Should screenplays be read?

Posted by: damong



The opening of Paul Schrader’s screenplay to Taxi Driver is a powerful one, an unabashedly visual character study. It starts with:

Travis Bickle, aged twenty-six, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous strains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.

This is a combination of adjectives, similes and facial description that has been used time and time again, not just in screenplays. But the techniques natural home seems to be screenwriting; screenplays need to be both concrete and suggestive, and not much else. The actor needs material to extrapolate on and the director needs a picture to form in his head.

In the following paragraph, Travis is described in greater detail: “He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a patch reading ‘King Kong Company, 1968-70.‘”

All of this makes for great reading in itself and the finished product, the film Taxi Driver(1976), consequently makes for fascinating viewing. But that is just the issue; a screenplay is only a part of a sum. In the end, it is the director who brings the actual film to life. The director and screenwriter may be the same person (in the case of Taxi Driver, they are not), but the screenplay remains only part of the advancement. It is a mean, and not an end.

Snell Library has a good collection of diverse and interesting screenplays: Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Yet as a movie-goer and screenwriter myself, I sometimes question how necessary they are for the general public. Ideally, a screenplay is just for the director, the actors and the film crews. It is not literature; it is not meant to expand knowledge or ‘open minds,’ it is meant to provide a framework for moving imagery. This should be the first task on a screenwriter’s mind, rather than providing entertainment, or food for thought, for the general readership. Thus the notion of publishing screenplays has led to the intention of having them published even prior to the making of the film. This in turn has led to screenwriter arrogance and overzealousness. The Coen Brothers publish anthologies of their screenplays; Werner Herzog has boasted of his screenplays, which he publishes himself, as being “new forms of literature.” Charlie Kaufman, the newest, hippest screenwriter to get name recognition, is hailed as a screenwriter with a distinctive style that shines through in each film he makes. As a result, he has the inclination to write the same film again and again, with different elements of genre-bending, and louder levels of zaniness being shook up in a jar and spilled on to a page.

There may be a value to reading screenplays. They are interesting insofar as they give a glimpse in to a film’s development. It is interesting, for instance, to read scenes that were left out of the film, or details that did not come to pass. A writer named David Kipen has written a book called The Schreiber Theory, posing the idea that it is screenwriter, not directors, who are more accurately the author’s of their films. Whether or not this theory holds true does not excuse the fact that screenplays are parts and not sums.

I would encourage readers to be cautious when reading screenplays. One must at least realize that screenplays are, as Ingmar Bergman put it, “skeletons” through which images should flow. Taxi Driver is one pretty skeleton. Perhaps we should keep it in it’s closet.

Posted in: Read, Listen, Watch, Serendipity

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