Print this Page

2.2. privilege of permanence

. . . the screenplay represents a literature in flux.” — Claudia Sternberg1

2.2.1. Overview.

William Goldman introduces his script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, noting that, “There are so many versions of a screenplay, it’s difficult to know which one might be most beneficial for reprinting.”2 The fact that finality eludes us — that it is nearly impossible to identify a most authoritative text — is one of the great frustrations of screenplay studies. Scholarship tends to privilege permanence. This goes some way to explaining why playscripts are studied as literature while screenplays are not. While both the playscript and screenplay point away from themselves to a performed rendering, the playscript is more permanent than the performance, which is ephemeral and unrepeatable. The performed rendering of a screenplay, however, is a motion picture, and in theory the film is both final and permanent.

The privileging of permanence has been one of the most successful weapons used in the case against the screenplay as a literary text. Here we will explore several facets of this problem to see whether the screenplay can overcome it.

Page Topics:

2.2.2. Literature in Flux. [Back to Page Topics]

“Several factors make the screenplay a difficult object for literary study,” writes Kevin Alexander Boon. “For one, screenplays usually pass through many hands and many revisions before reaching the screen. This results in a boggling number of versions, often by a number of different writers, some credited and some not.”3 James F. Boyle concurs:

There are various versions or rewriting patchworks done to a script after it leaves the hands of a writer. This sounds shocking to a playwright who has respect given to his language in the play script. In contrast, the screenwriter usually sells control of his script, giving the producer or studio legal permission to change it.”4

Boyle goes on to posit six model versions of the screenplay: (1) the Author’s Version, representing the work of the writer(s) before the script is sold (a spec script); (2) the Director or Producer’s Version, in which creatives changes are made to reflect a new vision for the feature film, often including more technical comment (a shooting script); (3) the Studio Version, in which further changes are made to appease the studio, finance the film, or attract a key player; (4) the Set Version, which takes into account changes to the shooting script that are improvised on set, such as a change in dialogue; (5) the Legal Version, in which the script is altered after post-production is complete to more closely resemble the final motion picture (a release script); and finally, (6) the Published Version, which often undergoes tremendous format changes in an attempt to make the script more readable.5

Goldman reflects back on several of these versions in his introduction to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

In the case of Butch, there were two early drafts, a third draft, which went to Hollywood and aroused a quick no-interest, and a further rewrite, which wasn’t all that different but which, thank God, almost everybody wanted. That was the version I began working on with George Roy Hill, the director. Which was different from what we went into rehearsal with. And rehearsal always brings further alterations. Then there were the changes mandated by being able to get this location or unable to secure that one. Finally, when the movie was shot, there was the version worked on by the editor and composer.”6

All of these observations set up Boon’s question, “Which is the authoritative text? Which should we study?”7 This fraught search for a final authoritative text is closely linked to academia’s obsession with the “canon.” If we cannot establish an authoritative text, how can that text be canonized — made immortal in our culture? If it cannot be canonized, some might argue, it cannot be literature.

Sternberg refutes this when she proposes a “theory of versions” for screenplay scholarship. “The legitimization and investigation of each version of a text appears more helpful in the analysis of screenplays than of prose or drama because it does the text-type (which is by nature multi-versioned) particular justice.”8 In other words, a theory of versions approach to screenplay studies values this inherent fluctuation as a trait distinctive to the art of screenwriting. This method, Sternberg argues, underscores the democratic nature of the text.

Boon likewise concurs with Sternberg that the status of the screenplay as a literature in flux needn’t impede critical investigation. “The numerous incarnations and transformations of a screenplay make the process of textual construction more obvious, but they do not roadblock analysis [. . .] Which version of a screenplay we examine depends on which version seems most suited to our examination.”9

2.2.3. Intermediate Art Form. [Back to Page Topics]

A more incisive weapon against the screenplay as literature is its intermediate nature. As some have argued, “the film scenario is entirely ‘burnt up’ in the production process,”10 a process in which the screenplay dies that a film might live. The script is a “structure that wants to be another structure,” as Pasolini has said.11 Those that hold this view argue that screenplays aren’t meant to be read by outsiders. They’re but a rough draft; the final product is the motion picture.

One needn’t deny the intermediate nature of the script to respond to the criticism above. “Admitting that a screenplay is an intermediate form of art,” writes James F. Boyle, “it may be compared to a sketch that a sculptor makes while designing a bronze statue. [. . .] Both the charcoal sketch [. . .] and the typist’s ink [. . .] are stop-gaps. But consider that the sculptor might be Picasso or DaVinci or Michelangelo.”12

Today museums and university archives regularly clamor for early drafts of literary masterpieces. Perhaps as a product of the post-modern turn, the “authoritative text” has lost its sheen. Even if it is true that “A screenplay is an imperfect reflection of the film,” reading the thing sheds invaluable light on the process of motion picture conception.13 In that respect, the intermediate nature of the script may be viewed as a strength — the trait that defines it as valuable.

Having said that, no lesser film theorist than Béla Balázs has rejected the argument that the screenplay’s artfulness is merely intermediate:

The present-day script is not an unfinished sketch, not a ground-plan, not a mere outline of a work of art, but a complete work of art in itself. The script can present reality, give an independent, intelligible picture of reality like any other form of art. True, the script puts on paper scene and dialogues which later are to be turned into a film; but so does the drama put on paper the stage performance. And yet the latter is regarded as a literary form superior to the former.”14

Indeed, writer/director Jason Reitman has put lie to the notion that the screenplay is “burnt up” in production by staging a series of critically acclaimed live readings of notable screenplays. In 2011, Reitman recast such iconic scripts as John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride for his sold-out script series.15 Clearly, screenplays can have artistic life beyond the big screen.

2.2.4. The Myth of the Permanent Film. [Back to Page Topics]

“While literary text substrata in theater and film serve the same function, they differ in the finality granted to the dramatic text and film projection and not to the screenplay text and the dramatic performance.”16 This finality granted to the motion picture begs the question: are motion pictures permanent? We can immediately think of many situations where the answer is less than clear.

First, we must consider what we define as the film. A painting hanging in a gallery is not the same thing as a reprint of the same painting in a book. If one sees a picture of the Mona Lisa, he or she does not claim to have seen the painting itself. The identity of the painting is tied to the specific object. A novel, on the other hand, may be reprinted many times, and its identity is shared across all copies, as long as they resemble the original. What about motion pictures? If a film is intended to be screened in a theatrical experience, is it the same work if viewed at home on a television, on a laptop computer, or a cellular phone? Director David Lynch would argue not: “Now, if you’re playing the movie on a telephone you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you’ll have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real!”17

There’s a fair argument to be made that for most motion pictures, only a theatrical viewing of the film is equal to seeing the Mona Lisa in person. Home video and online streaming views offer only reproductions, akin to seeing a picture of the Mona Lisa in a book. Taking this view, the true experience of the film is nearly as elusive as a live performance of most plays.

On a less philosophical level, we can list a number of common instances in which the permanence of a given film has been destabilized:

  1. Instances in which an original cut has been lost and current versions are reconstructions (e.g. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).
  2. Instances in which black and white films were later colorized.
  3. Instances in which films have been edited for television (either to censor content or to make room for commercials).
  4. Instances in which films have had their formats altered for television (e.g. a wide screen film converted to pan-and-scan).
  5. Instances in which an initial studio cut is contradicted by the later release of a revised director’s cut (or multiple director’s cuts, as with Blade Runner).
  6. Instances in which deleted scenes are included as special features on a DVD (in this case, the film itself is not altered, but the inclusion of paratextual material potentially alters the viewer’s perception of the primary narrative).
  7. Instances in which a special edition is released to update “antiquated” effects sequences (e.g. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the original Star Wars trilogy).
  8. Instances in which a director has endlessly tinkered with and made subsequent revisionist claims about the intentions of his final cut (notably, Han shoots first in the revised fourth draft of Star Wars, dated March 14, 1976).
  9. Special cases, such as the re-release of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, recut in chronological order, as the television miniseries The Godfather Saga.

In each of these cases, the concept of an “authoritative text” is called into question, and in some cases (such as instances of #1), the screenplay may prove an invaluable resource for comparison. George Lucas has dramatically altered his Star Wars trilogy and maintains that the most recent editions are the final, correct versions, but many fans refute this and prefer the originals. In this situation, no particular cut of Star Wars appears to enjoy any greater permanence than the screenplay. (Indeed, fans need only turn to page 51 of the shooting script to prove that, yes, Han shot first.18) There is a point at which no one continues to alter a screenplay, but this does not appear to be the case with motion pictures. The potential for alteration never seems to die.

2.2.5. A Path Forward. [Back to Page Topics]

The privileging of permanence is arbitrary and often fanciful. Authoritative texts make a scholar’s work easier, but they do not necessarily reflect truth or improve scholarship. The multi-versioned, intermediate screenplay offers rich ground for critical study. In some cases, one particular draft will best serve a scholar’s purpose. In other cases, a comparison between versions may be more fruitful. In cases in which a motion picture has gone through significant revisions, a comparison against the screenplay may offer clarity. Whatever methodology is chosen, this unique aspect of the screenplay text should be viewed as an invitation, not a road block.

2.2.6. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Privilege of Permanence
  • Literature in Flux
  • Author’s Version
  • Spec Script
  • Director or Producer’s Version
  • Shooting Script
  • Studio Version
  • Legal Version
  • Release Script
  • Published Version
  • Authoritative Text
  • Canon
  • Theory of Versions
  • Intermediate Art Form

Questions:

  • Why do many scholars privilege permanence and seek “authoritative” texts?
  • Why does the privilege of permanence pose problems for the study of screenplays?
  • Why might screenplays be considered a literature in flux?
  • Why is the concept of permanence itself problematic, particularly where motion pictures are concerned?
  • What does a “theory of versions” entail?
  • Do you consider the screenplay to be intermediate, and if so, does its intermediate nature reduce its value as art?
  • Why is the stageplay more valued than the screenplay?

2.2.7. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 28.
  2. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 292.
  3. Boon, Kevin Alexander. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pg. 40.
  4. Cole Jr., Hillis R. and Haag, Judith H. The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats. North Hollywood: CMC Publishing, 2000. Pg. ix.
  5. Cole Jr., Hillis R. and Haag, Judith H. The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats. North Hollywood: CMC Publishing, 2000. Pgs. ix-x.
  6. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 292.
  7. Boon, Kevin Alexander. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pg. 41.
  8. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 39.
  9. Boon, Kevin Alexander. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pg. 41.
  10. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 58.
  11. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 50.
  12. Cole Jr., Hillis R. and Haag, Judith H. The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats. North Hollywood: CMC Publishing, 2000. Pgs. i.
  13. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 292.
  14. Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. NY: Dover, 1970. Pg. 248.
  15. http://www.movieline.com/2011/11/18/notes-from-the-jason-reitman-directed-live-script-read-of-the-apartment/
  16. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 26.
  17. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKiIroiCvZ0
  18. Lucas, George. Star Wars: The Screenplay. Monterey Park, CA: O.S.P., 1994. Pg. 51.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.screenplayology.com/content-sections/paths-problems-in-screenplay-studies/2-2/

Leave a Reply