the screenplay as literature

The screenplay is a blueprint; a manual; a selling document for producers, a technical document for cast and crew; there shouldn’t be a word in it that is not absolutely necessary to ‘tell the story’. If you are trained to be a screenwriter these days, then you have heard this, in various ways and in no uncertain terms.
We screenwriters are well aware of how many adjectives we should use to introduce our characters. There is no doubt in our minds about how many turning points we need and in which pages. We are even trained to tell ourselves to KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Just in case it ever crosses our mind to think of ourselves as actual authors, responsible for making decisions about the nature of our work.

Well, this is not the kind of screenplay i have in mind. No.

Screenplays can be literature – even if ‘literature in flux’, as Claudia Sternberg puts it. Actually, screenplays should be literature – if we are interested in watching intelligent, sensitive, unpredictable, thoughtful films, films with a beating heart.

As a reader, i am forever mystified by how very differently we think when it comes to theatre plays. For who would ever question Beckett, Ionesco, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde or the Greek tragic poets as literary figures in their own right? Even though playwrights, too, write for directors, actors, set and costume designers, electricians and sound designers… And even though many screenwriters are also revered playwrights, we still insist on these double standards.

I read screenplays out of curiosity – to untangle, say, the riddle of The Usual Suspects; or see how the explicit sexuality in Kronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, or the sinister undertones of Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or the silent despair in The Insider read on the page.

Read them for the dialog – for Hanif Kureishi’s sardonic one-liners; or McDonagh’s lightning-fast wisecracking In Bruges.

More often i read them for what is there between the frames so to speak – looking for the elusive something when a film casts a spell, and it isn’t quite the performance, or quite the dialog, or quite the direction. This something – an underlying texture, a mood, an uncommon depth of theme and character – is often to be found in the screenplay, and indeed most often it resides beyond the ‘absolutely necessary’ wording. The Piano, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, your favourite Lynch, or Bergman, or Coens film, Naked, Don’t Look Now, Pi, are some examples that spring to mind.

Indulge me for a moment, and let me offer you two examples of lavish, extravagant, and absolutely essential, detail.
One is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad (dir. Alain Resnais, 1961), this incredible feat of a writer’s mind, who not only visualises every single brain-twisting detail of the finished film, but also practically invents the opulent palazzo, long before any casting or viewing of locations.
The other one is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (dir. Jon Amiel, 1986), this ingenious blend of pulp fiction, melodrama, hospital drama, musical, and close-to-the-bone autobiography; a masterful piece of self-exploration and self-exposure that we are used to expect from a novel rather than a film (and yes, it is actually a tv series, but Potter’s brilliant mind is worth bending a few rules).

Of course, i read the masters. Harold Pinter to Charlie Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carrière to Paul Auster to Peter Handke, Raymond Chandler to Ben Hecht to Leigh Brackett…

Then there are the many that have slipped my mind.

And then, there are the far too many, that are indeed not written to be read.


PS. A few months later, i learned i was not alone in this one. In November, i was contacted by someone who has been making the case for the literary values of the screenplay since 1973. That year, Douglas Garrett Winston published a book with the title The Screenplay as Literature. Today he writes a blog with the same title – and it is well worth a visit:


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