They Haven’t Done Anything to My Book. It’s Right There on the Shelf

Raymond Chandler? James M. Cain? Alan Moore? William S. Burroughs? Larry Niven? Stephen King? Elmore Leonard? William Faulkner? Owen Sheers?

jamescain03Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard the following anecdote told about Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard. A journalist once visited the house of a popular author who had sold the movie rights to several of his novels to Hollywood. The quality of the resultant movies had been lamented by critics. The reporter attempted to commiserate with the writer by saying that Hollywood had ruined his books, but the author led the visitor into his study and pointed to a bookshelf:

They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.

Is this story accurate? Who were the participants?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this tale known to QI was published in the New York Times Book Review in March 1969. The influential cultural critic John Leonard visited James M. Cain at his home in Hyattsville, Maryland. Cain had written several best-selling books in the 1930s and 1940s including: “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce”, and “Double Indemnity”. These works were transformed into movies of variable quality. Leonard reported on the remarks of Cain: 1

All the early novels were made into movies. (Hollywood made $12-million from Cain; Cain made $100,000.) He has seen only two of the movies made from his books. “There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”

The citation above was located by top researcher Bill Mullins. In 1974 a book titled “Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction” referenced the comments of Cain. The phrasing presented matched the version in the New York Times: 2

The American novelist James M. Cain once remarked that he had rarely gone to see the screen version of one of his novels. “People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On January 7, 1977 James M. Cain was interviewed by David Zinsser on behalf of the prominent literary magazine “The Paris Review”. Cain died in October 1977, and the interview was published in 1978. When he was asked about the film version of “Double Indemnity” Cain responded with the exact same sequence of six sentences that he employed eight years previously in 1969: 3

INTERVIEWER
Did you ever go and see the film? What did you think of it?

CAIN
I don’t go. There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.

Shortly after the death of Cain, the New York Times printed an obituary by John Leonard which repeated four of the sentences from the Cain quotation. The phrase “what they’ve done to your book?” was slightly modified to yield “what they’ve done to your books?” 4

In 1981 the Washington Post printed an article by Roy Hoopes containing a version of the quotation ascribed to Cain. The phrase “It’s right there on the shelf” was slightly altered to yield “It’s right up there on the shelf”: 5

Whenever some young reporter asked him how he felt about what MGM, Lana Turner and John Garfield had done to his book, he would reply: “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right up there on the shelf.”

In 1982 Roy Hoopes published a biography titled “Cain”, and the book included the same version of the quotation that Hoopes used in the 1981 Washington Post article. No citation was listed: 6

In 1990 “American Literary Anecdotes” printed the following instance of the tale featuring Cain: 7

When an interviewer from a literary magazine commiserated with the novelist, noting that Hollywood had ruined Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and all his other books, Cain sat up and studied a shelf in his library. “No, they are all still right there,” he said.

In September 1991 the controversialist author William S. Burroughs wrote an introduction to the book “Everything Is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch”. This volume described the process of constructing a film based on the benchmark novel by Burroughs “Naked Lunch”.

The introduction linked the anecdote under investigation to Raymond Chandler instead of James M. Cain. Chandler and Cain are often grouped together as crime writers whose books were foundational to the film noir genre in cinema. Chandler also worked on the screenplay of Cain’s “Double Indemnity”. QI believes that the ascription to Chandler was caused by confusion and was mistaken: 8

I hope that my readers will judge the film as something quite apart from my novel, and that I may perhaps find some new readers thereby.

Raymond Chandler was once asked, “How do you feel about what Hollywood has done to your novels?” He reportedly answered, “My novels? Why, Hollywood hasn’t done anything to them. They’re still right there, on the shelf.”

In 1992 the noted director David Cronenberg participated in a question and answer session after the screening of his film “Naked Lunch”. Following the lead of William S. Burroughs, Cronenberg also connected the anecdote to Raymond Chandler instead of James M. Cain: 9

CRONENBERG: And I must say that Burroughs was totally supportive and very easy about the making of the film. I mean, he always, as he’s written in the preface to the—there’s a book, The Making of Naked Lunch, as well, which is not out yet, but it will be in about a week. And in a preface that he’s written, he mentions a story about Raymond Chandler when people said, “Aren’t you appalled at the things that Hollywood has done to your books?” And he said, “Well, Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books. They’re right there on the shelf.” And I think that’s really Burroughs’s approach. His work is his work and nothing that I could do would ever change it, really.

In 2001 an interview with comic book auteur Alan Moore was released on “The A.V. Club” website. Several movies have been based on works by Moore including: “V for Vendetta”, “Watchmen”, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, and “From Hell”. Moore attached the anecdote to Raymond Chandler: 10

Apparently, someone asked Raymond Chandler once what he thought of Hollywood ruining all of his books. And he took them into his study and pointed up to the shelf where they all were, and he said, “Look, they’re there. They’re fine. They’re okay.” That’s the attitude I have to take. The film hasn’t ruined my book.

In 2003 the well-known science fiction author Larry Niven answered questions collected from participants at the website slashdot.org. Niven employed an instance of the saying: 11

Yes, I would like to see my works made into movies. All of them. Short stories as well as novels. Why not? A movie doesn’t ruin a book; the book is still there, unchanged, and may even see a larger audience. See Vince Gerardis of Created By, my agent, if you’ve just won a lottery.

In 2006 the website of Powell’s Books, a chain of bookstores headquartered in Portland, Oregon, published an interview with blockbuster author Stephen King who envisioned the following scenario: 12

There was a college freshman who came to interview James M. Cain towards the end of his life. …

And this guy came and sat down with Cain, and the first thing that he said was, he moaned about how the movies had ruined all James M. Cain’s books. Cain said, “No, they haven’t, young fella; they’re all right behind me,” and pointed at the shelf in the back of the room. And that’s true, they’re all there, so I don’t think there are such things as spoilers, and I think it’s hard to ruin a book because they’re still up on shelves.

In 2002 an interview with the novelist and historian Les Standiford was published, and he mentioned another instance of the exchange featuring Elmore Leonard. Standiford is now a Professor and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University: 13

Someone asked Elmore Leonard once if he was upset about what Hollywood had done to one of his books. Dutch pointed to a copy of the book in question on a nearby shelf. “They haven’t done anything to my book,” he said. “It’s right over there, looking like it always has.”

In 2010 an article in a magazine for Lewis Carroll aficionados discussed a recent movie version of “Alice in Wonderland”. The writer described the anecdote, but expressed uncertainty about the identity of the main participant: 14

As to the whole kerfuffle over the film itself, I am reminded of the famous author (variously identified as William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain), who was once asked, “How do you feel about what Hollywood has done to your books?” “Hollywood has not done a thing to my books,” he replied. “They’re right over there on the shelf, exactly as I wrote them.”

In 2011 Owen Sheers, author of the alternate history novel “Resistance”, wrote an article for The Telegraph newspaper describing his experiences during the filming of his book. He employed a version of the saying: 15

Isn’t it painful, they ask, to watch film-makers, producers and actors change, rough-handle and manipulate your novel? But, I explain, they haven’t.

No one has done anything to my book. I can see it now on the shelf above my desk. It still exists as I wrote it, with all its flaws and voice and dialogue intact. When a book is turned into a film it is the story that is manipulated, not the novel, and as such I was excited rather than anxious when the film’s director Amit Gupta asked me to co-write the screenplay with him.

In 2013 the television series “Under the Dome” based on a novel by Stephen King premiered. Some King fans were unhappy with the liberties that were taken with the material in the novel. King responded by posting a letter on his official website that included a retelling of the Cain anecdote: 16

For those of you out there in Constant Reader Land who are feeling miffed because the TV version of Under the Dome varies considerably from the book version, here’s a little story.

Near the end of his life, and long after his greatest novels were written, James M. Cain agreed to be interviewed by a student reporter who covered culture and the arts for his college newspaper. This young man began his time with Cain by bemoaning how Hollywood had changed books such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Before he could properly get into his rant, the old man interrupted him by pointing to a shelf of books behind his desk. “The movies didn’t change them a bit, son,” he said. “They’re all right up there. Every word is the same as when I wrote them.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence this saying should be credited to James M. Cain. The earliest instance was printed in 1969, but it is possible that an older citation will be uncovered in the future because Cain’s most popular novels were filmed starting in the 1940s. There is no substantive support for ascribing the quotation to Chandler. Some other notable artists have employed the saying and typically gave credit to Cain or Chandler.

(Deep thanks to Bill Mullins who broached this topic and located the key 1969 citation and several other valuable cites.)

Update History: On August 4, 2014 the 1992 citation was updated to indicate that the information had been verified on paper.

Notes:

  1. 1969 March 2, New York Times, Section: Book Review, The Wish of James M. Cain by John Leonard, Quote Page BR2, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1974, Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction by Gene D. Phillips, Series: Studies in Culture & Communication, Chapter 2, Quote Page 14, Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1978 Spring-Summer, The Paris Review, Interview: James M. Cain, The Art of Fiction No. 69, Interviewed conducted by David Zinsser, (Date of interview: January 7, 1977), Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (Online archive of The Paris Review at theparisreview.org; accessed July 26, 2013) link
  4. 1977 October 29, New York Times, “James M. Cain, 85, the Author Of ‘Postman Always Rings Twice’: Novelist Who Scoffed at Label of ‘Tough Guy’ Is Dead” by John Leonard, Quote Page 21, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1981 November 8, Washington Post, The Postman’s Journey: How James M. Cain Wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice” And How Hollywood Murdered It – Twice by Roy Hoopes, Start Page M1, Quote Page M5, Column 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  6. Cain by Roy Hoopes, Quote Page xi and 379, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Quote Page 38, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1992, Everything Is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch, Edited by Ira Silverberg, Introduction by William S. Burroughs (Dated September 1991), Start Page 13, Quote Page 15, Grove Weidenfeld: A division of Grove Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. Website: movingimagesource.us, Transcript of: Discussion with David Cronenberg, Description from website: A Pinewood Dialogue following a screening of Naked Lunch, moderated by Chief Curator David Schwartz, Date given on website: January 11 and 12, 1992. (Accessed movingimagesource.us on August 6, 2013) link
  10. Website: The A.V. Club, Article: Interview with Alan Moore, Date given on website: October 24, 2001. (Accessed avclub.com on July 26, 2013) link
  11. Website: Slashdot, Title: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Larry Niven, Posted by Roblimo, Timestamp: March 10, 2003 @01:02PM. (Accessed slashdot.org and larryniven.net on July 27, 2013) link link
  12. Website: Powell’s Bookstore, Article: The Once and Future Stephen King, Interview by: Jill Owens of Stephen King, Date on website: November 22, 2006. (Accessed powells.com on August 6, 2013) link
  13. 2008, Florida Crime Writers: 24 Interviews, Edited by Steve Glassman, Les Standiford Florida Crime Novelist and Nonfiction Writer, (Interview of Les Standiford by Steve Glassman), (Article footnote: A version of this interview was originally published in AWP Chronicle, May/Summer 2002), Start Page 181, Quote Page 189, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Google Books Preview)
  14. 2010 Spring, The Knight Letter, The Lewis Carroll Society of North America, Volume II, Issue 14, Number 84, “Mise in Abîme” by Mark Burstein, Start Page 13, Quote Page 13, Official Magazine of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. (Internet Archive) link
  15. Website: The Telegraph newspaper (UK), Article title: Hay Festival: When the Nazis came to Hay, Author: Owen Sheers, Date: May 23, 2011. (Accessed at telegraph.co.uk on August 6, 2013) link
  16. Website: StephenKing.com: The Official Website, Article title: A Letter From Stephen, Author listed on website: Stephen King, Date on website: June 27, 2013, Topic: Under the Dome television series. (Accessed August 10, 2013) link