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Screenplays as Literature

Contributed By Charles Deemer

The publication of screenplays is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although today recent movies such as In the Bedroom, You Can Count On Me, The Shipping News, Ghost World and Apocalypse Now Redux all have had their scripts published, screenplays were rarely published when I was a young writer learning my craft in the 1960s. In my undergraduate and graduate writing courses, I met novelists and short story writers, poets and playwrights, but never a screenwriter.

In the 1960s, there was no readers' market for screenplays; today there is. The difference, of course, is that the Great American Novel has been replaced by the Great American Screenplay as the Great Goal of the aspiring young writer. Screenplays are getting published because screenwriting students are buying them, studying the scripts to learn what makes them tick.

In the 1990s, however, a movement grew in support of another reason for publishing screenplays: so they might be considered seriously as literature, the way scripts for stage plays are. We study the plays of Edward Albee and Arthur Miller in literature classes as a matter of course. The time has come, this movement argued, to take the screenplays of Horton Foote and William Goldman just as seriously.

In 1995 a new magazine, Scenario, embraced this point of view. On its masthead Scenario was called "the magazine of screenwriting art." In its first editorial, editor Tod Lippy explained both the reason for and the purpose of its creation: "Too often, it seems, screenplays are regarded as having an almost utilitarian function: they serve as the raw material from which the real players of the cinema -- directors, actors, producers -- make films."

But certainly the screenplay "as blueprint for a movie" is a reality that's hard to dispute. Making movies is a collaborative art form. The screenplay is the first and necessary step in a long process, and the argument is about where to place its value in a nebulous hierarchy of values.

"The mission of Scenario," Lippy continued, "is to provide a context in which screenplays can be regarded as valued literary works in themselves, much like stage scripts." As if to reinforce this mission, the early issues of Scenario published an unproduced screenplay among the four scripts per issue (the practice later was discontinued). One of the surprising joys of reading the magazine in the beginning was to meet these wonderful scripts, these wonderful stories, which for one reason or another never made it through the Hollywood mine field to reach the screen.

Working screenwriters, of course, have wanted more literary respect at least since the studio days when they were considered "schmucks with typewriters." Especially since the importation from France of the "auteur" theory, which gives primary artistic credit to the director (so that films regularly have the title "a film by [director]"), screenwriters have felt like second class citizens. Compared to playwrights, they are. The general public knows the names of playwrights -- but not of stage play directors! The reverse is true in film, a person on the street can name a film director but not a screenwriter (unless they are the same). When I am flown into a strange town to see the premier of a new stage play of mine, I am treated like an artist. When I get a screenwriting gig, I am treated like the hired hand that, in fact, I am.

How successful is the new movement to bring literary respect to the screenplay as an art form in its own rate? I will look at this question in my next two columns, first from the point of view that screenplays are not and should not be considered literature, and then from the point of view that they should be so considered and are, in fact, making progress in this direction.

This question has always existed as a kind of "industry secret," but only recently, with the growth of the publication of screenplays and the increased popularity of film as the primary narrative form in our culture, has the question become of interest to a wider audience. Each side of the issue, it seems to me, has a strong case to make. We'll begin the debate next month with the argument that screenplays are not now, have never been, and should not be considered "literature."

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