The art of the first draft

July 20, 2015


A few years ago, a film historian unearthed what he claimed was the only existing copy of the first version of John Cassavetes’ film, “Shadows.”

So, minus any permission from the Cassavetes estate or the copyright holders, he offered it to a European film festival as a lost classic. He ultimately was told to cease and desist because he had no right to the film.

More to the point, it was not the version that Cassavetes had authorized for public viewing. While Cassavetes had showed it publicly in 1957 and 1958 to see how it worked with an audience, he’d gone back and done considerable reshooting and re-editing before releasing the version — his first film as a director — in 1959.

In other words, that first version was a rough draft. The released version was actually the film.

I bring this up not as a way of calling attention to my biography of Cassavetes (“Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film” — how’s that for a shameless plug?). Rather, it’s a way to broach the subject of Harper Lee and the recent publication of her novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

I have yet to read the book itself, but there was no way to miss the copious coverage of its publication in the media (does the New York Times own stock in Lee’s publishing company?). Most of it seems to deal with people’s disillusionment at discovering that, in the early version of the book that eventually became “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch had racist attitudes about Brown v. Board of Education.


As I understand it, “Watchman” was the first version of the book which, after Lee rewrote it, eventually became “Mockingbird.”

At some point an editor told Lee that “Watchman” would be a better book if Lee focused on the character of Scout as a young girl, instead of a young adult. That advice led to “Mockingbird,” which has become a touchstone and rite-of-passage for young readers for more than 50 years.

Then, within the past year, someone unearthed “Watchman” and convinced Lee that it should be published. While Lee obviously doesn’t need the money, this is still apparently much more about enriching the publisher than about  enriching literary history.

The analogy to “Shadows” (a film that also dealt with race, a few years earlier than “Mockingbird”) seems fitting, because that, too, was a very different film the first time around. In that case, Cassavetes disowned the first version, saying that it amounted to a rough draft of what the film eventually became.

As the old saying goes, all writing is rewriting. And I think that’s the case here. I’d offer that the book Harper Lee meant to write was the one she ended up writing: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” While “Go Set a Watchman” is a complete entity unto itself, in reality it is still a first draft.

It’s as if someone had unearthed an early version of “Death of a Salesman” with a different title (“Success of a Salesman”) that focuses on Willy Loman’s early years as a crackerjack member of the sales force — and then produced it. Or if Tennessee Williams had squirreled away a script called “Blanche’s Big Day,” about how Blanche DuBois swooped in and saved the marriage of her sister Stella and her thoughtful husband Stanley Kowalski.

The fact that there is sufficient interest in Harper Lee to warrant publishing the first draft of one of the most famous novels ever written has everything to do with business and nothing to do with the books themselves.

First drafts exist for a reason: for the writer to pour it all out on to the page and then figure out what works and what doesn’t. You take the good, leave the bad and start afresh. As it happens, that’s what Harper Lee did.

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