James Toback’s new documentary, Tyson, will be in theaters next week. Below, the award-winning screenwriter and director describes how six favorite literary works have figured into his films.
Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Dover, $4). In my screenplay for The Gambler, I gave college professor Axel Freed (James Caan) the chance to read from and analyze Dostoyevsky’s dark, hilarious novella, which advances the notion that man maintains his humanity by reserving the right to insist that two and two equal five precisely because it has been rationally proved that two and two equal four. Freed’s lecture sets the stage for his dual nature—academic and compulsive gambler.
Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie Fiedler (Dalkey Archive, $17). In Exposed, I generously awarded myself the role of comparative literature professor Leo Boscovitch and read aloud to Nastassja Kinski and her classmates from Fiedler’s inspirationally original excursion into American literary and cultural history.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Dover, $2). In Two Girls and a Guy, Robert Downey Jr. does a spectacular 30 seconds of Hamlet, demonstrating that Shakespeare can be integrated seamlessly into the fabric of a contemporary American film. The character’s failed ambitions as an actor might well have been corrected had he stuck to this role, which suits him perfectly.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Dover, $8). In Harvard Man, Alan (Adrian Grenier) attends a philosophy course entitled “The Self and the Loss of It: Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein,” in which mention is made of Wittgenstein’s challenge to language as a valid expression of meaning. This insight leads to the psychic catastrophe of the character’s LSD experience later in the film.
Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Vintage, $18) In When Will I Be Loved, I have an actor read “The Bells” out loud in the background as Neve Campbell walks through the courtyard of New York’s Museum of Natural History. Poe’s rhythms reign! No poem in the English language comes closer to fusing literature and music.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde (Dodo Press, $13). Mike Tyson in Tyson does a passionately mesmerizing rendition of three stanzas from Wilde’s magnificent post-imprisonment epic poem about crime and punishment. (Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who invented the Queensberry Rules, the foundation of the sport of boxing.) In the same film, Tyson speaks with harrowing precision about his own incarceration.