“Screenwriting Isn’t Writing” and Other Bullshit

downloadby Angela Guess

Richard Brody of the New Yorker published an article this week under the inhospitable title, “Screenwriting Isn’t Writing.” The article discusses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unsuccessful bout as a screenwriter, purporting:

Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood was a period of illusion, of delusion over all. Much to his credit and much to his misfortune, he was unable to sell out. He didn’t condescend to the movies, but took them seriously—so seriously that he made the mistake of thinking that screenwriting was writing, and that it could take its place in his oeuvre, which, in turn, would mark the cinema with his original artistry.

Evidently, Mr. Brody shares “notes on the cinema” with New Yorker readers, which I find surprising because the man seems to have absolutely no respect for film as an art form, and particularly low regard for screenwriters.

Are there screenwriters who write bad scripts? Absolutely. Are there screenwriters who take writing jobs that they detest because they need to make a buck or pay their dues? Of course.

Mr. Brody, are you trying to say that amidst the sea of bad scripts, there aren’t ANY that you think are worthy of the title “art”? No, screenwriting isn’t novel writing. Screenwriting isn’t literature. Screenwriting is screenwriting. It’s an essential piece of a collaborative form of art and entertainment that has brought joy, insight, growth, laughter, tears, and a sense of communal experience to the majority of people around the world for over a hundred years. Is that not a pursuit worthy of a great writer?

You would almost certainly argue that the best novels stand on a higher plain than the best scripts. I can’t argue with that, because novels are completed works meant to stand on their own (unlike scripts). But can you really argue that novels in general are superior to film? Or that novelists are superior writers? Or that novelists do not also “sell out”? It only takes a glance around a book store to see that a lot of terrible novels get published. The only difference between a bad novel and a bad film is that less people are aware of the bad novel.

Ahh, I feel better. Readers, please add your thoughts in the comments.

7 thoughts on ““Screenwriting Isn’t Writing” and Other Bullshit

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  1. Angela, I agree that screenwriting is an art. I feel it’s not as complicated as writing a novel, but it’s still work, if not more work. Screenwriters have to research for a long time just to make sure we have our ” fiction-facts” straight. I don’t agree with Richard Brody’s approach. Some people wouldn’t dare go near screenwriting because of the work that goes into it.

  2. Screenwriting may actually be more complicated than novel writing. You have to do so much more with your words to convey characterization, motivation, action, dialogue and story than you do in a novel, where you have hundreds of pages to play with. All of that has to translate into a readable script that can move people to pick it up and try to capture it on film.

    And yes, you can read numerous scripts on their own to enjoy the words and story the writers put forth without having to see the film version, where so many bad things can happen. Read the script of Nebraska if you don’t believe me, then tell me that you didn’t laugh out loud and thoroughly enjoy the characters written on the page. That’s writing. That’s powerful. Without a script, there is no movie. It’s the blueprint. And it’s written.

    Not every novelist makes a good screenwriter, and vice versa. But it’s most definitely writing and a form of writing that should be respected, not dissed because one great novelist didn’t cut it as a screenwriter.

  3. Ah, where do I begin… I guess with the recognition that we, as screenwriters are perhaps more aware of than many novelists – it’s all about emotion. His comments clearly didn’t come from intellect or thoughtfulness, but just from his emotional reaction to something that has nothing to do with screenwriting – frustrated wannabe novelist perhaps? Interesting and contradictory that this same Richard Brody wrote a book (Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Goddard) confirming the artistry of a well-known film maker – frustrated wannabe film maker perhaps?

    In any case, saying that screenwriting is not an art form compared to novel writing is like saying Haiku is not an art form compared to poetry. Screenwriting aims to evoke the same emotions as a novel, in a fraction of the space, with far more constraints on form. The constraints of screenwriting are one of the things that attract me most to it as an art form and what requires me to continually improve my craft. If I want to say more or evoke stronger emotions in a screenplay I have to find a new way to say it, instead of just writing more words or adding another subplot. The same can’t necessarily be said of a novel. And trying to replace the pleasure and craft of a good, long novel with a screenplay would be a crime. Each art form should be recognized and respected on its own.

    Those who look down on any art form or claim any art form is “higher” than another aren’t speaking from education or information (and definitely not from experience) – they’re just speaking from ego. It’s like a barely practicing member of a particular religion claiming that extremely devout people of another religion are doomed to hell because they don’t believe “the one true right and only way.” Please leave your dogma at the door – art is intended to expand minds, not shut them down.

    So I wouldn’t take it at face value – he appears to just be expressing his own fears or frustrations by looking down on someone else. Sad…especially since, like many religious haters he has a soap box to spew his vitriol on others. But grade school behavior is, unfortunately, the way of the world.

  4. Brody’s meandering piece is about Fitzgerald, not screenwriting. Brody says FSF thought screenwriting was “writing,” whatever that means. Five lines later, he quotes Schulberg as saying it was a “new art form,” so obviously screenwriting isn’t just “writing.” As a new art form, it’s a lot more than that. It’s an intricate, multidimensional blueprint for the final art-form, the film. In my opinion, it’s far more difficult than a novel.

    Screenwriting is like tennis: there are a bunch of things you need to do, all at the same time, every time. Every line, scene, sequence, and act of a screenplay has to have the same balanced, nuanced, coherent, visually-oriented approach. If FSF was unable to create in this medium, his failure could have been driven by a number of factors besides a putative inability to balance literary considerations with cinematic priorities. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, and I don’t think we need look any further than that to explain the mystery.

  5. Also as a working screenwriter, I find Mr. Brody’s comments pure bullshit. I bet he tried screenwriting and failed. So is the corollary to his argument that magazine writing is “real” writing?

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