Today is the poet James Dickey’s birthday. He would have been 92. He was born in Atlanta, and died on January 19, 1997.
Rediscovering and reinterpreting Dickey’s poetry is a process that will last decades, because he did such amazing and original things with form and voice in his poems. His body of work defies categorization.
More has been said in popular culture, however, about Dickey’s novel Deliverance (1970) and, even more so, about the film version of the same name (1972). However, before anybody would read the poet’s first novel (he wrote two more), he or she should read at least one collection of poetry–Drowning with Others or Buckdancer’s Choice: Poems, perhaps.
But in thinking lately about the creative process, both personal and commercial, and in thinking about Dickey on his birthday, I must, in his honor, spell out the James Dickey-Zardoz connection. Yes, it is real, and not far-fetched at all, even though Deliverance and Zardoz differ grandly.
If you have never seen the 1974 film Zardoz, and you have the slightest interest in sci-fi, you must watch it. It is brilliant, much more than just salacious and violent fantasy, as early reviewers thought, and truly greater than a cult film, as it is often classified. To watch it is, in part, to see everything that convinced Ian Fleming that Sean Connery could, indeed, play James Bond after the author initially dismissed the Scottish actor. Connery, however, took the Zardoz lead-role of Zed as part of his effort to escape the effect his Bond years had on his career.*
The James Dickey-Zardoz connection goes like this:
Dickey started writing Deliverance in 1962, and Hougton Mifflin published the novel in 1970. It quickly became a literary bestseller, and is now listed in the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century. Dickey wrote the screenplay for Warner Brothers studios, and British director John Boorman took charge in 1971. The film version of Deliverance was such a success–it garnered three Academy Award nominations–that, as described in a Roger Ebert review, Boorman had the commercial latitude to make whatever film he wanted next. When a cherished plan to make a version of The Lord of the Rings didn’t come together, Boorman made Zardoz, the film premiering on February 7, 1974. It was not a film version of a novel. Boorman wrote the story from scratch.**
That is a complex process, one that hinges on much chance, massive amounts of hard work and talent, and a lot of film studio money. But it happened. If there’s no novel Deliverance, does Boorman not make Zardoz? We have no way of knowing. The path from Dickey’s typewriter to an avante-garde sci-fi film, however, is traceable and explicable.
Maybe this is just a footnote in American literary and cinematic history, but I think it’s a very interesting one–how one highly original work begets another highly original work, and how one success begets another. Zardoz, however, enjoyed nothing like the critical reception of the cinematic Deliverance. Even after it gained rightful praise in the decades after its release, fans still misinterpret Zardoz.
Boorman and Dickey had a difficult professional relationship. Dickey had wanted Sam Peckinpah to direct. Boorman had mixed feelings about signing on to the project. As quoted in the Dickey biography, The World as a Lie, Boorman said, “Sometimes [Dickey] was jealous and hated me for, as he imagined, stealing his story from him. Then, another day, he’d congratulate me on one of my ideas and regret it hadn’t occurred to him when writing the book!” (p. 480). Boorman eventually asked Dickey to leave the set of Deliverance, although Dickey later returned to do his scenes as Sheriff Bullard.
Indeed, the creative process is complicated, even downright wrenching at times. Will the thing get made? Will it be a success? Will it destroy the creator? Will anyone care?
If you’re convinced, you take the risk. Dickey and Boorman did.
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*In an interesting twist, Boorman initially hoped to cast Burt Reynolds in the role of Zed, after Reynolds had played Lewis Medlock in Deliverance. But Reynolds was ill and could not take on the role (a stroke of luck, frankly). Boorman’s letters to Richard Harris about playing Zed went unanswered (another stroke of luck). Connery took the part for a payment on par with what he got for Dr. No, twelve years earlier.
**The novelization of the screenplay, by Boorman and co-writer Bill Stair, came out in April 1974, and is a favorite of the contemporary novelist Gary Shteyngart.