Screenplays as Literature: Bibliography and Criticism

By Morsberger, Robert E.; Morsberger, Katharine M. | Literature/Film Quarterly, Winter 1975 | Go to article overview

Screenplays as Literature: Bibliography and Criticism


Morsberger, Robert E., Morsberger, Katharine M., Literature/Film Quarterly


After several generations of neglect, movies are finally receiving belated recognition and status in academic and literary circles. A dozen or more periodicals, many of them published by universities, are dedicated to film, and campuses across the country are offering courses in film history, appreciation, and technique. National Educational Television has provided a real bonanza by running two series of classics. The Silent Years and Film Odyssey, the latter screening 26 sound classics, mostly of foreign language films, followed by interviews with still living directors. Thanks to campus and community series of film revivals, plus television reruns, a large audience of film enthusiasts and historians is developing, and the motion picture is being hailed as possibly the most potent art medium of the century, combining as it does elements of literature, music, acting and other performing arts, and all the resources of cinematography, to grip the audience with an immediacy and verisimilitude that no other medium can match.

Yet during the 58 years since Birth of a Nation, only a comparative handful of screenplays have been published, and the cinema journals are inclined to consider every aspect of film making before the script. The dogmatic cinema cultist, as contrasted to the movie fan, generally wants to discuss films as "film" - meaning what is on the celluloid - and is far more concerned with shot analysis than with story and scenario. "Auteur" criticism canonizes the director and celebrates the cinematographer but seems to consider the script a vulgar ingredient, especially when so many directors in vogue tend to work with improvisation. Yet the completed film has a meaning; and even with repeated viewings, analysis still requires a text.

Most foreign art films are conceived by the director, who is the main or sole author of the script, whereas American movies are apt to be a team effort and to be directed by someone other than the author. Among eminent Hollywood directors, John Huston. Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, and Billy Wilder usually collaborate in writing their films; but such notable directors as William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock have no hand in the script except perhaps to suggest minor changes during shooting. Accordingly, "purist" cinema critics are apt to dismiss most American films as lacking a single, unified vision and control. This may be an additional reason why film criticism is likely to scant the role of the script in the completed production.

At last this is beginning to change; Orson Welles, introducing The Silent Years, noted that critics have finally gotten around to the authors of the scripts. The fact that scripts have so long been ignored and unavailable may be partly the responsibility, in America, of the authors themselves, for prestigious writers were apt to consider their Hollywood work a kind of whoring; many of them complained loudly and bitterly about the vulgarity of Hollywood and the way in which their literary efforts were ripped and mangled by committees, cutters, and studio bosses. Many of the most talented novelists and playwrights have done extensive work for the screen, but their belittlement of such work has kept it from being considered part of their canon. The frustrations of Scott Fitzgerald. Nathanael West, and William Faulkner are well known. Pauline Kael in Raising Kane and John Schultheiss in "The 'Eastern' Writer in Hollywood" 1 have discussed in detail both the contributions and the corruption of the serious writer who goes West.

Nevertheless, such writers not only created some of their more important fiction while working for Hollywood but did distinguished work for the screen as well. To ignore the script writing of such notable authors as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood. Dylan Thomas, William Saroyan. Raymond Chandler, John O' Hara. …

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