Friday, February 20, 2009

The screenplay and the high seas

I was asked some years ago to contribute an essay to a book that was to have been entitled 'The Hardest Lesson I Have Learned in Hollywood.' I don’t believe the book was ever published, but I did write an essay, after much thought and soul-searching. My hardest lesson, I stated, was that the screenplay is not literature. Nothing that has happened in the intervening years has changed my mind on that score.

I love literature, indeed, much of my adult life has been spent in its universe. I have read, and tried my hand at, most of its forms, from the novel to the haiku. But I make my living by writing screenplays, and that is one of the great ironies of my life. For I do not believe that the screenplay is a valid form of literature.

Screenplays are bastards, the conflation of several forms of literature, without, themselves, constituting one. The extensive use of dialogue is similar to the play; the length is that of a short novel; the succinctness of the business (scene setting, camera indications, characterizations, and so on) is reminiscent of the short story; and the intensity of language ought to approach that of poetry. I developed all of these ideas in my essay, and added to them the indisputable fact that, unique among all forms of writing, the screenplay is meant to be abused. It is a collaborative document, which everyone connected to the project feels he or she has an absolute right to modify, edit, or rewrite entirely. And among these second-thinkers are people who have never written anything creative in their lives.

No one would dare to do to a novel, a short story, a play or a poem what is routinely done to screenplays. I have, for example, published six books, and on those manuscripts I have received exactly one note. One. And this came in the form of a suggestion from a famous publisher that I ought to consider adding a scene; not an order from an anonymous studio underling that I make changes or risk being fired.

And so, the screenplay lacks those essential qualities that any legitimate work of literature must have: integrity and vision. Oh, it starts with integrity and represents a vision, but no one in the system respects those, and everyone, as I have said, assumes he or she has the right to violate them. And so, because the screenplay lacks an essential character, and because it cannot lay claim to integrity and vision, it does not qualify as literature.

The screenplay is, as I argued in my essay, most like the blueprints of naval architecture, which are drawn up as a guide to the construction of a vessel intended to bear the thoughts, hopes, dreams and personalities of many other people, through waters of production and post-production which the original writer will never be allowed to visit. All we can do is hope to be present on the dock when the ship, in whatever form it has taken, and through whatever storms and battles it has survived, makes its way into the only harbor for which it was ever destined – the local theater.

Often, the original writer has trouble remembering what his blueprint consisted of, by the time he finally sees the result, usually two years or more after the fact. The homecoming is not always welcome. But the work is usually challenging and absorbing, and I have learned to focus on that and nothing else. The rest is for the public, and the consciences of those who have, more often than not, destroyed a vision in order to make a spectacle.