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The influences and challenges of the writers behind 'Limitless'

March 22, 2011 |  9:14 am


The new movie "Limitless" starring Bradley Cooper as Eddie, a down-on-his-heels screenwriter who begins taking pills that turn him into a super-brainiac, is based on the novel "The Dark Fields" by Alan Glynn. It was the first novel from the Irish author -- who himself was once a down-on-his-heels writer in New York -- who has since published "Winterland."

At Mulholland Books, Glynn and screenwriter-producer Leslie Dixon talk about their process as adapter and adaptee, the challenges for writers in and out of Hollywood, and antecedents and influences. Glynn says:

With "The Dark Fields" I quickly realized that Eddie was telling us the story of his own destruction, and that there were great precedents for this, favorite books of mine -- Flann O’Brien’s "The Third Policeman" and John Banville’s "The Book of Evidence" -- very different in many ways, but with an underlying pattern that I found very attractive. Much later on, I came across a brilliant examination of this fundamental storytelling pattern in "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker. It’s a five-stage tragedy arc that you find in the Icarus and Faust myths, in "Macbeth," in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," in "Lolita." The five stages are anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare and destruction. That seems to me to be a perfect description of Eddie’s trajectory in the book. It was also the first-person closeness of the narrator in "The Third Policeman" that I found irresistible, that clinical dissection of psychological torment. Other influences would have to include "The Great Gatsby," with its great American theme of the re-invention of the self and the delusional notion of  the perfectibility of man, which I envisaged as being reduced at the tail end of the 20th century to a commodity, a small white pill.

Dixon explains that she loved Glynn's voice, but that she knew that movie audiences would want more action. A screenwriter on projects as varied as "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," she jumped right in, she tells Glynn:

I didn’t have an approach.  Seriously.  (Kids — don’t try this at home — this is because I am a hardened screenplay combat veteran — but I never so much as made an outline.)  I just opened your book, jotted down some notes, sat at the computer, and went nuts....

I really don’t know how I did it.  I used to work from slavish outlines.  But I will say this:  on not a single preview card did we get the word, “predictable.”

So maybe I needed to loosen up.

During the adaptation process, Eddie the struggling writer in "The Dark Fields" became Eddie the struggling screenwriter in "Limitless." At the Paris Review, Jennie Yabroff uses "Limitless" as a jumping-off point to look at how writers are portrayed in Hollywood films. It is, she concludes, not good.

According to Hollywood, writers are either parasites ("Deconstructing Harry," "Barton Fink," "Capote," "Misery"); perverts ("The Squid and the Whale," "Adaptation," "Wonder Boys," "American Splendor)"; addicts ("Permanent Midnight," "Barfly," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Sideways"), or sociopaths ("La Piscine," "Deathtrap," "The Shining"). They have monstrous egos and tiny, wizened hearts. Their moral compasses are permanently cracked; their personal relationships are cynically contrived to produce “experience,” which they feed to the insatiable maw of their craft. They are creatively constipated. They practice poor personal hygiene. They are not lovely to look at. It almost goes without saying that they are almost always male....

What makes this all especially odd is that movies come from scripts, and scripts come from writers.

Over the weekend, Glynn and Dixon's Eddie resonated with audiences. "Limitless" was No. 1 at the box office.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper in "Limitless." Credit: John Baer / Relativity Media / Associated Press Photos