Reading the Movie: A Literary Appreciation for Screenplays
I believe there are two types of people in the world: those who would rather see the movie and those who would rather read the book. Many of us could fall into one of these categories. In my own family, I was always the “see the movie” person while other relatives would more often read the book.
But what if you could be both? What if you could read the movie?
Screenplays allow you to do exactly that, and with their ready availability, it’s easy to get into them.
I myself started exploring screenplays as part of a university independent study and have since found reading them a worthwhile literary hobby.
The Rise in Popularity
Barbara Korte and Ralf Schneider, in their article “The Published Screenplay — A New ‘Literary’ Genre?”, discussed the rise in popularity of reading screenplays.
The screenplay, in its original function, is meant to be a blueprint for film and television. In other words, it's a medium made to be turned into another medium. But as film appreciation has increased, so has appreciation for screenplays. Furthermore, established and respected writers have lent their talents to screenplays, lending authority to the medium’s literary capabilities.
The article illustrates how screenplays were originally published as a novelty for fans of a film. In many cases, there are differences between the screenplay and the finished product, often naturally occurring with changes in production needs and directorial decisions. In some cases of published screenplays, attempts are made to make the script as close to the finished film as possible. In the case of Casablanca, for example, this would have been a necessity as scenes were still being written up to the last day of production.
What Makes Them Worth Reading
Whether you’re a reader or a film buff, there are multiple reasons why reading screenplays is worth picking up as a hobby.
They make for good easy reading!
If you enjoy reading, but often struggle to find time to do so, screenplays are one thing to consider. The general rule of thumb for screenplays is that one page equals one minute of screen-time, so scripts for feature-length films can run about 110-120 pages. And, considering that screenplay formatting means there will often be a lot of white space on the pages, it’s easy to breeze through a script in a relatively short amount of time.
They’re the modern stage plays!
To those of you who may still question the literary merit of a screenplay, let me say this: a screenplay is simply the modern equivalent of a stage play. And think of how many stage plays are often studied in schools or read for literary enjoyment. Shakespeare, of course, is the obvious, the quintessential playwright whom I’m sure most of us in the English-speaking world have had to study at least once in our academic careers.
Throughout my own studies, I’ve also read plays such as Our Town by Thornton Wilder, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, and Antigone by Sophocles.
So, if stage plays can find literary merit, why not screenplays?
They have the literary essentials!
Screenplays require the essentials of any literary work: dialogue, action, visual descriptions, character development, etc. They have to; a screenwriter can’t hand a bare-bones outline to a producer and expect them to fill in the blanks.
And the best screenplays go all out, spelling things out in picturesque detail.
It’s simply a matter of formatting. When you think about it, a great screenplay is simply a great novel that has already been formatted for screen adaptation.
You can explore the differences!
It can be fun, when reading a script for a film or show that you have seen, to explore the differences and see what changes were made in production. Sometimes scenes are dropped or changed, dialogue added or removed, or other elements dropped or added.
When I read the screenplay for the pilot episode of the FOX drama Prodigal Son and then watched the episode, I realized, among other changes, that a recurring element of Malcolm Bright doing origami with candy wrappers was dropped.
In some cases, reading the scripts can help answer questions you may have about certain scenes. The screenplay for Darkest Hour pretty much confirmed a suspicion I had that the line “Well, you have to start somewhere,” being delivered by both Winston and Eden in unison, was most likely unintentional, but the actors handled it so naturally that it stayed in the film.
Not all screenplays get produced!
It goes without saying that not all screenplays make it to production; I would go as far as saying that most screenplays never make to production. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the scripts are bad. Keep in mind, producing a film is a financially driven endeavor. When a producer chooses to invest in a film, they are taking a risk.
Now in some cases, for one reason or another, the risk may not appear worth it. A sequel to a film that failed at the box office, for example, would likely be doomed to remain a screenplay, no matter how good it may be.
And sometimes, the script simply ends up trapped in development limbo.
In addition to the literary merit as previously discussed, reading un-adapted scripts is a great way to explore what might have been, visualizing the TV shows and movies that never were.
In the course of my independent study, I explored several un-adapted scripts, including screenplays for Voltron and Grayskull (based on He-Man), and teleplays for shows focused on Bruce Wayne and Cleopatra. I enjoyed each of these scripts and am sorry they did not make it to production.
The way I see it is, for producers reviewing oodles of scripts trying to decide where to drop their dough, a screenplay has to be more than just a mere blueprint. To be enough for the directors to produce a good film and for the actors to give a good performance, the text has to have artistic quality, and that quality, I believe, is capable of being recognized and enjoyed even by casual readers.
You don’t have to understand the mechanics of screenplays to be able to enjoy reading them, although it helps if you do. And if you don’t, what better way to learn about them than by reading screenplays?
There are plenty of screenplay books available for purchase. You can also check out the wealth of screenplays available to read online for free at sites such as ScriptSlug.com.
Korte, Barbara, and Ralf Schneider. “The Published Screenplay — A New ‘Literary’ Genre?” AAA: Arbeiten Aus Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, vol. 25, no. 1, 2000, pp. 89–105. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43023768.