Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Hollywood Reader: A Life in the Story Department.

Onoto Watanna book coverArticle by Diana Birchall

The hot Santa Ana winds are blowing in Los Angeles. 83 degrees Fahrenheit it was yesterday, producing that sandy feeling in the eyes – the kind of weather that Raymond Chandler wrote made meek little wives eye the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. So it’s strange to talk to friends in freezing New York, or the hoar frosted UK. But on Sunday my live reading group (the Santa Monica chapter of the Southwest division of the Jane Austen Society, to be specific), drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where we sat on a deck directly over the blue waves, in a house belonging to a former Disney animation executive. We ate chicken tamales and talked about Ngaio Marsh’s provincial New Zealand admiration for her fictional Lampreys.

My own coping mechanism for a life spent always feeling slightly displaced and unreal in Los Angeles, has been, for decades, to pore over Jane Austen’s every sentence, and finally to render her the ultimate betrayal by writing sequels to her novels. That, in the infinite connectedness of internet life, is how I turned up on the book foxes’ radar, when they were kind enough to contemplate my Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma. But with the hot winds prickling my eyes and my three tortoiseshell kittens driving their claws restlessly into my scalp, I have not energy to summon up even the faintest image of a corner in Hampshire.

Instead, I will tell you a true tale of Hollywood and books. In 1924 my grandmother came to  Hollywood as Story Editor for Universal Pictures. She called herself Onoto Watanna when she was pretending to be Japanese in order to publicize her best selling romance novels with titles like A Japanese Nightingale and The Wooing of Wistaria. (She was more prosaically known as Winnifred Eaton, when she was passing for white.) For eight years she churned out screenplays, and a few made it to the Silver Screen: Shanghai Lady was one, and Mississippi Gambler with Edward G. Robinson was another. She valiantly battled the white male powers of the Hollywood studios, who assigned her mostly to B movies with exotic themes (Mexicans, Gypsies, French, Indian, you name it). When Hollywood had ground her down and spit her out, she was thankful to retire to Calgary with a rich husband.

Her son, my father Paul Eaton Reeve, a Greenwich Village poet and unregenerate alcoholic, did some script reading for the studios whenever his indomitable mother was able to get him occasional work. (Her motto – though not his – might have been that mantra of Louisa May Alcott’s, “Work is my salvation and I will celebrateHyacinth it.”) Years later, after both were long in their graves, in a completely unrelated move, I, then a young single mother and Jewish New Yorker, came out West and took up my 30-year career as a book reader and story analyst for the studios. My own son has put in time reading scripts too. Thus we are four generations of family members working in studio story departments, over a more than 80-year period. This is I believe unique, yet the perspective it provides seems to have (again quoting Chandler), no more than the depth of a paper cup.

In an ironic twist, I read all my grandmother’s own screenplays in the University of Calgary research library, while writing her biography (Onoto Watanna, University of Illinois Press, 2001). And I could see, poignantly, that she had by no means led the glamorous life in Hollywood. The hundreds of rapidly typed faded carbon copy scripts were testament to her desperate struggle to survive on her own as a woman in Hollywood. And a half Chinese woman at that; she was undoubtedly the first Asian American woman to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, though I don’t suppose anyone noticed it back then, so cunning was she in her shifting camouflage.

I haven’t led a glamorous life either. I’ve read a lot – was first reader on such movies as Rocky, Blade Runner, Terminator, Moonstruck, and strings of others I can’t even try to remember; more recently I worked on the Harry Potter Lexicon trial. The primary result has been to render me functionally unable to read modern fiction for pleasure, unless it’s set in the past. I’ve devoted myself mainly to reading women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries…seldom anything later than the Provincial Lady or the Mitfords, with plenty of soothing forays into English children’s literature. I’m not a book scout, and can’t read manuscripts people send me, yet there are books that still make it past my desert-wind dried-out eyes jaded by “The Industry,” and delight my soul. What does a studio story analyst look for in reading books to recommend them for movies? Short answer: it comes down to good old gut instinct. And it’s remarkable how little the process and criteria have changed in eighty years.


Diana Birchall works as a story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios and is the author of Onoto Watanna (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, both from SourceBooks, 2008.

Her blog is called Light, Bright and Sparkling, and for the past month it has been slavishly devoted to the three young pussycats, Pindar, Catullus, and Martial. (Girls.)

Leena’s review of Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma.

14 comments on “Hollywood Reader: A Life in the Story Department.

  1. Moira
    February 6, 2009

    She must have been a formidable woman, your grandmother …

    I know so little about the film industry that it was news to me that ‘story analysts’ even existed.

    At first glance, it sounds like your average Book Fox’s Job Made in Heaven … but more mature consideration actually leads me to suspect that it’s probably like working in a chocolate factory …

  2. rosyb
    February 6, 2009

    What an atmospheric post. I was gagging for more where you left off. What is the magic ingredient you look for to make a good film? I was reading Brokeback Mountain recently and thought what a wonderful story it was, but I would not have imagined that it immediately shouted “film me!”. And yet the film was so very faithful to the story. Nothing like the “Story” of Robert McKee fame.

    I love Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – although these are original screenplays I did wonder how they made it through. Or is “the system” not as draconian as we are sometimes lead to believe?

  3. Moira
    February 6, 2009

    I think Diana’s a great believer in “Always leave them wanting more …” – but I’m sure we’re not alone in wanting to know a bit more about her work …

    ‘Blade Runner’ made me prick up my ears, and spoke to my inner geek.

  4. Pingback: Illinois Press Book Blog » A Hollywood reader on a Hollywood writer

  5. rosyb
    February 6, 2009

    Yes, my inner-geek is a-quivering too, Moira.

    “I haven’t led a glamorous life either. I’ve read a lot – was first reader on such movies as Rocky, Blade Runner, Terminator, Moonstruck”

    Surely this is a bit of a paradox! 🙂

  6. Ellen Moody
    February 7, 2009

    I enjoyed reading this evocative autobiographical musing. I wonder if the kind of analysis one does of a book to produce a “reading” of it as viable for a movie (or not viable) help someone produce his or her own work. Is there any relationship between coming up with an idea for a sequel and coming up with a scenario to make a story text into a feasible commercial movie?


  7. Lisa
    February 7, 2009

    This was fascinating. Thank you so much, Diana.

  8. Jackie
    February 8, 2009

    That has got to be one of the best beginnings of any piece that has appeared on VL–WOW! The whole post was great, but it just hooks the reader & reels them in immediately. I’m definitely checking out the blog, especially since it’s about animals at the moment.
    It must’ve been very difficult for Ms. Eaton, considering the racism & chauvinism of the time, but I’m impressed by her creativity & resilence. What a splendid tribute you’ve made to her. I’m going to be looking for this book, it would make a nice change from all the stories about people in front of the camera.
    And might I say what a wonderful cover that is on the Hyacinth book, it’s quite striking in colors and design; perfectly balanced & eye catching. It’s beautiful.

  9. Hilary
    February 8, 2009

    I loved this article! Adding it to my list of writing about screen-writing – a fascinating sub-genre. But I too wish it had been longer – so many tantalising paths not quite taken.

    Thank you!

  10. Diana Birchall
    February 11, 2009

    Thanks for many interesting comments – Jackie, you are too kind! Like most biographers I at times adored my subject, sometimes hated her, which helped to produce a “warts and all” portrayal. Her spunkiness, her fight to make her name and support her family single-handedly, clawing her way from being a working girl in the Chicago stockyards to a glamorous member of the New York literati, made me thrilled to be her granddaughter. Her identity-shifting survival device was interesting, if strange, but the lying that went with it, was not so admirable. I’m glad you liked the cover I reproduced of The Heart of Hyacinth; all Onoto Watanna’s early novels have beautiful covers, some by the famous Decorative Designers firm, and the inside pages have lovely watermarked drawings. Pictures of several of her book covers can be seen here:

    Rosy asks some cogent questions about the book-to-film selection process, which it’s hard to answer succinctly! So many intangibles come into it. I work for a large studio, which tends to make big commercial “tentpole” movies, so in evaluating a manuscript, I try to imagine if it could make a major commercial feature. If I worked for a small independent studio that made art films, I’d be looking for something entirely different. So there’s no magic ingredient. If there’s a “system,” it’s not draconian. I doubt anybody in the industry is that organized or knows what they’re doing to the extent of formulating a system – certainly nobody has ever given me specific instructions in what to look for. The basic bottom line, though, that everybody understands, is simple: Pictures must make money. Not too many companies are interested in making something that won’t!

    My process, when I start reading, is to go through a sort of mental checklist: Does it seize the interest at the outset? Fresh, intriguing characters? An unusual or compelling situation? Maybe it has a good opening, but does it manage to sustain itself after that? All the way through? Does it actually engage the emotions? One of my own personal rules is that if a book makes me feel anything, I’ll consider it more seriously, since eliciting any kind of emotion is already an achievement, and might translate to arousing an audience’s emotion. One thing I’m not looking for is a copycat of some hit; in fact, that’s a reason in itself to turn something down. Studios do make a lot of sequels and spin-offs, but those are usually commissioned. If something is recycled Harry Potter or Bridget Jones, then it’s not fresh. I’ve been in the business so long now I’ve lived through many cycles – the decade when we were, er, mobbed with thousands of pseudo Godfather scripts; the decade of the meteor shower of Star Wars copies; the multiple dwarf versions of Lord of the Rings. But the studios are looking for the next big thing, not the last one. If there’s money to be made in making a sequel or copy, they’ll hire people to do that themselves, not buy one of the hundreds of tired derivations that are for ever floating around.

    I didn’t read the novel Brokeback Mountain, so don’t know what my reaction would have been, but if I’d found it a really interesting relationship story that moved me, I’d have recommended it. We read every word of every manuscript and write exhaustive synopses and criticism, describing what kind of book it is and considering whether it has any potential for cinematic “development.” At the major studios it’s not a quick slushpile read; the material has mostly been filtered through publishing companies and literary agents and packagers. Quite a few people may already think it is “hot” and has film potential. Often my task is to burst that bubble, cut through the hype. My remit is to tell exactly what I think, which is why my reports are confidential and never seen by the writers. They’re not diplomatic at all! This is a problem on the rare occasions when I read something as a favor for a friend. They often (sadly) don’t remain friends! Being tactful isn’t what’s wanted of me, and I haven’t particularly developed that skill.

    Ellen asks if the kind of analysis I do, helps me produce my own work. Well, having to write a daily essay on deadline is fantastic practice for a writer. You develop facility and flexibility with language if you write every day, and deadlines induce professionalism. I’ve “done coverage” on the same day as car accidents and miscarriages, with my opinions unaffected. (I mean, even if you feel rotten, your opinion on an orphan boy who goes on a quest to save the Seventeen Universes isn’t likely to budge.) As for story analysis affecting my own creative ideas, it doesn’t. Well, occasionally I’ve had a disastrous thought such as, “Vampire books all sell so well, why don’t I try to write one,” and that’s a blind alley and a waste of time, because I can’t. My own creative dreams are quite separate from the books I read for work. This relates to Moira’s comment that story analysis is like working in a chocolate factory. Yes, reading modern popular fiction has become too much like work. If I find myself synopsizing in my mind and ticking off qualities as I go along, then it’s not creative imaginative pleasure reading! For me to advance in my own thinking I want to read about women’s lives of the 18th and 19th centuries, wondering what the world was really like then, how it changed and why – that sort of musing is what stimulates me and makes me learn and grow.

    No, I can’t see any relationship between a sequel idea and a screenplay idea. A sequel idea grows organically from the earlier material and from your own desire to imagine what happens next. I never come up with screenplay ideas, having long ago decided that I don’t think like a movie, but like a book. But in the end, story analysis has been an ideal “day job” for me as a writer, with my own thoughts running parallel, separate and distinct from what the studio buys me to think. What do I see when I read on my own? I can’t tell you but I know that it’s mine.

  11. Jane Odiwe
    February 13, 2009

    I’ve read Diana’s biography about her grandmother – it is fascinating and beautifully written. Some of the photos of this amazing woman are stunning and show her indomitable spirit!

    Jane Odiwe

  12. Karel
    November 25, 2009

    Hi Diana,

    Wonderful piece, very inspiring.

    I’m hoping you might be checking in here every now and then – or perhaps you’re notified by email about comments.

    Anyhow, I’m trying to get in touch with you with a request.

    You can reach me on karel [dot] segers [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Many thanks in advance!



  13. C B Huntington
    November 7, 2011

    I’ve just found this blog, I have never blogged, but I would really like my book – story made into a movie. It is called “Through Her Eyes – an Infidel’s Perspective” . . . the subject is very appropriate for the times. If you’d kindly go to my
    you can read part of chapter four, which is ‘chilling’ and ‘dramatic’
    and thank you for any advice.

  14. Pingback: English Eccentrics by Edith Sitwell | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2009 by in Special Features and tagged , , , , , , .



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