Who was Lewis Helmar Herman?

If you happened to read the memoirs of successful twentieth-century American screenwriters, you might have come across  anecdotes about how upon being offered their first screenwriting assignment and not having the slightest idea of how to write one—most of them were novelists or playwrights—they headed down to a nearby all-night bookstore and purchased a book on screenwriting.  Most likely the book they purchased was A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Helmar Herman.  First published in 1952, the book is still in print.  But just who was the author of one of the most widely-read books on screenwriting?  Oddly, on the back cover of my copy of the book there is absolutely no information about the author.  Even the Wikipedia has no entry for him—and they have entries on just about anyone.  Given what I believe is Herman’s importance, and spurred by curiosity, I undertook my own investigation on the internet of this very remarkable man.  Unfortunately, my investigation didn’t turn up a great amount of information.  I did learn that he was born in 1905; however, I couldn’t confirm when he died, or if  in fact he was still living—which would make him 111 years old—though my sleuthing has led me to believe that he passed away in New York City some time during the 1990’s.

My investigation revealed some interesting aspects about the man.  Herman was a type of writer who is very rare today:  a writer who makes a living writing plays, books, articles and short stories.  (In my library I have a copy of a book he wrote on American dialects)  Furthermore, in the 1940’s Herman went to Hollywood to write screenplays, which I surmise was only for a few years.  Additional investigation reveals that he most likely headed-up the United States Army’s motion picture center in New York City during the 1950’s.  Unfortunately, for the last thirty or forty years of his life, the trail went cold for me.

But just what is Herman’s importance besides the fact that his book has been so widely read?  Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that during the 1980’s film academics in the United States proclaimed that during the 1930’s. 1940’s and 1950’s American cinema had enjoyed a “classic” period—never to be equaled again—and the secret of its success was indeed “secret.”  This spurred film scholars and a new crop of manual writers and script gurus to delve into the archives of the major film studios in search of Hollywood’s most closely guarded “trade secrets.”  However, what these film scholars and would-be gurus failed to realize or acknowledge was that these supposed trade secrets were hiding in plain sight—in Herman’s all -encompassing 1952 screenwriting manual.

Herman revealed all, particularly the mainstay Hollywood plot gimmicks, particularly “the plant,” “the old switcheroo” and “the weenie”—referred to as “the MaGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock.  Although Herman knew all the gimmicks, he was critical of their overuse by Hollywood.  He complained that “In Hollywood the gimmick is the most overused stock in trade.  It is because of the gimmick that Hollywood pictures stress plot to the detriment of genuine characterization.”  Herman did not simply dwell on gimmicks; he even provided an exposition on a “three-act” structure.

Although Herman worked primarily in Hollywood, he was well aware of foreign (non-U.S.) films, particularly their strengths and weaknesses.  He noted that while American films often opened literally with a “bang,” e.g. someone being shot in the opening scene, European films—and British films in particular—began at a much slower pace.  He noted the following:

It is obvious from their pictures that the British believe the gradual –and therefore natural—development of character is vitally important.  So they begin their pictures with an overall visual exposition of the milieu in which the action will take place . . . .  This done, they go in from the general to the specific, by showing the people who will be involved in the action as they go through their normal workaday lives.  From this they become more specific, and single out the protagonists and antagonists, so as to set them up in their proper relation to each other, and to the story line.

Only when these expository preliminaries have been attended to do they begin to get into the action itself.

Herman went on to note how this slow build and slower tempo persisted throughout almost the entire length of a British film, picking up only at the end.  Although Herman understood the logic of this type of slow build, he noted that it did not always produce good results; in fact in some instances he found that there was an almost robot-like adherence to its employment.

Lewis Helmar Herman: the author of the only screenwriting manual you will ever need!

The Screenplay and The Actor

One regret I have about my book The Screenplay as Literature was that I did not give enough attention to the contribution of the actor in the production of a film.  We all know that the casting of a particular actor in a film can overshadow almost everything else, making it impossible to conceive of the film without him or her.  For example, who could think of the film noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep without Humphrey Bogart?  Or The Godfather without Marlon Brando?   Furthermore, the influence of the casting of a particular actor in a film can even affect the underlying  screenplay, especially if the actor is a major star, as the two following examples illustrate.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a 1944 film musical set during the time of the1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.  The story of the film concerns a family living in St. Louis and the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the husband/father’s decision to move his family to New York in order to start a new job.  The star of the film was Judy Garland, who was then 22 years old.  At the time Judy Garland was “America’s Sweetheart,” and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

In the film Judy was to sing a song entitled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  The lyrics to the song began like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may be living in the past

When Judy Garland was first given the lyrics to read, she protested that she could never sing them.  She is quoted as saying, “If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll (the audience) think I’m a monster.”   (Margaret was Margaret O’Brien, who played Judy’s younger sister, to whom she was to sing the song.)

The lyricist of the song, Hugh Martin, was unmoved, telling Judy that the lyrics he had written perfectly fit the screenplay, no matter how depressing they sounded.  Finally, one of the other actors in the film said to him, “Do what she asks and change the lyrics; if you do you’ll have a huge hit.”   Martin did change the lyrics, which began as follows:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

I am not familiar with the source material (a novel) for the film, so I cannot comment whether or not the changes made to suit Judy were an improvement or a detriment; but in any event the audience did not seem to mind:  Meet Me In St. Louis turned out to be the second highest grossing film of the year.  And as for the song in question: it has become an American standard—played again and again at Christmas time.

In 1976 John Wayne made a Western entitled The Shootist.   Wayne was an enormously popular actor who had appeared mostly in Westerns for over five decades.  In most of these films he portrayed  a hero, who although often violent and sometimes uncouth, was nevertheless “a straight-shooter.”  In The Shootist, Wayne deviated somewhat from his usual roles; here he is an ex-gunfighter with an unsavory past who was dying of cancer.  When Wayne read the screenplay for the first time, he noted to his chagrin that his character was to shoot someone in the back.  Wayne is then alleged to have said, “Mister, I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back.  Change it.”  Well, the script was changed: someone was shot in the back, but not by John Wayne.  Since I am not conversant with the source material for the film (a novel), I cannot say that this was an improvement.  But in any event Wayne’s multitude of fans never had to witness their beloved hero shooting someone in the back.  This turned out to be Wayne’s last film; he passed away three years later.

What Makes a Good Screenplay?

One aspect of my book The Screenplay as Literature that came in for pointed criticism was my brief treatment of the subject of “what makes a good screenplay.”  Here the critics were right.  Not because what I had written was not valid, but because the subject really had no place in a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature—just as the subject of “what makes a good novel” would have no place in a book entitled “The Novel as Literature.”  The question is much too subjective; and the variety of reasons why a screenplay may be considered good, may have nothing at all to do with whether or not it should be considered as Literature in the first place.

Certainly we would be inclined to think that a screenplay that is turned into a good film would be considered good. Screenplays (or versions of the same) are written for various purposes, and why they are good depends on the purpose for which they are written.  For example, a screenplay written on speculation, that is, for the purpose of being sold, might be written one way; whereas a screenplay written to be directly filmed might be written in another way (e.g. a shooting script).  Some writers may write a screenplay that leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader (or director); others may write in a manner that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Sergei Eisenstein once remarked that a shooting script is “an instrument to transpose a fact, abstracted into a concept, back into a chain of concrete single actions.”   But it doesn’t have to be that way: that is, a screenplay doesn’t have to be taken to the shooting script level; furthermore, a shooting script doesn’t have to break down a concept into concrete single actions:  it can remain on a metaphorical level.

Arguably there is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay, although there are certainly conventions.   So do I have any advice for the aspiring or working screenwriter?  Yes, I do, which follows.

My most important advice for the screenwriter is that it doesn’t matter how you get there—that is, to a completed screenplay—just get there!  Do what works for you.  Start at the end and jump to the beginning.  Or start in the middle and jump to the end: it really doesn’t matter.  The important thing is to start—to start writing.  The late French writer-director Eric Rohmer wrote that “To shoot a film is always to shoot something.”  For, as he said, “one never makes a film out of nothing.”  And it is the something that is the most critical—and elusive—element: no one can tell you where or how to find it.  In most cases it simply happens.  Ingmar Bergman wrote that for him a film begins as “something very vague—a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation    It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street.”  According to Michelangelo Antonioni, “A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order. . . . to recognize an idea out of the chaos of feelings , reflections, observations, impulses which the surrounding world stirs up in us.”  Lajos Egri (who I discussed in an earlier post) states that you can begin your work “with a character or incident, or even a simple thought.”  Tennessee Williams related that his renowned play A Streetcar Named Desire began simply as a vision of “a woman in her late youth . . . sitting alone by a window with moonlight streaming in on her desolate face.”

Once you have found that something—that beginning–what comes next?  Again, it is what works best for you.  Ingmar Bergman and Erich Rohmer early in their careers would write their first drafts in the form of novellas.  In the case of Rohmer, he would often write in the first person, but in subsequent drafts and the final film, this first person narration would disappear almost entirely or be conveyed through the dialogue of the other characters.

Today, screenplay writers tend to write master scene screenplays, that is, screenplays that are not broken down into shots.  This is in contrast to the detailed shooting script that Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote for the break-through Last Year at Marienbad (1961) because he could conceive of it in no other way than through concrete images.  Again, what is important is what works for you: what turns your formless inspiration into a completed work.  Furthermore, with script formatting software you can always edit your first draft in whatever form you feel is most acceptable for the intended reader.

It should never be forgotten by the screenplay writer that film is a collaborative art.  Don’t be afraid to avail yourself of the talents of the costume designers, music composers, special effects and stunt coordinators, and numerous technical advisors that will be associated with the film.  You don’t have to think of everything—but you could.  In that vein the very successful American screenwriter and novelist William Goldman remarks that in comparison to the novel, the screenplay gives him a certain freedom from research.  The screenplay has few conventions and even fewer rules—and rules can be broken.  It is a literary form that allows its practitioners complete freedom to express themselves—but only if they should choose to avail themselves of this freedom.

 

 

 

The Role of the Screenwriter Today

You may think that today’s topic concerns the plight of the few hundred or so writers, mostly in the United States, who earn their livelihood writing screenplays and their struggle for the recognition they so rightly deserve.  Not at All!    As far as today’s post is concerned, they can cry all the way to the bank!  For what I really want to discuss today is the aspiring screenwriter and his struggle to discover whether or not he has any role at all.

When I lived in New York several years ago and attempted to launch a career as a screenwriter, I used to be jealous of my friends who were artists, actors and playwrights.  I was jealous of them because they could pursue their art with little or no financial success.  A painter can always paint; the cost of the materials is not great.  And there is always some place to exhibit his or her work.  How exhilarating it is to have a show opening, even if most of the attendees are friends and relatives and nothing is sold.  And as for actors, there are always unpaid showcases where they can exhibit their talent:  never forget that an actor lives to act.   Then there are the playwrights.  For them there is always some small non-profit theater group eager to perform their plays, especially if they are one-act plays with only two or three characters.  But for the aspiring screenwriter, it is a totally different story.  Because of the tremendous cost of the production and distribution of motion pictures, even for the most low budget ones, realization of the aspiring screenwriter’s work through his own efforts is usually totally out of the question.  Regrettably , the plain truth is that  a screenwriter without a produced film is like a musician without an instrument.  Usually the aspiring screenwriter will write a dozen or so screenplays—if that many– on speculation.  If nothing happens with them, which generally is the case, the aspiring screenwriter usually gives up and moves on to some other form of writing where the odds are not so stacked against him.

Yes, it is a rather bleak picture that I have painted for the aspiring screenwriter.  But then, a few weeks ago, I began to think that perhaps there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.  It suddenly dawned upon me that right in the palm of your hand, within your smartphone, there is more technology than was available to Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer for their early films!     Just what do I mean?  Of course, I am not suggesting that someone use a smartphone to make a feature film—although that is not impossible.  But for the cost of a smartphone or less you could conceivably buy a video camera/recorder that is adequate for the task.  Some of you who read an earlier post of mine in which I advocated for screenwriters being allowed to be just screenwriters may see a contradiction here.  Not necessarily so, because unfortunately, the screenwriter, as with anyone else seeking to get their foot into the door of the film industry, must often take things into his own hands, from submitting his script to a major actor ,to getting all or some of the financing for his project.  But let us return to the “smartphone” analogy.  Just what would this entail?

The first thing that would probably come to mind is the concept of “thinking small.”  Of course, we are not talking about a film with a cast of thousands or multiple car crashes and explosions.  But remember the old adage “write about what you know?”  So what would an aspiring screenwriter most likely know about?  The same thing that Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer knew:  a story about a guy, a girl and an apartment—remember Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s.  And if the story takes place in New York, there most likely will be a couple of scenes in a coffee house; in London, a pub; and in Paris ,a sidewalk café.  These are locations that should cost you little or no money to find.  What about actors?  Surely they should cost you some money to obtain.  Perhaps—but maybe not as much as you think.  The American screen and television actors union has, in the past, been very accommodating in allowing their members to appear in low budget and student films for little or no payment at all (of course, if the film makes money you will have to pay them their minimum rate).  But what if you live somewhere other than the major American cities where most professional actors live and work.  Well, there are always amateur actors; for amateur acting groups can be found in almost every community—and many of them are quite good.

Alright, now that you have found your actors, what about the crew?  No problem, because with the proliferation of film and television production programs throughout the United States (and the world), volunteers should readily be available.  But what about the director?  Well, naturally you, the screenwriter, would be the first choice: who else knows the story and the characters better?  However, if this still seems like too daunting a proposition, I am sure that a volunteer can readily be found.

But if you do produce your own film (video), what do you do with it?  How do you get it seen, distributed?  Why, on the internet, of course.  There are numerous venues for screening films/videos on the internet; and it is very likely that more people will see it there than at the second and third tier film festivals where most first time directors’ independent films wind up.

Isn’t that really setting your sights too low? you might ask.  Not necessarily.  Do not forget that the highly successful film Meet the Parents (2000) was first produced as a very low budget film with unknown actors.  A major American studio saw it, bought the rights and then remade it as a big budgeted film with major actors.

Would I do something like this?  Probably not.  Should you?  Well, that depends—that is, depends on you.  But whatever you decide, it may no longer be accurate for the aspiring screenwriter to say that whether or not he has a career to pursue is dependent on the decisions of others.

Update – July 2015:

I have recently read about filmmakers who have indeed used their I-phone to create their films and have had them screened at the Sundance Film Festival.  One filmmaker stated that he preferred using an I-phone because the non-actors that he employed were more familiar with it and thus was less intrusive than more traditional filmmaking equipment.  I guess that my post was not as radical as I thought when I first posted it.

The Screenwriter as . . . Screenwriter

One of the criticisms of my book The Screenplay as Literature was that it appeared to be more about filmmaking than screenwriting.  And there was a good reason for that.  You see, at the time when I wrote the book, although there were a great  many screenwriters lucratively plying their trade (in Hollywood, especially), there were none that I knew of in America (nor in Europe either) that were predominantly writing screenplays to express themselves in this new literary medium–if to express themselves at all.  There were no screenwriters that you could compare to playwrights such as a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams:  playwrights who had chosen to devote themselves almost exclusively to the stage and were most comfortable in doing so.  Oh, yes, there was the occasional noteworthy original screenplay written by a writer best known for his or her work in another medium (e.g. playwright  Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits), but that was hardly enough to inspire me to write a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature.  What did inspire me was the work of men who had chosen to express themselves exclusively in the making of films.  These men, whose names include Bergman, Godard, Fellini and Antonioni, not only made films, but they either wrote their own scripts or collaborated on their writing; thus my use of the term filmmaker to describe them.  Furthermore, although the aforementioned filmmakers were accomplished writers, especially Ingmar Bergman, they appeared to be more at home behind the camera than sitting behind a desk, writing.  In fact, most of them confessed that they found the literary (writing) process rather  frustrating–an inadequate means of expressing their cinematic ideas; however, they did admit that the screenplay was a necessary first step, if only to prove on paper the validity of their film ideas.

This brings us to the central problem in advocating for “the screenplay as literature”:  It is difficult to make the argument without the screenwriters to go with it.  That is not to say that there are no screenwriters:  hundreds of screenplays are being written and produced each year.  However, are they being written by writers who have chosen to express themselves almost exclusively via the screenplay?  For the most part, they are not.   Why is this important?  Because just as it is difficult to think of the great novelists and playwrights of world literature of not wanting anything more than to pursue their art in their chosen form of writing, it is difficult to take seriously writers of screenplays  who do not consider screenwriting as their main literary pursuit—no matter how good they are at it.  This problem is further compounded by the fact that virtually all directors who write their own scripts want to be considered directors first and writers second, if at all.  And let us also not forget the frequent characterization of the majority of screenwriters as aspiring (if not frustrated) directors.  Now let us look at why this state of affairs exists, and how it undermines the proposition of “the screenplay as literature.”

The lack of what I call real screenwriters can be attributed to two appalling  conditions: the first is that screenwriters get very little recognition for their work and are, for the most part, virtually unknown to the public; The second is that screenplays, by themselves, receive little respect—and  particularly from the people who turn them into films. Let us examine the first condition:  the anonymity of the screenwriter.

Many would trace this problem to the popularity of Francois Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs,” a position that Truffaut took in the late 1950’s (and expounded in the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema), which endeavored to give the credit of “author” to certain directors who did not write their own scripts.  This gave rise to the elevation of the status of the director—and usually at the expense of the screenwriter.  However, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the marginalization of the screenwriter predates considerably “La Politique des Auteurs” and the ascendency of the director.  There (Hollywood) the producers (and even the distributors, too) have long taken credit for the films they have produced.

Why is this such a detriment to screenwriters?  Because if individual screenwriters are virtually unknown to the public, it is almost impossible for them to develop an audience—a following, that is.     Filmmakers such as Woody Allen and the late Ingmar Bergman developed followings for their films (for which they usually wrote the screenplays); and this, indeed, allowed them to grow as artists, to experiment.  However, since I have written The Screenplay as Literature, I can think of only a few American screenwriters whose work is or was known to the public for films which they were not also the director.  The most notable are the late Paddy Chayevsky and Charles Kaufman; the first was the author of Network (1976), arguably the best American screenplay of the second half of the Twentieth century; the second is best known for comic films that make substantial use of fantasy, such as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

You might very well ask why is it important that there be writers who are not the directors of the screenplays they write when so many directors do write their own screenplays—and do so very well?  And it is worth noting that the renaissance in cinema that I wrote about in The Screenplay as Literature took its inspiration (in part)  from an article written in 1948 by French critic (and subsequently film director) Alexandre Astruc, entitled “La Camera-Stylo.”  Here Astruc argued for scriptwriters to direct their own scripts; “or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.”

What then is the need for the autonomous screenwriter?  The need exists because the talent and temperament to be both a writer and a director may not necessarily reside in a single individual: one may excel in one endeavor but not the other.  In the theater, playwrights who direct their own plays are rare.  And few novelists long to be editors (or publishers, too).  At one time we revered writers (e.g. novelists and playwrights) as simply writers, not as hyphenates as well (e.g. writer-directors).  We have romanticized writers who spend many months (or years) writing in isolation—away from the glitter and distractions of Los Angeles or New York: writers who no sooner than they hand off their just completed work to their agent or publisher, plunge into their next project.  These are writers who have so much to write, but so little time to do so.  And certainly little time to spend on the onerous details of production—and film production, in particular.  In a perfect world, producers, directors and film companies would be beating a path to the doors of screenwriters to get a first look at what they are working on, not the other way around.  And if it is not enough that screenwriters themselves get little respect, it is far more egregious that the screenplay itself, and particularly the original screenplay, gets even less—the second impediment to “the screenplay as literature.”

 Dances with Wolves (1990) was an American film that won Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (even though the novel it was based on started out as an original screenplay).  Yet when the author of the screenplay initially attempted to have it produced, he was told to turn it into a novel first—which he did.  How insulting!   If a painter approached an art gallery to have his work exhibited (and, hopefully, sold), would he be told to turn his paintings into sculptures first?  I think not.  The sad fact is that the film industry—and particularly in the United States—has always had an enormous distrust and disdain for the original screenplay.

 If today I were to arrive in Hollywood with a trunk full of worthy scripts, written by writers who have seen every film, read every screenplay, and even possess university degrees in film and screenwriting, I would be laughed out of town—assuming that I actually got in to see anyone of importance. “Bring me playwrights!  Bring me novelists,” they would tell me.  “But don’t bring me screenplays or screenwriters!  We are surfeited with them.”  Been there!  Done that!  That is not to say that original screenplays are not, and cannot, be sold.  However, if you do not have strong industry connections (and representation, too), you have a better chance of winning the lottery than of selling an original screenplay.

We have not yet reached the center of “the screenplay as literature;” in fact, we are not even close to itAnd we never will be–until cinema fully embraces the concept of   “the Screenwriter as  . . . Screenwriter.” 

 

Is The Screenplay Really Literature?

I am sure that many of you who have been following this blog were wondering when I would finally address this subject.  Well, today I propose to do just that.  The reason that I have been tardy in joining this debate is because I believed that this question has been answered long ago, if not by me, then by others.  But before I present a definitive answer and the arguments to support it, let us examine this question in its historical context.

In 1943, in a preface to one of the first volumes of screenplays to be published in the United States, John Gassner put forward the rather audacious proposition that the “screenplay” could be considered not only as a new form of literature but also as a very important form in its own right.  However, although Gassner was a respected literary and theater critic of the day (and Professor, too), his proposition was not well received by his literary and academic colleagues.  Gassner’s arguments appeared to treat the word “literature” at its most basic level: as something that is written or read.  And most of his essay (titled “The Screenplay as Literature,” by the way) compared the screenplay to the stage play; in a revised edition he underlines this analogy by stating that “my sometimes far too logical mind tells me that if the drama intended for the stage can be called a form of literature, so can a screenplay.”  Gassner never directly addresses the question of whether or not screenplays were worthy of being called Literature (note I use the word here with a capital “L”).    Although he does state that ”film writing already has substantial claims to literary recognition,” he does little to support that contention other than noting the screenplays included in this volume (I will address their merits later on).  Yet he appears to undermine that assertion when he states: “There is indeed no intrinsic reason why film art cannot use or produce notable literature,” implying that it had yet to do so.  Furthermore, his collaborator on the editing of this volume, successful screenwriter Dudley Nichols, appeared to contradict him when he states that “the screenplay might easily become a fascinating new form of literature” and then proceeds to explain why it had not.

Twenty-seven years later, I came along with my book The Screenplay as Literature.  What prompted me to write it was the status that cinema itself had attained—that of an art (if not literary) form.  The post-Second World War cinema had proved once and for all that the cinema not only could entertain people but enlighten them as with, with the same subtleties and complexities that are to be found in any other art or literary form.  This “renaissance” in film could be traced in part (at least in inspiration) to a 1948 article written by a French critic who ultimately became a film director—Alexandre Astruc.  In this article, entitled the “La Camera-Stylo” (“camera-pen”), Astruc first called attention to some of the changes that cinema was undergoing at the time:

“. . . the cinema  is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel… [having become] a form  in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsession exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel.”

Astruc went on to boldly predict that

“From today onwards it will be possible for the cinema to produce works which are equivalent, in their profundity and meaning to the novels of Faulkner and Malraux, to the essays of Sartre and Camus.”

Many critics have assumed that because of the title of my book and my acknowledgement of Gassner’s pioneering work, I actually concurred with his arguments on the literary status of the screenplay.  It was quite the contrary: besides using the word “literature” in a much different sense—I referred to it as “the highest level of artistic and intellectual achievement attained by a particular people or culture”–I implied that there was an equally important criterion that had to be met: that the writer writes for the screen in order to express himself in way impossible in any other medium—and not simply for the money to be earned. The screenplays that Gassner selected for his anthology, all superb examples from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, do not meet, I am afraid,  this essential criterion, notwithstanding the fact that two of them were based on a novels which led to their author’s receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.  All of them, I believe, were adaptations of novels, novellas, biographies and short stories (the name of this volume was, by the way, Twenty Best Film Plays).  In fact, if I had been around in 1943, and all I had to work with was the product that was coming out of Hollywood at the time—polished as it was– not only would I not have written my book, I certainly never would have had the temerity to use the title “The Screenplay as Literature.”

Although my work might not have adequately addressed all the issues surrounding this “controversy,” for the next fifteen or twenty-years the issue remained dormant.  However, with the world-wide proliferation of cinema studies programs, and the concomitant need to publish scholarly books and write University theses, this “debate,” has resurfaced.   Although the emphasis today appears more focused on what a screenplay is (e.g., is it a “sovereign” work, only a blueprint, etc.) rather than its literary qualities, if any.  Now, let me cite some of the most frequent reasons given for denying the screenplay the status of literature, and my responses to them.

Screenplays are not written to be read (or published).  Obviously, I could state the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were not written to be read or published.  However, I primarily want to contradict the sweeping assertion that screenplays are not written to be read:  they most assuredly are!  They are written to be read by those who may be called upon to invest considerable sums of money to produce them, by creative talents, such as actors and directors, who will be asked to devote several months of their lives to work on them, and the myriad of film crafts persons who need to be inspired. As long as most cultures remain primarily verbally rather than visually oriented, the art of the cinema will be dependent on the word pictures of the screenwriter, at least in the earliest stages of production.

The Screenplay is only a blueprint for a production, not an autonomous work of its own.  First I object to the term “blueprint” to describe a screenplay.  Only a building professional or architect can read a blueprint.  Almost anyone today can read and understand a screenplay, even a final shooting script, because screenplay terminology, such as “cut,” “pan” and “close-up,” have become part of the standard language.  In fact, a screenplay is eminently more readable than a play script, in which stage terms such as “stage left,”  “stage right,” “upstage” and “downstage,” can be utterly confusing for anyone but a theater professional.  As for whether or not a screenplay is an autonomous work of its own, the fact that it is meant to be produced as a film need not detract from its completeness or validity: the screenplay is no less an autonomous work than is the play script—which is also meant to be produced.

A Screenplay is meant to be produced only once while a play is capable of inspiring a thousand different ways of being staged.  The assertion that screenplays are not capable of being produced more than once is factually untrue.  Films–and thus the underlying screenplays—are constantly being remade.  It is quite common to see a film/screenplay in one language and culture transposed into another language and culture.  And in these remakes new interpretations are given.  For example, the 1957 American film Twelve Angry Men, with a screenplay by Reginald Rose, was remade into a Russian film, 12, in 2007.  The story of both films centers around a jury of twelve men who deliberate on the fate of an adolescent boy charged with murder.  While the original version deals almost exclusively with the dynamics of the American jury system, with little or no social commentary, in the latter version the plot serves as a prism through which the ills of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russian society are examined.

Screenplays are often credited to multiple writers and it is difficult to determine who contributed what.  Literary critics have always shown a bias to the sole author, often ignoring worthy works which lack the same.  In fact, the cult of the “auteur,” of which Francois Truffaut was the chief architect, demands it.  However, there is nothing in any definition of “literature” that requires sole authorship.  Woody Allen is a writer-director whose original screenplays frequently dominate the American Motion Picture awards season.  Yet it is interesting to note that his arguably best film, Annie Hall (1977), was based on an original screenplay that was a collaboration.  (Annie Hall won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.)

A Screenwriter does not have the same control over his work as a playwright or novelist. There is no reason why a screenwriter cannot exercise such control.  For example, when Budd Schulberg, a successful novelist and playwright, was approached to write the screenplay for the award-winning On the Waterfront (1954), he was told by the director, Elia Kazan, that he would not change one line of dialogue in his script without his permission—the same as he would with esteemed playwright Tennessee Williams.  (Kazan was the principal director of William’s plays on Broadway.)  Then, of course, there are the many directors who write their own scripts.  However, the fact remains that because of the enormous expense of making a feature film, those who finance films will always exercise some sort of creative control in order to protect their investments; but that in itself is not a sufficient reason to deny the literary status of the screenplay.

Published Screenplays are purchased mainly by “fans” that have already seen the films, whereas published plays are bought by readers who most likely have never seen them produced but have a literary respect for their authors.  At one time paper-back versions of screenplays (with plenty of photos from the production) were published to coincide with the release of the films; this was done as a cross promotion between movie studio and publisher.  No doubt the people who bought these “promotional” screenplay editions were essentially buying them as souvenirs or movie memorabilia.  Promotional screenplay editions are much rarer today, but screenplays continue to be published in large numbers.  I would presume the market for these published screenplays encompasses more than mere “fans,” appealing, for the most part, to those who have seen the films but want to know more about them, which attests to their enduring qualities.

There is probably no end in sight to this academic debate on the screenplay’s legitimacy.  However, the question itself may have already been answered by the numerous University English and Literature departments that are now offering “Screenplay as Literature” courses in order to attract students who no longer read books.