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.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Is The Screenplay Really Literature?

  1. Hello,

    This article proved to be immensely helpful for my paper on the same topic that you have addressed. I’m working on my paper in Bangalore, India with regard to Indian films and I had the same arguments that you have listed above.

    Thank you
    Mandara=)

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