Playwrights can easily become well known, even immortal. For example, Shakespeare and Molière remain iconic, centuries after their deaths. But that doesn’t seem to happen with writers of screenplays. With very few exceptions (notably Charlie Kaufman and William Goldman) films are not associated with their screenwriters.

Even when you think of masterful examples of screenwriting, such as “Casablanca” or “Bringing up Baby”, you probably don’t think of Julius and Philip Epstein or Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. If you are like most people, you probably haven’t ever even heard those names before. You are far more likely to have heard of those films’ directors — Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks, respectively.

It occurs to me that screenwriters are hidden from our view, because they are obscured by the single bright shiny object that resulted from their work. Because there is only one such object — the movie that was produced — we associate the result with the production itself, and therefore with the film’s director.

In contrast, there is no one production of “Hamlet”, but rather countless thousands of productions, down through the centuries. “Hamlet” stagings form a vast cloud of produced objects. And the only thing all of those objects have in common is Shakespeare’s play in written form.

The extreme mutability of a play, or any authored work that can lead to many different creative artifacts (other examples are songs and musical symphonies) — gives it the ability to achieve a kind of transcendent cultural power, amplified rather than obscured by its many interpreters.

2 thoughts on “Authorship”

  1. You make a very interesting point but I can’t resist pointing out that Casablanca’s script emerged from a cloud of authorship typical of the Hollywood studio development process. The Epsteins and Howard Koch were the credited but far from only writers on the project.

    Also, the Epstein brothers, for their part, despised the movie. One of them (can’t remember which) thought the whole enterprise was phony and in particular hated that they had to make up nonsense like “letters of transit” to make the plot work.

    BTW, Wm. Goldman’s scripts are a wonder to behold. His ability to capture a film on paper is without parallel (check out Unlike Charlie Kaufman, however, the resulting films lack a cohesive authorial voice.

    To put it another way, Goldman is a professional screenwriter while Kaufman (whose movies I love) is a professional Charlie Kaufman writer.

  2. Well then, wouldn’t it be cool if they didn’t need to sell their screenplays? If they were able to license different productions of films, just as playwrights do while copyright lasts?

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