Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman: Female Genre Writers Across the Century
While science fiction films are not rare in today’s media, well-written, culturally smart sci-fi is still far and few between. Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman are two authors and screenwriters who saw beyond genre restrictions and managed to craft exciting and inspiring stories within the sci-fi and fantasy spectrum. These writers pushed their genres to, and past their limitations, creating new genres in the case of Leigh Brackett.
Little is know about the early life of Leigh Brackett, she was born in California on December 7th, 1915, and she started writing for serial science fiction and fantasy magazines at the age of 25. It was a popular form of storytelling at the time, and Leigh Brackett’s career was aided by her androgynous name. Much of her twenties was spent writing these short stories. Jane Goldman got her start writing even earlier, and in a much more direct way. At the age of fifteen, Jane marched into the office for the editor of 17 Magazine and demanded a paying job, the editor was shocked by Goldman’s entrance into her office, as well as her impressive collection of self written OP-ED pieces. The editor gave Goldman a job on the spot. Ironically, this is the very type of magazine that Leigh Brackett said she could never write for. Both women fought vigorously for their writing, Brackett did so by defending Science-Fantasy, the subgenre she had helped to create. Goldman fought for her right to be employed in the field she wanted at the youngest age possible.
Leigh Brackett insisted that her writing was too farfetched to be accepted into the types of magazines that Jane Goldman built her career on. Despite this, when it came to screenwriting, the two had a great deal in common. Leigh Brackett invented the idea of the Planetary Romance, a niche subgenre revolving around the relationship between a human being, and another entity. In Brackett’s short story work, this was typically between a male astronaut and a female alien of some variety. In The Empire Strikes Back, Brackett’s one example of Science-Fantasy on the screen, this romance is between Han Solo and Princess Leia. While neither one is a physical alien, they are separated by their ideologies and personal ambitions.
Jane Goldman’s first professional screenwriting job was working to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which prominently features the relationship of Yvaine and Tristan. Yvaine is a literal fallen star, where Tristan was raised a farm boy. In Empire Strikes Back, Brackett used a series of heightening arguments to highlight the discrepancy between Han and Leia, Goldman uses the same strategy here to capitalize on the “will they, won’t they” aspect of their dynamic.
Both writers have stated their love of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and have worked almost exclusively within the realms of genre writing. The major difference between the two woman in this regard is the time period they wrote in. Leigh Brackett wrote the vast majority of her science fiction during her years writing freelance for various literary magazines. The first film she was asked to work on was The Big Sleep, a noir thriller. It was out of her comfort zone, but her influence on the characters is clear, as the levity of the film comes from her distinct sense of humor. She wrote several John Wayne westerns, which were more formulaic and in tune with the types of stories she had been writing for magazines. Although she enjoyed her writing for Hollywood, her first love would always be Science Fantasy. Empire Strikes Back is the one opportunity she got to flex her screenwriting muscles in the genre of her choice.
Jane Goldman’s first screenwriting opportunity came attached to one of the biggest names in Fantasy Fiction, Neil Gaiman, and arrived just after the turn of the millennium. Goldman has stated that she likes to work in adaptation, when she writes a screenplay, she likes to try and mimic the effect reading the book or graphic novel gave for her. As it turns out, she’s really good at it. Goldman has been Mathew Vaugn’s screenwriting partner on projects like Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Big budget genre productions that have been met with widespread acclaim.
In fact, as time has gone on, more and more science fiction has achieved acclaim. It’s still the genre of choice for the basement-dwellers of the world, but now, also for the film critic and philosopher. More of the mainstream audience is now realizing that science fiction and the inherently broad story ideas within can be used to explore some unexpectedly deep themes. Both Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman used science fiction as a tool to venture deeper into the profane elements of their worlds. Goldman’s films focus on the dichotomy between national powers, and usually take place during periods of worldwide conflict, examples of this would be Goldman’s interpretation of the Cuban Missile in X-Men: First Class, or the relationship between the U.K. and U.S. in the Kingsmen series of films. Leigh Brackett used her science fiction exploration stories as a way to highlight the cruelty American colonialism brought upon many during the late 19th century.
In the time Leigh Brackett started making films, it was far from practical for a studio to finance a science fiction film, they were expensive, hard to follow, and isolating. Some executives would likely still agree with that point, but the fact is that as the studio system has grown and technology has advanced, these movies are not as hard to make as they once were. It should be said that if it weren’t for the persistence of woman like Leigh Brackett, writers like Jane Goldman would likely have a lot more trouble finding success writing the genre of their choice.
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