The Literary Merit of Film Scripts
Idea, draft, edit, final product. Screenplay, film, projection. Manuscript, submit, publish. Is a screenplay actually worth being considered as literature? Yes. And no. Both, actually. Yes, this article will argue in the further parts of this article, because it is a compiled set of words, which (presumably) present a narrative or an idea (as in a theory, but that is another discussion). No, because it is the finished film that truly exists in the realm of literature, with the screenplay serving only as a blueprint. The sketchbook of an artist would not be considered “art” in its complete definition when placed in a gallery of Picasso – but when deliberately presented as “art”, the sketchbook then transcends its position as simply a collection of ideas to be further developed.
A quick, disjointed return to film: film has a language of its own. The screenplay is simply a part of the sketchbook, which contributes to that language and thereby becomes an integral part of the literature of which the film itself is. The same could be argued for the physical film itself (that emulsion-based medium with silver-halide), the splicing tape used to connect different “cuts” on the physical film (or the mouse if using computer editing) etc.
To bring everything that was just written and will be further developed into one central idea: the screenplay, the film script, is simply a part of the literature of film in the same way that a sketchbook or a rough draft is simply a blueprint for an artist’s or a writer’s final product – which becomes labeled as literature.
A Quick Distinction
Let us begin with the distinction that must inevitably be made between a script/screenplay that is made into a film and a script/screenplay that is not made into a film. The former, the script that has been made into a film, is inherently stronger that the latter, the script that has not been made into a film. Why? Because it has the final product to support it; that congealment of images, which bring life to the writing through a visual representation subjected to the director’s interpretation of the script. The Coen Brothers envisioned True Grit in a far different manner than did Henry Hathaway.
Now, the script that has not been made into a film is a weaker piece of work because it does not have that visual association, the image that – when paired with a specific line – will incite a more visceral reaction. Remember when Captain Barbossa said to Elizabeth in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl “You best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.” Now imagine reading that line with no image or context attached other than the prior lines. There is no scene description on the script to create the world seen in the film, as would happen in a novel – a paragraph to describe the surroundings. It is just a collection of dialogue. The effect is severely diminished when compared to the script, which has been given that image, that scene of skeletons under the moonlight. Now that we have covered that strength/weakness disparity between scripts that are now movies and those that are not – we may move on.
Is it Literature?
Should then the script, in either case, be considered as literature? No, it should not be. As discussed in the opening paragraph, an artist’s sketchbook is simply where the idea has begun. It is not artwork in itself so much as it is a blueprint to build upon. It is the same with film scripts. The script is simply a barebones exhibition of dialogue, which informs the motion of the narrative. A well-written film or theater script will leave out instructions about costume, set-design, props etc. (save for the most significant details). The script thereby becomes simply a collection of dialogue, of call and response. This is not literature anymore than a sketchbook is art. The script becomes a part of the literature of film after the film has been made. Even Shakespeare is not literature until it arrives upon the stage. It is the action that is the literature, with the script serving only as enabler and support.
What About Monster?
But what about books that are formatted as film scripts/screenplays? Shouldn’t they be considered literature? Yes, they are literature. But they are not a film scripts in the connotative sense of “script”. Take the book Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. It is a book that has sections formatted as a screenplay – it can be adapted to film quite easily because of this formatting. But it is the “formatting” which is important; this book was released as a book experimenting with style, structure and formatting – it contains sections which are screenplay, sections which are handwritten memoir, and is interspersed by images. It is a book first – a screenplay only by a creative, structural decision made by the author and does not fall into the canon of “film scripts/screenplays”. Returning to an earlier point – this book is the finished product and is not simply the blueprint for a further development (although that doorway remains open).
A Final Argument
What remains to argue is whether film scripts actually should be considered literature, connotatively. This article has argued already that no – they should not be considered literature until they have been made into a film. Should, then, the film itself be considered literature? Denotatively, no – it is not a printed material (unless you stretch the definition of a film “print”). But let a request be made that we make an addendum to the connotation of literature (yes, that is a purposefully subjective that statement) to include filmic material within the canon of literature. Why? Film has language. It has a grammar, a semiotic structure – it has signifiers and signified (thank you Saussure!). It can be read and analyzed (albeit not in the same way as written work may be) and brings to life the writing which made that film possible.
“Better Start Believing in Ghost Stories.” Gonzo. N.p., 02 May 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <https://noputhyfooting.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/better-start-believing-in-ghost-stories/>.
Bosman, Julie. “Children’s Book Envoy Defines His Mission.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/books/walter-dean-myers-ambassador-for-young-peoples-literature.html?_r=0>.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Basic Concepts.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Comp. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 147-58. Print.
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“Script Reaction: The Coens’ True Grit Remake.” – CINEMABLEND. N.p., 04 Jan. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Script-Reaction-The-Coens-True-Grit-Remake-16379.html>.
“The Short Guide to Making an Awesome Short – Part 1: Scripting.” Film Shortage. N.p., 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://filmshortage.com/the-short-guide-to-making-an-awesome-short-part-1-scripting/>.
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What do you think? Leave a comment.
Depends how we define literature. Screenplays provide a starting point for a process that is much larger. Novels and fictional writing are self-contained entities.
Indeed, it depends on how we define literature.
The one time I found myself challenged in this idea was when I got the screenplay to Donnie Darko. I just thought it was a complete work of art, better than the movie in fact. For a second I wished he had written a novel instead, but the ideas and the execution of the idea were just so cinematic, that there was no way for the piece of writing to not be what it was, which in my opinion was a perfect example of screenwriting.
Films scripts are considered art and have been taught at such at universities for many decades. Not all film scripts are considered to be very good literature. Also, film scripts, on the page, can be more difficult to follow.
Thanks for your article the opening was very compelling; however, I disagree with a sketchbook not being a work of art. The sketchbooks of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci travel to many museums and are viewed as works of art. There is also the Sketchbook Project out of Brooklyn, NY they have taken sketchbooks to new levels. Yet, we can agree that art is subjective and illusive.
Also, consider that actors will read film scripts of already produced films and perform scenes from them in scene study groups as a part of their training.
Thank you for sharing this with us
Concentrate on the writing… and nothing else matters.
Film is a collaborative effort. The screenplay is a blueprint from which a director, art director, set decorator, cinematographer, wardrobe director, and editor (as well as many more) work from and then bring their own visions and interpretations to. That is something to consider.
Very true. A screenwriter writes what is just the beginning of a long and arduous creative process involving hundreds of other talented professionals.
The lack of detail in a screenplays makes me stay away from reading them.
The point of a movie script is to make a single movie, and that is the document of those ideas that will live on.
What literature have in common is story.
I would disagree with the argument against screenwriting as literature. It is still something written with a story and a creative process. A well written screenplay will allow you to imagine a good scene by itself. Yes having good cinematography helps, but it’s not necessary, so a screenplay can stand on its own.
Scripts are created for the visual medium.
If you read a screenplay, you’re missing out on all the other aspects of the creation; the acting, the cinematography, the score, all the things that are considered integral to what a movie is. That’s the main difference than reading a fiction book…
Novels have more freedom to tell their stories. They are not pinned down by the structure and limitations that screenplays have to abide by.
Well, scripts are or are not literature, but other literature were made with more of an intention of being “Heard” and thusly read.
Fantastic work. Your explanation of the differences between literature and film (including the examples) made this a very interesting article to read. I would have to counter with an argument that has a very large example. I recently read the script to Shawshank Redemption (being as it is my favorite movie and I would someday like to get into screenwriting) and found that it was a much better written piece of fiction than some of the books out there I’ve seen are on best seller lists. The only reason I bring this up is because it includes not just dialogue, but beautiful descriptions of the characters and surroundings. I would have to ask then, where do you place scripts such as these?
Excellent work on this article! It made me think about something I’ve never heavily considered.
Discussion and debate are presented well here. I like your use of Shakespeare as an example and would love to see you develop this point in the argument. The inception of your article is thought provoking.
I’m disappointed with this article.
The definition of ‘literature’ at the start of here is very shaky. It relies on authorial – or the publisher’s/producer’s/curator’s -/intent/ to display something as art. Hasn’t New Criticism done away with this thought that we can only consider something as art if someone smarter than us has said it’s art?
Rather, we consider something art because we choose to put it into that position ourselves, because we see artistic qualities. A turd on the pavement is rarely going to be seen as art. Take a photo of it, however, next to a crumpled flier for someone running for presidency, and a bunch of footprints of people stepping around both, and we’re making something of it that’s going to make most people view it as art, for a number of reasons that are mostly self-evident.
A screenplay is /always/ literature, however, because it is a ‘written work’ (working from the OED definition, the bedrock this article has ignored); glamorising the definition only obfuscates the discussion. A ‘written work’ is all we need to say. It’s defined. It’s done. It comes from the Latin for ‘letter of the alphabet’, ‘littera’ and was formed into the Middle English for ‘knowledge of books’ – /books/; /written works/. A note/book/ is therefore also part of an artist’s literature. Debating the meaning of ‘literature’ without researching the origin of the words is just lazy. It took me a minute to Google it, check it, and undermine the entire focus of this article.
Likewise, a sketchbook is a work of visual art. Have you seen Ruskin’s sketches in the Ashmolean archives? I have. They are rough, protean little genius-marked conceptions of creativity. They have artistic qualities. They are art. If you don’t want to call them that, you’d sound like an idiot, but that’s fine – they simply won’t then be art /to you/. The rest of us will be able to work on different /levels/ of art, as one works on different /levels/ of literature, not trying to equate sketches to statues, but instead working out where they fall in a hierarchy of artistic accomplishment
Film on screen is categorically /not/ literature and can never be, as while it has signifiers, they are not and never can be /written/, ‘littera’ signifiers. Parallels can be drawn, but you cannot say Film is written – you can say it is /close/ to literature, and it indeed is in many ways, but you cannot say it /is/ literature. Both a film and its script are however forms of art, like a playscript and its respective play on stage are two versions – transformations, even – of one core work, the story the playwright has created or transformed themselves.
To say ‘even Shakespeare is not literature until it arrives on the stage’ is simply daft. Simply daft. It is literature off the stage, theatre on it. The use of the word literature here and throughout this article is, frankly, what academics would call ‘bullshitting’.
This idea that a /script/ as a weakened as a piece of work also fails to consider a script on its own merits. Was Wilde’s Salome weaker before it could be performed? How can we, as critics, say the very words on the page have less ‘merit’ because they have yet to be given life?
Your thinking is backwards, being heavily countered by the work of Shakespeare. As Ian McKellen notes in his reading of Macbeth, Shakespeare puts into his playscripts – into the poetry and the prose – all the instructions an actor needs to perform the part well. The value of the play performed is dependant on the value of the script. Likewise, no film will have good dialogue unless it is written well in the script to begin with; you can’t give an actor bad lines and expect him to go the work to make them shine. The mental image, the film, both of which are not literature, spawns from the text, the screenplay, which is written and hence literature.
You say to ‘Now imagine reading that line with no image or context attached other than the prior lines.’ You say that ‘There is no scene description on the script to create the world seen in the film, as would happen in a novel – a paragraph to describe the surroundings.’ But if there is no world created, how did the director create the world in his head for the movie to be visualised in the end? Perhaps other elements influenced what we get on screen, but then we just have to consider the screenplay as a component part of a whole – a whole that may not be entirely literature, as it may not be entirely written (concept art, for instance), but will contain bodies of literature such a screenplays, write-ups of scenarios, et cetera.
By your argument, ‘may i feel said he’ is not a piece of literature either – perhaps all of Cumming’s corpus is just a bunch of sketchbook scrawlings that don’t have enough ‘merit’ in order to reach your overly-glamorised definition of ‘literature’. How can we accept your argument and consider that poem literature? It has only dialogue. It has no setting. It could be staged as a play – it is staged as one in the theatre of one’s mind – and so might as well be a playscript. That it wasn’t written as one makes no difference to the poem’s formalistic qualities.
I find this article and its argument to be vapid. The lack of citations and wide critical reading, for such a wide topic, makes every subjective statement about the forms being discussed incredibly weak. Discussion is made within the article by ignoring definitions, not by challenging them; personal definitions in contrast with established ones are preferred without critical reasoning. It’s academic fantasy to want films to be considered ‘literature’; scholars around the world are comparing film /to/ literature, but none will ever mesh the two together under the latter term’s umbrella. A far more insightful discussion can be made on the ‘literariness’ of film, but that is nowhere to be found, even though it was expected from the title. ‘Literary’ is the quality of being /like/ literature, not being literature itself. This article has tried to mash the round peg of film into a very square hole, with as much grace as one would expect.
This is not what I come to The Artifice to read. But thank you for giving my the impetus to exercise all that my degree has taught me about this issue through this extensive criticism.
You’ve got me. While there are a few points of contention between our opinions, your argument is the stronger and the more definitively supported. I am interested to see what kind of an article you will write.
The way I see it, the filmwright and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, except that the novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves, while the filmwright delegates many responsibilities to others, is generally more sociable, and can handle a great deal more stress.
Well organized argument, good job.
While the form is different, the underlying principles and structures are the same.
It seems, since you argue that a script cannot stand on its own without being made into a film, that it is certainly not. I wonder, though, what definition of literature you are using to draw these conclusions. I’m still not quite sure I understand why the making of a film makes a script literature. It doesn’t change anything about the script itself. A literary work, in my opinion, should not need a supplementary medium to be considered literature. In that train of thought, I’m not sure I agree with you, but this article definitely made for an interesting read.
I thought this was good. I thought the choppiness of the intro, though, the triplets of terms you used, was kind of off[putting in terms of getting into the essay.
I have taught the art of fiction by asking students to read the original film scripts and then showing students the “final” film. I find play scripts and screenplays to be primary source materials and literary phenomena which sufficiently stand alone as works in and of themselves. It is always interesting to compare films to the screenplay or novel/book and note the editorial judgments made between the “blue print” of the writer/director’s print narrative and the work produced and presented on the silver screen.
I enjoyed this article quite a bit, despite my disagreement with it. Your argument is compelling, your style is smooth, and overall, this is a great piece of writing. I just can’t bring myself to say that screenplays do not qualify as art, and not just because I write them. Screenplays, even unproduced ones, can be just as visual as novels if they are written well. In a sense, one needs to become familiar with the visual formula and grammar of film in order to make sense of a screenplay, just as one needs to become familiar with the written formula and grammar of other written works. Scripts–when written correctly and succinctly–almost take on a poetic nature in the way that every word must be chosen for a reason, every action pushing the story forward. Novels have the luxury of lengthy, helpful descriptions to paint a story for the reader–screenplays do not, mostly because of the simple fact that it would be pointless. However, for all my criticism, I sincerely enjoyed your article, and look forward to more!
Unfortunately, film scripts have to uphold a certain set of rules so they can be translated into film. Traditional forms of literature may be more pleasant to read because they take their time in setting each scene, while screenplays must have each and every word propel the story forward.
I agree that the finished film certainly blossoms literary merit, but I believe forced formatting can detract from the art of screenwriting. At University level, writers are taught to tone down any flair as it is the screenwriters job to ‘not overcomplicate things’. I totally disagree with this as scripts can contain heartfelt worlds, characters and scenarios just like a book, and it should be down to the writer’s personal style to make that work. Sure, the finished film throws visual ribbons around words, but it is the industries demand for familiarity which quashes merit. Unless you are already heavily established, it seems impossible for a screenwriter to write in their own voice, style or language and see a finished visual product.
On a side note, Before Midnight was nominated “Best Adapted Screenplay” although it was entirely original writing. Linklater’s worlds and characters are so embedded in text that the Academy acknowledged this, a rarity indeed. Great article, very interesting topic.
This article seems predicated on an understanding that “literature” is defined as a canonical work that may be studied in an English class. If so, it is important to remember that many scripts for stage-plays (not just Shakespeare) have achieved that status of literary merit. In academic study, we are always careful to stress the distinction between “theatre” (a live performance, typically on a stage) and “drama” (a written text), and address our inquiries accordingly. I see no reason why the same can not be the case in film studies.