Behind the Scenes with Tom Hanks

By Sebastian Tants-Boestad

Do you love going to the movies? Do you enjoy watch­ing ‘Behind the Scenes’ clips and doc­u­men­taries? Do you like a good nov­el? If you can answer any of these ques­tions with yes, you should at least con­sid­er putting Tom Han­ks’ debut nov­el, The Mak­ing of Anoth­er Major Motion Pic­ture Mas­ter­piece, on your to-read pile. If you can answer all of them with yes, you should prob­a­bly go and read it right now. (But fin­ish this review first.)

So, Tom Han­ks, one of the most pro­lif­ic peo­ple work­ing in Hol­ly­wood today, has writ­ten a nov­el. And, stay­ing true to the time-hon­ored ethos of ‘Write What You Know’, the vet­er­an actor and film­mak­er has decid­ed to write about film­mak­ing. The Mak­ing of Anoth­er Major Motion Pic­ture Mas­ter­piece tells the sto­ry of how one sin­gle movie is made from its ear­li­est incep­tion to the pub­lic release of the final prod­uct. In fact, it even sketch­es the ori­gin of the source mate­r­i­al, decades before some­one picks it up and turns it into a screen­play. The Mak­ing of is thus a nov­el about film pro­duc­tion, a ‘Behind the Scenes’-turned-literary-fiction. Need­less to say, you could hard­ly find a bet­ter field guide for such an enter­prise than Han­ks, but it deserves stress­ing nonethe­less just how well-informed – and inform­ing – a read this makes. If I thought I knew a fair bit about film­mak­ing before read­ing The Mak­ing of, I real­ize now that I was unjust­ly flat­ter­ing myself. Han­ks’ nov­el is, in a sense, almost as much an ency­clo­pe­dia of film­mak­ing as it is a thrilling and well-paced page-turn­er. In fact, Han­ks does not shy away from using foot­notes to explain, for instance, some of the tech­ni­cal terms used in the main sto­ry: “short track: A few feet of rail­road-like track that allow the push­ing or pulling of the cam­era, adding a dynam­ic motion for the shot.”

But The Mak­ing of is a lot more. It is a humane, mov­ing sto­ry of peo­ple from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds that chance has thrown togeth­er on a film set. The novel’s micro­cosm is pop­u­lat­ed by a whole host of char­ac­ters – all of which, mirac­u­lous­ly, Han­ks man­ages to make the read­er care about in some way. It would have been all too easy, cer­tain­ly, to fall into the trap of stereo­typ­ing here: the cel­e­brat­ed, vain auteur-direc­tor; the pam­pered diva; the hand­some male lead with a drink­ing prob­lem. You get the pic­ture. But Han­ks, for the most part, ele­gant­ly avoids such easy ascrip­tions, and instead crafts well-round­ed char­ac­ters that tru­ly come alive on the page. Char­ac­ters that are by no means flaw­less, or even in every instance like­able. But char­ac­ters whose indi­vid­ual sto­ries are fas­ci­nat­ing enough to solic­it human inter­est and ground­ed in real­i­ty enough to seem utter­ly plausible.

The Mak­ing of con­tains a vari­ety of sto­ries and voic­es, and it presents them in a vari­ety of ways, rang­ing from straight­for­ward to more unusu­al. Not only do the nar­ra­tors change repeat­ed­ly over the course of the nov­el, but Han­ks also exper­i­ments with dif­fer­ent modes and styles, and indeed media. There are com­ic strips. There are instant mes­sages. There are pas­sages of mono­logue in direct speech, resem­bling inter­view tran­scripts. There are excerpts from the film’s screen­play. Indeed, a QR code allows the read­er to down­load the entire screen­play for the “major motion pic­ture mas­ter­piece.” (And lucky this is, because the nov­el teas­es just enough of the film that one real­ly wants to know what it is all about.) In short, The Mak­ing of is a sur­pris­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal assem­blage, at times almost post­mod­ern in its play­ful­ness. Adding to this the dif­fer­ent time­lines that Han­ks jug­gles (from World War II to today), one can­not help but won­der how he man­aged to put it all togeth­er into such a read­able and com­pact novel.

Toward the end of the nov­el, one of the main char­ac­ters says, “If your world is expand­ed by going to the movies – if you’re one of us who need films to make our lives wider, more com­plete – a great film has the same trans­for­ma­tive pow­er as hear­ing soul-fill­ing music or being spell­bound by, say, great ora­to­ry like a ser­mon.” Sure­ly, many read­ers will relate to the sen­ti­ment – and might add qui­et­ly that the same holds true for great books. With The Mak­ing of Anoth­er Major Motion Pic­ture Mas­ter­piece, Tom Han­ks has suc­cess­ful­ly weld­ed togeth­er the spell­bind­ing nature of great sto­ry­telling with the endur­ing mag­net­ism of cin­e­ma and film­mak­ing. The result, if not the infla­tion­ary major mas­ter­piece, is a thor­ough­ly enjoy­able sum­mer read whose only flaw is that, inevitably, the cred­its roll at some point.

 

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Sebas­t­ian Tants-Boes­tad is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hei­del­berg. In his the­sis, he exam­ines the con­fig­u­ra­tions of trust in the prose writ­ings of Her­man Melville. When he is not read­ing or writ­ing, Sebas­t­ian can often be found out­doors, tak­ing long walks and enjoy­ing nature.