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Screenplays as Literature Part 3

Contributed By Charles Deemer

The argument in favor of screenplays being literature must begin with a reminder: not all novels or poems or stage plays are considered to be "literature." Those who put down screenwriting as an activity somehow less "literate" than writing poetry or fiction often forget this. Whatever literature is -- and philosophers have been arguing this point for centuries -- surely we can agree that just because someone writes a "poem," this poem is not automatically classified as literature.

Many writers are themselves aware of this. Once, when asked about her poetry by an interviewer, Dorothy Parker was quick to respond, "My verses. I cannot say poems." She knew the difference between light entertainment and literature. Similarly the novelist Graham Greene even categorized his fiction under two labels: his "entertainments," the popular books such as Our Man in Havana, and his novels, the serious works such as The Quiet American.

So the question really is, Do some screenplays rise to the level of literature? And what is this "level" anyway? We cannot escape the question, What is literature?

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. The film industry is part of show business, not show "art," and in the entertainment field, the pressure to make money is considerable. Given this clear charge, who has time for the serious goals of literature? In fact, even in the publishing industry, in some circles "the literary novel" is a derogatory term meaning, "a book that won't sell." Some would say that we live in a time when literature in general is on the decline.

What is a Literary Screenplay?

Despite all this, a screenplay can be written in such a way that it demands inclusion under the umbrella of literature. There are movies, after all, that tell us much about the human condition -- even entertaining movies can do this. Rainman, when a self-centered young man learns he has a brother and grows from the revelation; Dead Poets Society, when a creative teacher touches a class of coming-of-age boys; Atlantic City, when an old second-rate hoodlum gets a second chance at criminal notoriety -- these films, and many others, are popular Hollywood movies that reach beyond entertainment, offering touching and universal themes of what it means to be human. They offer stories that present much more than mindless entertainment. They make us feel and make us think, even as we are entertained.

Screenplays can be written to be read aesthetically, even when delivering an entertaining story. They reflect a different set of literary rules than those of fiction, of course. In fact, screenwriting is closer to writing poetry with its emphasis on compression and minimalism. But look at the ending of Atlantic City, which is brilliant in its writing style and ability to evoke more than is on the surface:

INT. TROCADERO HOTEL - CORRIDOR - DAY

Grace, all dolled up in a mink coat and a hat, is quite apprehensive.

Grace walks down the corridor to Room 307. She rings the doorbell. Alfie opens the door. The card game is still going on in the room.

ALFIE
Yes? I think you have the wrong room.

Grace holds out the last bit of cocaine in the silver foil. Alfie's jaw drops.

GRACE
One thousand.
ALFIE
Why not?
He reaches into his pocket and hands her a thousand dollar bill. He shuts the door.

Grace turns and walks back up the corridor holding up the thousand dollar bill. Lou is standing at the other end of the corridor. He applauds her. She takes his arm. They leave.

EXT. BOARDWALK - DAY

Grace and Lou walk down the Boardwalk. She proudly holds his arm. Behind them, a wrecking ball strikes a building, preparing to demolish it. The building won't give.

The ball hits it again. The building won't give.

THE END

The surface simplicity of the writing here hides an extraordinary emotional statement -- and that is what good screenwriting, like good poetry, is about. The aesthetic is different from what makes literary fiction but it is still an aesthetic, it still has the ability, despite its rhetorical compression, to tell us much about our emotional lives.

Not all screenplays are literature, any more than all novels, but there is nothing about screenwriting that automatically makes it less than literature. Literature is rare, no matter what kind of writing we are talking about. John Guare's screenplay for Atlantic City has as much right to the title as the latest literary novel.

Yes, screenplays should be considered literature -- when they deserve to be.

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