What Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Tommy Wiseau Have in Common
One of the questions hanging over the original Bulwer-Lytton sentence is, simply, who cares? Why should we muddle our way through this madding sentence? It includes a semi-colon, an emdash, a parenthetical statement, three commas and 327 characters. And it’s about the weather. The entire sentence is about the weather, aside from a parenthetical statement whose purpose is seemingly clarifying all of this weather is happening in London.
I have never read past this first sentence of Paul Clifford. Perhaps I will, over the next several months. For now, I know that it’s not a sentence that compels me to keep reading. I have never been much for descriptions of the weather.
What I do know is that, on the fourth day of The 100 Day Project and my own personal project, the Bulwer-Lytton rewrite, I’m wondering if I could ever rewrite this original sentence into something better than the original.
“Of course you can,” the obvious response is, “because you’re trying to write something better than what many consider to be the very worst sentence in the English language.”
So far, I’ve attempted two variants of it, while working on a third one today.
Here is Day 2:
Our tale begins in London, during an evening that Paul Clifford found to be altogether unpleasant. Through the drawing room windows he watched the torrential rains fall, interrupted only by violent gusts of wind, obstructing his view of his neighbors’ lamp flames in the darkness.
Better, I think, but not by much. It’s a straightforward attempt at simplifying the original. I broke it into two sentences, added some perspective, and dropped some of the needless punctuation. The biggest improvement, in my opinion, is adding in Paul Clifford’s perspective. It brings some coherence into the scene, some reason to care about why the weather matters so much.
Here’s Day 3:
Paul Clifford squinted out the drawing room window, trying to locate his neighbors’ lamp flame through the torrents of rain falling on the London streets.
This time, it’s back to one sentence. The wind gusts are gone, the first person plural is gone, and Paul Clifford seems to have some agency and motivation at this point. It’s a nice, strong sentence. We know what’s happening. The weather is no longer the focus, yet it seems to matter more than it did in the earlier iterations.
But… throughout all of this, I can’t help but wonder if too much of the madness of the original is lost. With all these changes, evolutions, revisions, are we losing the only reason to even care about the original?
I’m reminded of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Someone could take that film and remake it into a coherent, straightforward film, and it would be a disaster. But not the compelling and hilarious and fascinating disaster that The Room already is, no, and not the entertaining behind-the-scenes narrative and comedy of The Disaster Artist.
You could make The Room into a nice, boring film about one man’s life falling apart and no one would really care. The reason to watch The Room is how insane and confusing and all around terrible it is.
The original Bulwer-Lytton sentence is to literature as The Room is to cinema. Which arguably makes the exercise quixotic beyond hope. In the remaining 97 days, I will have to determine where else this story can go, what others authors it can be inspired by, and what I really want to turn it into.