that they hope will garner important “literary” prizes and front-page reviews in eminent “literary” journals. And thus that snicker of schadenfreude when the Literary Review announces that it has nominated that literary lion’s new novel for the Bad Sex Award.

The 2011 winner was David Guterson, formerly known as the author of Snow Falling on Cedars,  for which he received the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1995.  Alas, sixteen years later the Literary Review crowned him the winner for the supremely cheesy sex scenes in his novel Ed King–scenes excerpted for your reading pleasure by The GuardianPay special attention to the last paragraph of that excerpt, where the title character, standing erect in the shower, ejaculates “while looking like Roman public-bath statuary.” There’s a simile to make an English teacher cringe.

Earlier this Fall, the panel of judges announced their short list of 2012 nominees, as reported  (with excerpts from each of the works) by The Guardian. That list included two-time nominee Tom Wolf, this year for his novel Back to Blood, which features the following sex-as-a-horse-race metaphor: “Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.” The gives new meaning to the racing term “long shot.”

To the disappointment of many fans of this award, J.K. Rowling did not make the list for her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, despite a memorable passage, quoted with more than a dash of schadenfreude, by The Huffington Post right here.

But just in time for Christmas, The Guardian announced the 2012 winner with a bit of impish prose of its own:

“A long, shuddering gasp of relief will no doubt have been heard from the losers, as the Canadian author Nancy Huston scooped the least coveted book award of the year, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex prize, for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who likes to snap her lovers in the throes of passion.”

Like prior winners, Ms. Huston is no literary lightweight, having previously won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, and been a finalist for Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction by women. The winning passage from Infrared is right here.

Finally, a special shout out to Mark Longmire, a graphic designer whose clever website includes, among other features, his take on romance novel covers, two of which appear near the top of  this post. Enjoy.

The Literary Lounge Lizard: Pick-up Lines Gone Wrong

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it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night1[1]My last two posts were salutes to the greatest pick-up lines in literature–those magical opening sentences that lure you into the novel. As in a singles bar, the best pick-up lines in novels feature a surprise twist at the end. George Orwell understood that rule in crafting the opener to his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: “It was a bright cold day in June, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

But bad opening lines, like bad pick-up lines, can become the stuff of legend. Snoopy starts each of his doghouse novels with the opening seven words from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m not sure what turned that opener into such a groaner–after all, more than a century later those same seven words opened Madeline L’Engle’s beloved A Wrinkle in Time–but Snoopy was not the only one inspired to poke fun at them. San Jose State’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest asks entrants to compose a bad opening sentence to an imaginary novel. My all-time favorite: “Just beyond the Narrows, the river widens.”  My second favorite: “As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber he would never hear the end of it.”stormy night[1]

71DY203KBBL._SL500_AA300_[1]And for those of us in the crime novel genre, I salute Steve Lynch of San Marcos, California, who won in the Detective Fiction category in 2011 with this “homage” to Raymond Chandler: “She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.”

But the beauty of opening lines, like beauty in general, is in the eye of the beholder. Earlier this year, an outfit called the American Book Review published its list of the 100 best first lines in literature. Not so fast, responded Andrea Harris, the witty voice behind the wonderful blog The Twisted Spinster, where she offers her own take on those Top 100. Enjoy.


The Great American Opener: More Thoughts on Literary Pick-up Lines

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Mark-Twain-public-domain-e1353316357400[1]Following up on my last post, I had some more thoughts on what makes a great opening line. Two contenders for The Great American Novel are also contenders for The Great American Opener.

Herman Melville starts Moby Dick with the concise but enigmatic “Call me Ishmael.”

Hmm . . . not your real name, eh? Why do want us to call you Ishmael? The Biblical Ishmael? Why him?

By contrast, Mark Twain’s greatest work, Huckleberry Finn,  itself a departure from all prior American literature, makes that clear from the start: “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Read that passage again, but slower this time, and consider what’s happening in that first paragraph. We have a fictional narrator who knows the actual author, has in fact read the author’s prior novel, is familiar enough with the events in that novel to spot the inaccuracies, and is now writing his own story, apparently without a copy editor (and thus the “ain’t” and the grammatical errors). This is meta-fiction decades before it was “invented.”imagesCAAN4B19

In more ways than one, Ernest Hemingway was right when he wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” As Mark Twain demonstrates in that magical first paragraph, the great pick-up line lures you into the second sentence, which pulls you into the third, and before you know it you’ve reached Chapter Two. That is the art of seduction.

What is my favorite opening paragraph in modern American letters? Not even close. Turn to page one of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegaswhich works the same way as the opening paragraph of Huckleberry Finn. The first sentence pulls you into the next, and by the end of that first paragraph you just have to read the next paragraph. Here it is:

FLLV[1]“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Thank you, Hunter Thompson, R.I.P.

The Art of the Literary Pick-up Line: “Hey, call me, Ishmael”

250px-Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Gaspar_Melchor_de_Jovellanos[1]For an author, the opening line of a novel is the literary equivalent of the snappy pick-up line in a singles bar. Indeed, some of our greatest novelists are also some of our greatest pick-up artists.

My latest post at the Poisoned Pen Press blog is on the great opening lines of literature.

I end it with a challenge to identify five great crime novels from just their magical first sentences. See how you do. And then let me know of your favorite openers.

Dead Lawyers, Pet Cemeteries, and First Novels

The two questions readers most frequently ask me are:

1.  Why are so many legal thrillers written by trial lawyers?

2.  How do you come up with the crazy ideas for your novels?

I try to answer both questions in a recent piece I wrote for the blog on Poisoned Pen Press, which will be publishing my next Rachel Gold novel, The Flinch Factor, this coming Spring.

Here’s that post, entitled The Joys of Gravedigging.