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.
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