Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Know How to Write the Screenplay for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I know how to make Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into a film. At least, I think I do. If you're not a fan or the book, this is not the post for you. If you are a fan, or haven't read the book but are supremely bored just about now with what's trending on Twitter, well, maybe this is the post for you.

Robert Pirsig and his son, Chris, 1968.
There's a scene in Lila, the follow-up to Zen, where Pirsig has a meeting with Robert Redford, who had, I believe, optioned the first novel and wanted to make a movie of it. Redford's idea was to start with a scene where Pirsig, as a college professor, was sitting in front of his class, at his desk, not saying a word. From there, Redford planned to tell the story through flashbacks.

It never went anywhere, obviously, and Zen remains one of those kinds of books that Hollywood, I think, hates: popular, but unfilmable. There is a standard narration that carries Zen, but the meat of the book, what really makes it such a classic, is almost all the first-person thoughts that the narrator presents as he's making his cross-country motorcycle trip, and it's all very heavy on philosophical exposition. Avatar this ain't, Hell it's not even as accessibly as The Great Gatsby. Nobody could make a film out of ZMM.

But I think I could. Not only that, I think I could do it well.

I first read Robert Pirsig's novel more than 25 years ago. Since then, I've gone back to it again and again, re-reading it, then re-reading it again, every time drawing new insights from it, every time appreciating it more. I've surely read the book more than a dozen times, I don't know, I lost count; at one point, I was reading it once a year.

I also read all, I think all or most of the books that Pirsig references in the book: WaldenTao Te Ching, Plato's Phaedro and The Meeting of East and West, a philosophy book by a little known Yale professor, FSC Northrop, that Pirsig mentions only once, but notes it was a critical book for the narrator. I found it by chance in a used-book store up in Hudson, New York, totally by random chance. Took me nine months to read it; it literally was the densest book I'd ever picked up. Very time-consuming, but valuable read. So you can see I'm serious.

I also spent a lot of time trying to write screenplays. For some odd reason, I thought this was a realistic career path for me. I probably wrote ten or so. Never sold any of them, maybe I didn't try hard enough to sell them, maybe they weren't very good, but I did learn at least how to write a standard three-act screenplay.

All of this makes me the perfect person to tackle a Zen screenplay.

Now, Zen is one of those books that seem impossible to translate onto the screen. Indeed, any filmed version of this novel would fall short of the book itself, unless you wanted to make a 12-hour film with endless flashbacks and exposition. But I do think there's a way to make a good, solid, even commercial film out of the book that would do justice to Pirsig's story and philosophy (I know Pirsig himself isn't interested).

I'm not sure if I'll ever find the spare time to actually write this screenplay, so I might as well just flesh out my general ideas here, for posterity's sake.

You're still here? Great. Let's go. There are three main aspects to this screenplay that set it apart: the timeline, the narrator, and the flashbacks/exposition.

First off, we won't get cute in terms of the timeline (like Redford proposed). The movie opens with the narrator and companions biking across Wisconsin marshlands, and ends with the narrator and his son on a California highway, just like the book. In fact, this screenplay will mostly adhere to the novel's plot. The real trick is in presenting that plot, and in knowing how much and what parts of the philosophy to cut out (to be clear: ideally, I wouldn't cut any, but that would make for a very, very long movie).

Next, this movie, just like the book, has to have a narrator. There is absolutely no way around this. There is far too much background and exposition to not have somebody taking the viewer through the story. He'll break the fourth wall, also, and talk directly to the audience. Here's the twist, though: this narrator may be insane.

Pirsig's narrator is somebody who, as the story progresses, is slowly losing his mind, has lost his mind in the past, and has had electroshock therapy that was supposed to erase everything he'd ever known. Literally, as the story's progressing, his mind's fragmenting. He's what's called an unreliable narrator. The film's narrator would reflect this. You ever see a crazy person? Know how they kind of talk past you? That's what our narrator would do. So, not only would he directly address the audience, he would also at times talk past the audience.

There's a scene where the narrator and his son Christopher are coming down a mountain. In the book, the narrator is talking out loud, to the reader. It's an inner monologue; in the story itself, he isn't saying a word. In the movie, the narrator will be speaking out loud the narrator's inner monologue. So, he's clamoring down this hill, talking out loud, looking around, talking to the audience, talking past the audience, and losing all sense of where he is and what's really going on.

Playing this part, actually, would be quite the challenge for an actor. He plays two roles, really; one is the narrator, who at the beginning seems a harmless, nebbish sort, but progresses through the movie into a man who's mind is literally coming apart. He would also play the narrator in the past, Phaedrus, a rebellious man of towering intellect who is the story's true hero. This role's got Oscar written all over it, I tell you.

The hardest part of the storytelling is in how to handle all the flashbacks to Phaedrus and the philosophical exposition. This is, I think, where the biggest risk of the movie falling apart lies, because the philosophical stuff is almost impossible to tell on-screen, but it's really the biggest part of the book. Without it, there's literally no point to the book. So how do you handle it? Like I said, we're sticking to the timeline, so the flashbacks will be handled with flashbacks. The philosophy will be handled with flashbacks as well. So not only do you have flashbacks of Phaedrus's life, but you have flashbacks to different historical eras. We would literally see Plato and Aristotle and Socrates, a flashback within the flashback of Phaedrus's days in Chicago.

This is probably the trickiest part of the story. Not only is this where the greatest risk of the film failing the book lies, but it's where the greatest risk of the film failing the audience lies as well. The pace will have to remain balanced between not cutting out so much exposition that none of what really matters is left in the film, and not leaving in so much that the audience just completely loses interest. But I don't see any other way to do it. Gotta take the risk here.

So you have Phaedrus locked into a battle of the mind with the Chairman of the University of Chicago's philosophy department, which the narrator is telling in a flashback, and within that you flash back to the earliest battles in ancient Greece between Plato and Socrates and the sophists, who are fighting the very first battle between reason and emotion, between feeling and thinking, between logic and emotion. It's the fight that underlies the entire book. It's the reason Socrates drank the hemlock. If you can show this, explain it in a film, show why it's important, how it still affects our lives today, wouldn't that be a great thing? 

I'm out there, Mr. Hollywood Producer. Ping me.


  1. Nerd Alert:
    There's a typo here.
    In the phrase
    "a man who's mind is literally coming apart"
    the word "who's" (a contraction of "who is" or "who has") should be the possessive pronoun "whose."
    End Nerd Alert; as you were.
    The Grammarly® app might help with that, if you don't mind giving up your soul, your firstborn, or your most private and personal data as the cost.
    (As I believe Andrew Lewis, writing as blue_beetle on Metafilter, was the first to point out, "If you're not paying for a product, you ARE the product.")
    As an old-time fan of the book -- rereading it as we speak for the first time in many years -- I'd love to see it brought to the screen.
    Got my doubts whether that can even be done.
    Wish you all manner of luck with this.
    (Maybe you shoulda hooked up with Weinstein, while that was still an option?)

  2. They are generally renowned motion picture or TV screenwriters who have composed screenplays for real executives or makers. script coverage