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The Movie that Got Lost: F. Paul Wilson, Author of
The Keep, Talks About His Gothic Novel
From Fangoria #36 (May 1984), pp. 27-29:
The Movie that Got Lost: F. Paul Wilson, author of The Keep, talks about
his gothic novel and its troubled translation to the screen
Article by Roger Anker
It looks as though horror fiction and novelist F. Paul Wilson have
hit it off - extremely well. Not only has Wilson's fourth (and latest)
novel The Keep spent time on the New York Times best-sellers list but it
has also been adapted into a recent major motion picture from Paramount.
Not too shabby for a first-time venture into the world of horror.
Wilson's previous novels (Healer, Wheels Within Wheels and An Enemy
of the State) as well as his short fiction (which appeared in Analog,
Asimov, and Alan Ryan's Perpetual Light) have all been works of science
fiction. So what prompted the change?
"I love a good horror novel," Wilson explains, "but so many were
disappointing me that i just decided: 'Well, I'll do one and I'll do
everything I've been wanting to see in current horror novels, but
haven't been seeing. I'll put everything in there, the kitchen sink,
everything.' And I also love thrillers where you're never quite sure
who the bad guy is. I used that type of approach, too. So I just short
of made my all-purpose favorite book."
Wilson's "all-purpose favorite book" concerns a unit of German
soldiers assigned to occupy a medieval fortress high in the
Transylvanian Alps of World War II Rumania. Thousands of small metal
crosses are found imbedded into the walls of the Keep; and it is the
removal of one such cross which unleashes an age-old force of
unspeakable evil. The novel then graphically depicts the systematic
slaughter of the soldiers and soon an SS extermination-squad is summoned
to "solve the matter quickly." The Nazis, bewildered and powerless
against the force that's been murdering them, enlist the aid of Dr.
Theodore Cuza, a crippled Jewish scholar, and his daughter to help them
find an answer. Also arriving on the scene is an enigmatic stranger
named Glaeken who, likewise, shows a deep interest in the fortress.
Dr. Cuza soon encounters the evil that has been released within the
walls of the Keep and learns it has a name - Molasar, a creature who
professes to be a vampire. Later on inthe novel, we learn that Molasar
is no vampire but an adept named Rasalom, a survivor from the mythical
First Age, who "draws strength from human pain, misery, and madness;
from man's inhumanity to other men." We also learn that Glaeken, also a
survivor of the First Age, has served as a counterbalance to the evil
Rasalom, fighting him throughout time until, during the Middle Ages, he
built and imprisoned him within the Keep. Glaeken is the only man who
can destroy Rasalom.
"I worked on a lot of archetypes in the book," Wilson says. "I
tried to take a lot of familiar images, and a lot of cliches and turn
them on their heads. That was most of the fun of the book: taking a
very familiar thing like a vampire and then turning it around."
Director-screenwriter Michael Mann (Thief), however, had his own
definite views on adapting Wilson's tale to the silver screen. Mann
decided to preserve the novel's basic premise and its Nazi-occupied
Rumanian setting and transform the rest of the story into a highly
stylized study of the eternal strug<28>gle between good and evil. He
also tried to play down the horror element in favor of a more
"Michael Mann wanted to do away with the gothic aspect of it.
Completely," Wilson explains. "He didn't want the word 'vampire'
mentioned at all."
Mann's representation of Molasar is a creature that goes through
three stages of metamorphosis, from fibre-optically enhanced glowing
brains to a muscular humanoid shape that then becomes nearly complete at
the end of the film. Molasar is ultimate evil that gains substance
because of the very psychopathology of evil.
"He [Mann] had to work in a much more confined space than I did.
So he had to bend and distill an awful lot of stuff. And he was afraid
he was going to muddy the waters with the 'vampire' theme. He went to
the heart of the book; the two opposing forces against each other, and
cut out most of the indirection."
Wilson recalls his initial reaction to the film when he first
viewed it at a special screening a few days prior to its release date.
"The first hour of the film was a real high. I had a real lump in
my throat. I was that happy. And then little things started happening.
When Glaeken and Eva [Magda in the book] meet on this little hilltop...
and in the next scene they're in bed! It was then I started realizing
that something was wrong. There was no character development.
'I think it was a difficult book; I had three protagonists, two
villians, and an innocent caught in the middle. I think there were a
lot of difficult relationships and he needed to spend more time there.
I think he needed another 25 minutes; things just happened too fast in
the last half-hour. It was bam - bam - bam. Over. There were so many
"For instance, there's a scene where the two officers are arguing,
then you hear a few shots and screams and you see that all of the
soldiers have been burnt to a crisp. You never see what's happened.
That was a wonderful opportunity for some good effects and some good
action. And in the final confrontation, you've got this huge laser,
you blow a hole through this guy, and that's it.". [Wilson sighs] "And
I kept thinking: 'Wait a minute now, there's something else going to
happen. Molasar is going to come back. He's not dead. Something's
going to happen' - and then the credits started rolling and I thought:
'Ohmigod. It's over.'"
Aside from his obvious disappointment with the film, Wilson's
primary concern is how the mis-translation of his story will ultimately
affect the readership of his novel:
"The thing I regret most is that a lot of people will see the movie
and think that this is the way my book ended. And that's the part that
disturbs me the most because, as I've said, I threw everything I could
think of - what I wanted to see in a horror novel - into The Keep. And
a lot more people are going to see that movie than will ever read my
book. And maybe a lot of people who would have bought the book, won't,
because they'll say: 'Well, gee, what kind of ending is that?' You <29>
write the book to be read. That part hurt."
But Wilson is just as willing to defend the film's strong points as
he is to point out it's flaws:
"Mann really spent so much time on this thing. I can't fault him
as an artist or as a worker. He threw everything he had into this. He
got SS manuals to look up German uniforms... and he brought in a speech
instructor to teach the actors how to speak English - not with a German
accent but with a German rhythm. He went to tremendous lengths to
insure the authenticity of the film. I suppose an analogy would be like
a Silvi-god who sculpts all these beautiful trees; spends all the time
on every little aspect of the bark and tree leaves and everything - and
then gets lost in the forest because the big picture escaped him.
"I think I'm probably one of the handful of Americans who sat
through the entire three-and-a-half hours of Heaven's Gate, and to me
it's very similar; [director] Michael Cimino had beautiful photography,
great actors - but didn't tell a story. He spent three-and-a-half hours
of meandering around. Michael Mann had 97 minutes - and I think it was
one of the best photographed films I've ever seen. I'm into that use of
light and shadow - but the big picture escaped him."
Wilson, of course, is aware that changes must occur in any
adaptation of a novel, and that most authors aren't pleased by all of
"A director knows he's changing an author's work and he has to,
because he's got to think visually. I can have my characters think and
let the readers in on what they're thinking. He can't do any of that.
He's got to change things; also he's got to simplify things.
"But Michael Mann was trying to make a different kind of movie from
my book, and if it works - fine. Great But it didn't And I think it
didn't because there are certain strengths to that book and he chose to
What is both frustrating and baffling to Wilson is the fact that
Mann had gone to such painstaking lengths to deliver a quality film -
consulting manuals, speech instructors, etc. "Yet," Wilson says, "he
[Mann] neglected to consult what is probably most essential to the story
- the originator of the story itself. That's what's so frustrating: to
get all the fine points, but miss the story.
"I really think if he'd have sat down with me a couple of times
with the final screenplay or let me attend some of the screenings, I
really think I could have contributed something because it is, after
all, my story and I know how to tell it best. I could see the forest.
He knew all the trees, but I could see the forest. I think he really
could've had a much more coherent picture.
"I mean, the absolute best of all worlds was what William Peter
Blatty had with The Exorcist - he was the producer," Wilson elaborates.
"And he had the final word. Either you do it my way or I'll find
someone else to do it. So that, I think, is the optimum: to be the
producer. But he [Blatty] already worked in Hollywood, he knew the ins
and outs. I don't have that experience. So what are you going to do?
It's over and done with and you can't change it now. We'll just have to
live with it."
The writing life, however, is not the only occupation Paul Wilson
has to live with; he is also a Georgetown-educated physician who
practices on the New Jersey shore, where he resides with his wife and
Where does the successful novelist-physician-family-man find time
enough to maintain all occupations?
"I don't write to deadlines," Wilson says. "I write the book, send
it to my agent, and he sells it. So I don't do the three chapters and
outline approach. I'm not on a deadline. I've teamed to write small
chunks on a regular basis, under almost any conditions. So if I do a
page a day, I wind up with 365 pages at the end of the year. I then cut
it back, revise it, whatever. It's just being steady that does the
trick. Obviously I can't put out a high volume. I don't think I have
it in me to do that I just write at my own pace, and when it's ready to
go I send it out. That's how I manage both.
"Right now I'm making more money from writing than I am from
medicine. But I wouldn't switch; I need both. My whole life can't be
medicine, but I couldn't be a full-time writer, either."
In addition to an up-coming story which is scheduled to appear in
Stuart Schiff's Whispers magazine, Wilson is currently working on
another novel entitled, Rakoshi, which should be out in December of
1984. "It's an updated weird, menace novel that takes place in
Manhattan," Wilson says. "It's on the horror side. Again, it's a
horror-thriller; it's taken a number of thriller aspects. I've already
had an offer from a production company on it.
"With Rakoshi, I'm probably going to make the same mistakes. I
definitely will. I'm going to say: 'Go ahead. The book is mine, the
movie is yours.' That's what I said with The Keep: 'It's Michael Mann's
movie but it's my book. You can't do anything to the book.' That's
almost the best attitude to take. Either that or you become producer
and you have absolute control. Any middle ground and I think you're
doomed to go crazy or commit suicide or become very sour on the whole