I would like to make an argument here for the screenplay as an art form unto itself—in fact, a form of literature.
First of all, why not? Theater plays are published and studied as works of art. Theater as a form of entertainment had been around for over 2,000 years by the time Shakespeare came along. And it was considered a pretty disposable art form. You went to a play on a Friday night, had the experience of seeing it, and then went back to serving mead in a tavern or running a stable or whatever else people did with their working hours for thousands of years before Angry Birds was invented for the iPhone.
Then in 1623, John Heminges and Henry Condell collected and published a book of the texts of Shakespeare’s play. Voila! Theater became an artform that people could study and discuss in pointless textual arguments in coffeehouses.
My second argument would be this: if Bob Dylan can—deservedly—win a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing popular songs, why not a Nobel Prize in Literature for screenwriters? If Dario Fo, an Italian comedian, playwright, and songwriter, can win the Nobel Prize in Literature, why not a screenwriter?
Let’s first take a look at Kaufman. For pure imaginative breadth of work, it’s hard to top Charlie Kaufman. His screenplays are always strikingly inventive and create worlds unto themselves.
Astonishing. That’s the word. This movie is just simply astonishing. Kaufman tells the story of an alienated and lonely public speaker (customer service expert) who inhabits a world where everyone looks exactly the same, until one day he meets a woman and suddenly the world seems new and vibrant and complicated and alive. And then it all goes away. This story is told with stop animation and felt puppets. That might seem silly, but it’s incredibly moving.
Already considered one of the best films of the 21st century, this gem blends a number of genres, including romantic comedy, melodrama, sci-fi, and thriller. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play a former couple who have erased each other from their minds, and then start dating again. Kaufman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this masterpiece.
Kaufman’s feature debut (along with the feature debut for Director Spike Jonze), the great mystery of this movie is how it ever got made. It’s fantastic, of course, but having been in a number of studio executives’ offices in pitch meetings, I cannot imagine how this ever got sold. The pitch: an unemployed puppeteer discovers a portal into the mind of the actor John Malkovich for fifteen minutes at a time. Somehow, someone was convinced this would make a good movie. And they were right! It’s quite amusing and John Cusack and Cameron Diaz are just great as the puppeteer and his pet-obsessed wife.
The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, split the credits on “directed by” and “produced by” but almost always share the “written by” credit. My theory on this has always been that for them, the screenplay is the most meaningful credit and the one that they share because their films are clearly such collaborative works. That’s what I tell myself as a writer, anyway.
Here are what I consider their three finest screenplays:
A completely absurdist comedy about a botched kidnapping of the quintuplets of an Arizona furniture magnate, Nathan Arizona. This movie has one of the funniest chase scenes in film, when Nicolas Cage robs a convenience store for diapers and ends up running through houses and yards in a neighborhood, chased by the police and a growing army of dogs. Plus, the film also has this magnificent line: “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Holly Hunter is wonderful as Cage’s wife.
Another botched kidnapping tale, this one far more violent but featuring a couple of the most memorable characters in recent American film: Deputy Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). A gripping story of desperation and failure matched against determination and honesty. And really funny at the same time! This won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
This is, in my opinion, one of the best comedies ever made. Jeff Bridges is a Los Angeles slacker who gets mixed up in, yes, another botched kidnapping scheme. When it was released, the film was lightly regarded, but its stature has grown with each passing Lebowski Fest and each quotable line that pops up in our lives: “Say what you will about National Socialism, dude, at least it was an ethos,” or “That rug really held the room together,” or “That’s just like your opinion, man.” And on and on. The script, however, is more than just a collection of t-shirt-ready quotes. It’s a complex and dark tale, brilliantly told. John Goodman is marvelous as Walter Sobchak, a volatile Vietnam vet, as is the rest of the cast, especially Steve Buscemi.
Now all we have to do is have these screenplays by Kaufman or the Coens published in fancy book form, and analyzed in depth by academics. Hello, Hollywood? The Nobel Prize Committee is calling from Sweden. Or at least it should be.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.