Dear Hollywood producer, I know how to make Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into a film.
I first read the Robert Pirsig novel about a quarter century ago. Over the years, I’ve gone back to it again and again, re-reading it, then re-reading it again, every time drawing new insights from it. I’ve surely read the book more than a dozen times, I don’t know, I lost count; at one point, I was reading it once a year. I also read all, I think all or most of the books that Pirsig references in the book: Walden, Tao Te Ching, Plato’s Phaedro and The Meeting of East and West, a philosophy book by a little known Yale professor, FSC Northrop, that Pirsig mentions only once, but notes it was a critical book for the narrator. I found it by chance in a used-book store. Took me nine months to read it; it literally was the densest book I’d ever picked up. Very time-consuming, but valuable read. So you can see I’m serious.
I also spent a lot of time trying to write screenplays. For some odd reason, I thought this was a realistic career path for me. I probably wrote ten or so. Never sold any of them, didn’t try hard enough reckon, but I did learn at least how to write a screenplay.
All of this makes me the perfect person to tackle a Zen screenplay.
Now, Zen is one of those books that seem impossible to translate onto the screen. Indeed, any filmed version of this novel would fall short of the book itself, unless you wanted to make a 12-hour film with endless flashbacks and exposition. But I do think there’s a way to make a good, solid, even commercial film out of the book that would do justice to Pirsig’s story and philosophy (I know Pirsig himself isn’t interested).
I’m not sure if I’ll ever find the spare time to actually write this screenplay, so I might as well just flew out my general ideas here, for posterity’s sake.
There are three main aspects to this screenplay that set it apart: the timeline, the narrator, and the flashbacks/exposition.
First off, we won’t get cute in terms of the timeline. The movie opens with the narrator and companions biking across Wisconsin marshlands, and ends with the narrator and his son on a California highway, just like the book. In fact, this screenplay will mostly adhere to the novel’s plot. The real trick is in presenting that plot, and in know how much and what parts of the philosophy to cut out (to be clear: ideally, I wouldn’t cut any, but that would make for a very, very long movie).
Next, this movie, just like the book, has to have a narrator. There is absolutely no way around this. There is far too much background and exposition to not have somebody taking the viewer through the story. He’ll break the fourth wall, also, and talk directly to the audience. Here’s the twist, though: this narrator may be insane.
Pirsig’s narrator is somebody who, as the story progresses, is slowly losing his mind. Literally, as the story’s progressing, his mind’s fragmenting. The film’s narrator would reflect this. You ever see a crazy person? Know how they kind of talk past you? That’s what our narrator would do. So, not only would he directly address the audience, he would also at times talk past the audience.
There’s a scene where the narrator and his son Christopher are coming down a mountain. In the book, the narrator is talking out loud, to the reader. It’s an inner monologue; in the story itself, he isn’t saying a word. In the movie, the narrator will be speaking out loud the narrator’s inner monologue. So, he’s clamoring down this hill, talking out loud, looking around, talking to the audience, talking past the audience, and losing all sense of where he is and what’s really going on.
Playing this part, actually, would be quite the challenge for an actor. He plays two roles, really; one is the narrator, who at the beginning seems a harmless, nebbish sort, but progresses through the movie into a man who’s mind is literally coming apart. He would also play the narrator in the past, Phaedrus, a rebellious man of towering intellect who is the story’s true hero. This role’s got Oscar written all over it, I tell you.
The hardest part of the storytelling is in how to handle all the flashbacks to Phaedrus and the philosophical exposition. This is, I think, where the biggest risk of the movie falling apart lies, because the philosophical stuff is almost impossible to tell on-screen, but it’s really the biggest part of the book. Without it, there’s literally no point to the book. So how do you handle it? Like I said, we’re sticking to the timeline, so the flashbacks will be handled with flashbacks. The philosophy will be handled with flashbacks as well. So not only do you have flashbacks of Phaedrus’s life, but you have flashbacks to different historical eras. We would literally see Plato and Aristotle and Socrates, a flashback within the flashback of Phaedrus’s days in Chicago.
This is probably the trickiest part of the story. Not only is this where the greatest risk of the film failing the book lies, but it’s where the greatest risk of the film failing the audience lies as well. The pace will have to remain balanced between not cutting out so much exposition that none of what really matters is left in the film, and not leaving in so much that the audience just completely loses interest. But I don’t see any other way to do it. Gotta take the risk here.
I’m out there, Mr. Hollywood producer. Ping me.