Here is a simple question: why is it so hard to understand that film directors are not responsible for the plot of their works? Unless, that is, they have also written the script. Actually, there is a second question: why is so easy to ignore the source when a film adaptation is reviewed?
My irritation is prompted in particular by the reviews of Arrival, a film recently released, directed by Denis Villeneuve. I have not seen Arrival yet and I can’t judge its quality (IMDB spectators seem divided into those who call it superb and those who call it superbly boring). What really baffles me is that among the flurry of enthusiastic reviews, coming from film festivals and preceding Arrival’s release, nobody had paid attention to the fact that this is a film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short fiction piece ‘Story of Your Life’. I only found out when checking the IMDB information.
Why’s this important? Very simple: Villeneuve has been hailed as the great renewer of science-fiction cinema when, actually, the merit corresponds mostly to Chiang, the author of the story which the film narrates. As any SF reader knows, Ted Chiang is the best short story writer operating today–most likely in any genre. Is he getting the credit he deserves for having imagined the inventive plot in Arrival? Not at all… all merit is attributed to Villeneuve. Eric Heisserer, the actual screenplay writer, and, thus, Chiang’s adapter for better or for worse, is never even mentioned in the reviews.
The ignorance of how important writing is for cinema is simply appalling. If screenwriters disappeared from Earth, film directors would have no stories to tell and the industry that employs them would grind to a halt (see the film Trumbo, please). The boisterous, haphazard blockbusters which Hollywood is currently perpetrating often appear to lack a screenplay but if you pay attention to the credits (as you must!), the problem is that they often employ four or five screenwriters whose authority is again and again denied, resulting in the onscreen mess. The finest films are, needless to say, the product of fine writing, whether original or adapted from other sources. Obviously, not all writers are the exquisite Ted Chiang and, yes, there are countless examples of scripts that improve the original source. This happens, however, because a screenwriter has produced an excellent script, and not at all the (sole) merit of the director.
For the reader to understand how pathetic the way we neglect screenwriting is, just consider the following: would you attribute to a stage director the merit that the playwright deserves? You might praise a stage director for making the best of a play, or chastise him/her for spoiling it. In the end, however, the one who is applauded or booed is the playwright. It is often said that if he were alive today, Shakespeare would be a screenwriter, which is an apt way of highlighting that he worked for a commercial theatre system not too different from the Hollywood film industry. What the comparison often overlooks is that whereas we venerate Shakespeare, not even those who love films can name their favourite screenwriter (I know I can’t). There is very little sense in this, for both playwrights and screenwriters write texts based on dialogue to be performed by actors (Martin Esslin has made the point that all is drama). So, why do we persist in neglecting screenwriting as one of the arts of writing?
Another film released recently may change all this misperception–or not, we’ll see. I’m talking about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, borrowing the term from Andrezj Sapkowski, can be called a ‘sidequel’ of the Harry Potter saga. As you may know, the film’s title is also that of the magizoology textbook which Harry and friends are required to read at Hogwarts. Rowling did write the volume (penned by one Newt Scamander intradiagetically in the series) in 2001 to aid the Comic Relief charity. She eventually decided to turn Newt, who is active in the 1920s–that is to say, 70 years before Harry’s ordeal begins–into the protagonist of a new five-film series, which she is herself scripting. Since Potterheads will buy anything she touches, her published screenplay has already become a best-selling volume. This is mystifying many, who see no need to buy a screenplay when you can see the actual film.
Rowling already pulled this year the trick of turning a play she hadn’t even written (it was the brainchild of John Thorne, basic plot included) into a best-selling book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Surely, many who bought the play had already seen it or expected to see it; after all, we’re all used to reading plays and they are perfectly accepted as literary texts. Screenplays are much harder to sell but they are indeed in particular cases published as books. I wrote my MA dissertation on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant Woman (the film was directed in 1981 by Karel Reisz) and I still keep the complete collection of all his screenplays. These include the ones made into films and the ones that were never filmed, just as plays need not be staged to be published. Back to Rowling, the colossal sales of her screenplay (in comparison to any other similar text) may hopefully teach the younger generations that films require someone to write them. I doubt very much that reviewers will bypass Rowling’s script, or attribute the film’s merits to director David Yates rather than to her.
Rowling, by the way, did not adapt the Harry Potter series for the film screen. I’m sure many fans can name the directors that contributed to the series’ overwhelming world-wide success (Chris Columbus, David Yates, Mike Newell, even Alfonso Cuarón). Who, however, can name the adapters, the persons who actually wrote the films? There were two: Steve Kloves (all films except Order of the Phoenix) and Michael Goldenberg (Order…). Rowling collaborated with Kloves and Goldenberg in what appears to have been a fruitful relationship, which is not always the case (most writers prefers not to interfere with the adaptation process). Apparently, this is how she learned the tools of the trade now enabling her to present herself as a screenwriter.
Returning to my initial question, there is more or less a general consensus that the reason why film reviewers and, generally speaking, audiences fail to understand the task of the screenwriter (and what adaptation entails) is the faulty pedagogy spread by Cahiers du Cinema. This prestige French magazine, founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, is still active. Its impressive list of writers includes Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, all major contributors to film criticism and theory. As you may imagine, being themselves film directors, these gentlemen were very much interested in attributing authorship to this figure. In this way they disseminated the very wrong view that a) films are a personal work, rather than the product of team collaboration; b) the director is sole responsible for film content, as if films did not originate in many cases in producers’ ideas and as if they did not depend on a script. This flawed view seeped down to all prestige film magazines all over the world and to academic teaching and research on film, with the results I’m complaining about.
What is surprising is that we have been reviewing films already for 50 years following these basic lines with no resistance whatsoever. I don’t see screenwriters complaining, perhaps because they have been taught that their reward is a) having their work filmed, b) being paid for it. I used to read the magazine Creative Screenwriting and be always amazed at how many unfilmed scripts there are and how deep is the abuse screenwriters suffer, to the point that they totally undervalue what they do. Published authors do now and then bemoan the poor treatment their beloved texts receive in the hands of unscrupulous screenwriters, directors and producers, yet many seem to have learned the lesson to just cash the cheque and keep silent. Nevertheless, please remember that writers of adapted works are not honoured by any film awards, which I find somehow odd. We would not have, say, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler without Margaret Mitchell–Sydney Howard may have written an excellent script and Victor Fleming done his best as film director, but Mitchell wrote the engaging, wilful pair into existence. If they matter so much for film history, this is because she wrote a novel.
Now read Ted Chiang, please, please, please…
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