I've always greatly enjoyed the Altered States movie. (Well, except for its preposterous ending, which I won't reveal here.)
Recently, I read Paddy Chayefsky's original novel -- which has been out-of-print for some time -- and thought I'd share my thoughts.
The following criticisms might seem harsh, so I should note that I actually did enjoy reading the novel. (Well, except, of course, for its equally preposterous ending...)
Anyway, Altered States was Chayefsky's first and last novel. He wrote it back in the late 70s after enjoying great success and acclaim as both a playwright and screenwriter. [The man won three Academy Awards!]
Unfortunately, the novel suffers from many of the same problems shared by first-time novelists. [I should know. I finished my first novel recently and made many of these same mistakes.]
The characters are always making "speeches" -- instead of simply saying what's on their mind.
Chayefsky was originally a playwright. Unfortunately, his dialog -- both in the novel and in his subsequent screenplay -- reads like theatrical dialog. It's needlessly long-winded.
Theater is primarily a verbal medium and so audiences accept that characters on stage will indulge in lengthy oration. The dialog of novels, however, can and should be far more efficient. Screenplays, too.
Also, there are whole paragraphs worth of dialog where -- and I'm not exaggerating -- *every* single line of dialog ends in an exclamation point! Sheesh.
(2) Omniscient Narration.
Much of the story is written from the point-of-view (POV) of an omniscient narrator, rather than from the POV of individual characters.
It's usually far better to write thrillers in a character-based POV, since that allows the reader to live vicariously through the characters, making the story far more compelling.
Also, although most scenes are properly narrated as if the events are happening "now," others are oddly written as if the narrator is recalling the events of the story from some vantage point months or years later. This is confusing.
The story is buried under a mountain of narrative exposition. At times, stretches of pure exposition -- again provided by the omniscient narrator -- run on for pages.
Stories are, of course, far more compelling when exposition is avoided, and information is instead conveyed through the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters.
All too often, events that could easily have been presented as "live" scenes were needlessly described via omniscient narration. Moreover, thoughts that could easily have been spoken by the characters were also needlessly set forth via omniscient narration.
The result is that much of the book is simply tedious.
[To his credit, when Chayefsky wrote his screenplay for Altered States, he did an excellent job of converting much of the narrative exposition into actual scenes. One wonders why he didn't bother to do that within the novel itself.]
(4) Too Much Scientific Detail
Chayefsky spent two years researching the science behind the novel. Unfortunately, he jammed every last bit of research into the novel (again mostly via dull exposition.)
So, at times, the novel reads like an encyclopedia entry, rather than a thrilling story.
(5) Run-on Paragraphs.
Apparently, Chayefsky had trouble finding the carriage return on his typewriter. Individual paragraphs often run well over a page long.
[And that's in the hardbound edition. Within his original typed manuscript, individual paragraphs must have run on for three or four pages. I pity the editor who had to read that!]
Anywho, despite these flaws, the underlying story is still fascinating.
It's a shame, though, that the editor didn't convince Chayefsky to rework the novel to fix these flaws. [I suspect that, given Chayefsky's great clout at the time, no one dared tell him the novel was a mess.]
Had the novel been better written, it might still be in print after all these years.
By the way, Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981 after a long and remarkable career. Rest in peace. You gave us some great stories.
P.S. There's an interesting anecdote about the Altered States script/movie. Chayefsky had an unprecedented clause in his contract requiring that the movie be shot exactly according to his script -- scene-by-scene, line-by-line.
Ken Russell, the director, did just that. Still, Chayefsky demanded that his name be taken off the movie. The screenplay is instead credited to "Sidney Aaron."
The reason? Chayefsky apparently wanted all the long speeches of the script to be spoken very deliberately by the actors, so the audience could mull them over. He hated the fact that Russell had the actors race through the dialog.
I think, though, that Russell was right. Otherwise, the movie would simply have been too long and tedious. Russell's direction injected much-needed energy into what was a very "talky" script.
No, the main flaw in the movie was *not* the performance of the actors, *nor* the decisions of the director; the problem was that awful ending.
Did I mention I didn't like the ending?