I was the writer of THE BURNING BED, or more accurately, the TV
screenplay based on Faith McNulty's book and bearing the same powerful
title. Some other time I'll think about titles, but in this case, Faith's has
everything: symbolism, visual quality, onomatopoeia and a stunning double
meaning: the description of an incendiary marriage, and what Francine
Hughes, the abused wife, did to end it. In a ground-breaking trial that
changed law, police procedure in cases of domestic violence, and, many
people's attitudes towards battered women, Francine was acquitted
Soon after the movie aired in 1984, another woman tried to burn her
husband alive, claiming that THE BURNING BED was her model. Since
then, for twenty-five years, in almost every report of domestic abuse leading
to murder, THE BURNING BED is mentioned.
The story it told was true, painstakingly researched by its first producer
Arnold Shapiro (SCARED STRAIGHT), Faith McNulty, and me. What was
our responsibility, if any, for a copycat attempt by a desperate woman who
was part of the huge audience that saw, and can still see, THE BURNING
BED on video and on cable -- the biggest audience, I'm told, for any
television movie ever? In 1984 I would have said "none."
In those years there were three networks, their contents scrutinized by the
FCC, which licensed them. My script was "vetted" by Standards and
Practices at NBC; every line, every event had to be justified: a quote, a taped
interview, a dated note, a printed fact. It was not my version of the story; it
was the story, dramatized, but not fictionalized.
Of course not every program was as scrupulously researched even then.
Producers, directors, actors, directors' secretaries, producers' wives -- all felt
entitled to suggest changes, even wrote on the script if they chose to; writers
were not usually welcomed on the set, and -- as now -- since we don't own
the copyright to our work, we could be fired or replaced if we didn't do as we
Still, when Budd Schulberg, a well-known and respected writer (WHAT
MAKES SAMMY RUN, ON THE WATERFRONT), learned that a script of his
had been significantly altered by others, he held a press conference, took
his name off the project, and announced that the writer would henceforth
be known as "Richard Drecksler", because the script was now "dreck."
I'm not claiming that we were giants in those days, or that everything we
wrote was "literature." But there was, in my experience, a general feeling
among writers of responsibility to the facts, and a commitment, as with
doctors, to "first, do no harm."
What comes onto my big screen now bears little resemblance to the dramas
we used to stay home on Saturday nights to watch. The three original
networks are still here, but barely holding their own in a seemingly endless
sea of cable stations and "spontaneous" reality shows -- all accompanied by
cameramen and cobbled into some kind of shape by directors and/or
writers. Before there were dramas and series and soap operas and
newcasts; now there are Kardashians and hoarders and exhibitionists and
actors who read the "news" from monitors positioned just where we, the
viewers, sit, so that it seems they speak honestly and directly to us.
Is it just coincidence that today the quality of life, everyday life, has
deteriorated so dramatically that those of us who have lived awhile can
hardly believe we are in the same country, the same world? Many factors
are blamed: the huge gaps between segments of our society, an unintegrated
population, early sexualization of young people, poverty, racial inequality,
the toll of wars, widespread unemployment, and on and on. But what about
the constant, insistent yammering of television, advertisements, unsavory
people, serial killers, vampires, all brought into our bedrooms and made to
seem justified, attractive, normal, fun? What about the writers who
influence so much of what our world sees, thinks, desires? Do we do no
harm? Are we doing no harm?
Don't we have some moral obligation in our fingers -- these fingers that can
make sex fun or sinful, make heros out of villains and villains out of heros
-- to tell our audience at least, what we believe to be the truth?
I wrestle with this, can hardly find the words to express my concern about
it, believe that others must too. A trusted (yes, if it's in print, on TV, in the
movies; doesn't that give it a ring of truth?) writer who may indeed be doing
harm, shouldn't that writer tear up the paper or hit delete, delete, delete,
and start over?
Am I naive, or crazy? What do you think?