This was a post in a previous blog of mine called Moleskine modality, which is linked to from here. Looking for a post I did on Bliar and the Iraq invasion of 2003, I also had a quick look at what I had written in Moleskine. It’s defunct as a posting site, but has a great many links to all sorts of things that might be useful. It was as much about books and writers as film. I decided to move on to a dedicated film (and a bit of photography) blog instead of book/film. It was partly because I was getting fed up with Blogger. It seems a lot better now, and has even got pretty good free themes which tend to show up WordPress.
So here’s the post on screenplays as literature, or not:
It’s his title, not mine. This essay has three parts:
Are Screenplays literature? Part I
Are Screenplays Literature? Part II
Are Screenplays Literature? Part III
This came about because of a decision suddenly – the decision version of a flash memory which had a simple, clear nachrechtfertigung to drop a very absorbing and pleasurably expanding (the polite word for ideas-creep) novel in favour of a very ancient screenplay/novel project which began in the late 80s.
Without getting through the first part of this essay on the screenplay I was already running with the notions. Yes, of course, the film = the novel. Then: what, if we are drawing tables of analogues, is the novel equivalent of the screenplay? Reading on I see the publication of screenplays as if they were literature has become the thing.
I have never seen the screenplay as the finished product. The bit that we do when we read the book (because it is the reader input which adds the final touch to the skill and insights of the writer) is what the writer (constantly readjusting his script to the needs of the film), director, actors, cinematographer, stage designer, location manager do. Then, as I have hinted at in some of the links under screenplay/scripts, there are later adaptations of the original screenplay floating about which the novice would have no idea are not the start point. It can be difficult to see which is which when someone hasn’t been careful enough at the time to record what is what, and/or because things get lost.
I have mentioned something I noticed when doing a generalised screenplay foray a while back: often what you see online is someone’s transcription of the film, not the screenplay itself.
To make the screenplay as much like the finished novel ( = [novel] + [readers cognition]} necessitated the writer’s instructions. Stating the bleeding obvious, though a perfect dialogue by itself can work pretty well given an imaginative reader, without ‘stage’ direction something of what is in most novels has been left out. Strictly speaking like is not being compared to like.
The money quotes come from part III:
What is Literature?
The 19th-century novelist George Eliot (a woman writing under a man’s name) defined literature this way: “the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds (=limits) of our personal lot (=fate).”
Terrence McGiver, a teacher, expands the definition: “Literature helps us grow, both personally and intellectually. It provides an objective base for knowledge and understanding. It links us with the cultural, philosophic, and religious world of which we are part. It enables us to recognize human dreams and struggles in different places and times that we otherwise would never know existed. It helps us develop mature sensibility and compassion for the condition of all living things — human, animal and vegetable. It gives us the knowledge and perception to appreciate the beauty of order and arrangement, which a well-constructed song or a beautifully painted canvas also gives us.”
Other observers have pointed out that literature is written to be read aesthetically; that it emphasizes character over plot; that it must be worth re-reading; that it contains enduring human themes; that it is the opposite of trash.
All these definitions give clues why it’s so easy to conclude that screenplays are not literature.