I sometimes wonder what it's like for a young person to watch Network, the brilliant collaboration between auteur screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet. The film, when released in 1976, was a scathing satire of American media, showing a world just to the left of reality where ratings trumped news, where the most powerful communication tool of the time was used to placate the masses and where TV networks were willing to commit murder in order to get more eyeballs. It's a world where a ranting lunatic captures the heart of America and a terrorist cell gets its own reality show. In 1976 this was broad and crazy; in 2014 it feels like the world in which we live. The big difference is that the internet has taken the place of the TV networks. Very little in Network still reads as obvious satire.
But as Chayefsky was writing his script he played with some concepts that would still ring today as fairly broad. He had the basic setting figured out - a TV newscast where a respectable anchor loses his shit and becomes a mad prophet - but he didn't have an ending. He was worried that his satire didn't have a point. "THE SHOW DOESN'T HAVE A POINT OF VIEW," he scrawled in his notes. In the end Chayefsky settled on Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the UBS anchor turned raging holy man, being assassinated on live TV. His original idea was even bigger, though.
Dave Itzkoff's excellent new book Mad As Hell: The Making of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies tracks Chayefsky's progress as he tinkered with early drafts of the script and offers great insight into the process. Itzkoff shares some of the notes Chayefsky left in his yellow writing pads, including this bit that sketches out an alternate ending:
"We are shooting for a third act in which the NETWORK becomes so powerful it is an international power of itself and even declares war on some country."
For Chayefsky it wasn't just about the TV network; he was obsessed with the idea of a multination corporation buying all of America's networks, making them the propaganda arms of these independent powers. This sort of corporate dystopia is very familiar to modern scifi and cyberpunk readers, but was less common in the 70s - especially on the scale that Chayefsky was making Network. While the final film is not exactly science fiction, Chayefsky was heading in that direction, including sketching out his vision of what calamties might befall America in the second half of the 70s:
racial hysteria + jingoism
police violence in the ghettos + barrios
a consolidation of a United Front joining together all sections of the revolutionary, radical + democratic movements
the sheer numbers of the prisoner class and their terms of existence make them a mighty reservoir of revolutionary substructures and infrastructures
Of course like all the best futurists Chayefsky was simply using the past as a guide; you can see the outlines of William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism, which pushed America into war with Spain, in Chayefsky's original ending concept. He just took that idea - a media entity so powerful it can cause war - and extrapolated one step further - a media entity so powerful it can go to war.
Itzkoff's book includes lots of other intriguing deleted details from drafts of the script; there's a scene where network execs Diana (Faye Dunaway) and Max (William Holden) brainstorm new shows, including a series based on The Exorcist. "I think that occult shit might just go very big as a series," she says, and he replies "Sounds like good family entertainment. A ten year old girl masturbates with crucifexes every week." There is, of course, a TV show based on The Exorcist now in development.
So much of Chayefsky's vision - what made it on screen and what never made it off the page - was prophetic. He truly saw where it was all going; early chapters of the book have Chayefsky, who got his start writing for TV, raging against how that medium had become debased, stupid and pandering. Everything he says about TV - the way it flatters the viewer, the ways it stultifies and the way it overmagnifies minor things - is absolutely applicable to the age of Buzzfeed. Chayefsky saw our downward slope, the one we're still on.
Itzkoff's book is terrififc and includes lots of other meaty, fascinating elements from the making of one of the best films ever. It's an exhaustive book written in a style that lets you easily into the action. The best compliment I can give Mad As Hell is that I spent the entire time I was reading it deeply wanting to go back and watch Network again; the book made this perennial old favorite feel fresh all over again. It's the first must-read film book of 2014.