Tom Hanks book review: novel on magic behind motion pictures fails to ‘reach for the sky’

Tom Hanks' debut novel may have missed an opportunity to truly excel
Tom Hanks with new book and film roles in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Castaway and Sully (PA / Getty / Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)Tom Hanks with new book and film roles in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Castaway and Sully (PA / Getty / Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)
Tom Hanks with new book and film roles in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Castaway and Sully (PA / Getty / Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)

Tom Hanks is lovable. There’s no denying that - to the point that you’d want him to excel in absolutely everything he does - even as Toy Story’s Woody. So when it was revealed that he would be publishing his first official novel The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, there was a huge scramble to get a copy to see how much of a genius wordsmith he really is. 

As he told us during a special Waterstones conference, “I have been, I think, in the world's longest introduction to a creative writing class in the history of man.” And there’s truth to this, having starred in at least 76 films over his five-decade career. Unfortunately Tom, “we have a problem”, because unlike the rich characters he has played himself, including American lawyer and negotiator James B Donovan or pilot hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, his own appear to be two-dimensional lookalikes.

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The book itself talks about the current zeitgeist - superhero movies and what lies behind the curtain of Hollywood. The story discusses the inception of a film, first as a comic book in the 1940s, to its release in theatres in the present day - a familiar tone no doubt. Along the way, we follow the lives of the characters involved in the film's production, including the troubled soldier who made the comic, the young boy who is inspired by it, the eccentric director who brings it to life, and the star-studded cast who take it to the big screen. 

Actor Tom Hanks reads from book at Waterstones event (Waterstones)Actor Tom Hanks reads from book at Waterstones event (Waterstones)
Actor Tom Hanks reads from book at Waterstones event (Waterstones)

Hanks, who is no stranger to working with Steven Spielberg, appears to have taken inspiration from his recent semi-biopic The Fabelmans, which showcases how the legendary director (or a depiction of him), came to be inspired by his environment growing up. They do say “write what you know”, which clearly seems to be the case with this work.

The Oscar-winning actor mentions that his “writing process has started off totally verbally because you're talking to people who actually are going to impact the writing of the script”. It seems that taking a screenwriting approach to the book may have impacted the depth of the roles. We know that Hanks isn’t intentionally attempting to expose the vacuousness of the superhero genre. “I was not a huge comic aficionado, but they were part of the social exchange for a kid my age,” he says, adding that “there was a cinematic language” to these types of narratives. But unfortunately, the same level of shallowness has been superimposed on his own protagonists.

Very little is explained about the elusive Uncle Bob, the brains behind the comic book, which is the whole purpose of the final climactic film. He is supposed to be a Marvel creator Stan Lee-type prodigy except we’re left with lacklustre details. We are aware he is traumatised after serving in World War II. We know he ends up ditching his little nephew in a pharmacy. Bob ends up as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. He eventually gets married to a woman he had an affair with. He wants to make amends with his nephew, Robby. And that is literally it. The details are listed in order over a number of pages. What’s missing is the absolute essence of the person, and how he was spurred on to produce these works of art.

I try to win over the room every time I come into it. I do like to be the storyteller.

Tom Hanks
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We are left to accept a superficial letter addressed to Robby stating: “When I saw you last, it was not long after the war. I was kind of a mess. I was drinking then, which is something I was good at and kept at for a long time.” Much of the complicated emotions are gleaned from this short letter. 

On the other end of the spectrum, where he resembles a Spielberg or Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, is his perceptive storytelling ability. According to Hanks, we're either participants in somebody else's story, we're listening to somebody else's story, or we're telling our own. "Just the natural personality, I mean I'm loud. I try to win over the room every time I come into it. I do like to be the storyteller”, he says. The veteran actor also felt inspired by William Shakespeare as a child, saying “your job as actors is to hold the mirror up to nature. He was talking about literature there, he was talking about storytelling there.”

In this case, Hanks is holding up the mirror to the industry. The book is structured in keeping with the film-making process, from source material and backstory, development and casting to the shoot and publication - over a period of decades. Like many recent films including Babylon, Empire of Light, and The Fabelmans, TMOAMMPM (an acronym that will never stick) is a love letter to the art, exploring the many challenges and rewards that come with creating talkies.

Whilst he does not shy away from the darker aspects of Hollywood, including a scene in the “Casting” chapter which involved a producer asking for sexual favours from a prospective star, it’s literally one paragraph. We recognise how extensive it is given what happened to Harvey Weinstein, and the fact that he’s in prison. The Apollo 13 star, however, has rarely spoken about the issue in reality but said in the past that “they think their achievements entitle them”. So while we get a glimpse from the mirror, it isn’t the full picture.

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At the same time, Hanks raises the issue of corporate Hollywood and the battle of the streaming services. He names his fictional platform Hawkeye (not the Disney+ show), the film studio is Dynamo, and his DC or Marvel equivalent is Ultra Heroes. There is a mocking quality to how these companies function, as he writes: “The word is that all these subscription models have tons of money but are blowing through cash like buckets of milk in a barn fire.”

In the end, Hanks is happy to take on both the good and the bad of the institution, writing that “sure, some movies don’t work [...] but anyone who says they hated a movie is treating a voluntarily shared human experience like a bad Red-Eye out of LAX”.

Perhaps, he hopes his readers will feel the same. Like his eccentric character Gump says, this book is really like a box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get, including a gloriously vivid tale about the magic that is movies, with characters that appear to lack the same depth as his own quirky roles.

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