We laid a dear friend to rest this week. But his legacy is alive and well in the hearts of those who knew him. He instilled in us all a deep appreciation for the value of the printed word. Jim preached to any who would listen something to the effect: “Modern digital gadgetry can never replace an open book.”
I have a ton of books on shelves throughout my house. My office is cramped with loaded bookshelves. I can find the Kindle version of nearly all of them, but in no way would it be the same. When taking one of my books off the shelf and opening the front cover, the first thing one sees is a sticker beginning with, “This Book Belong To…” But why isn’t the same claim of ownership true of digital editions? Well, it’s not just the text that makes the book especially mine, its the margin notes; the underlines; highlights; and page references scribbled on the blank pages following the back matter. I open a text I purchased in 1973 and find notes scribbled everywhere that bring the volume to life once again. The thoughts that made the writing important to me at the time are revived decades later because they’re preserved in a printed book.
I’m looking at a book now that I once thought would make a great screen adaptation. I still think it would. But what were the ideas that surfaced as I read the book years ago? Open the book, and there they are—notes preserved through the years. Just waiting to be discovered again.
So now I’ll specifically address the screenplay genre. What is sometimes overlooked is that we’re not just writing movies between FADE IN and FADE OUT, we’re writing a literary piece that stands on its own merit. This is why we pay close attention to grammar, construction, spelling and the like. Of course we take shortcuts and write incomplete sentences. Sure we write concisely with exacting precision. But that’s what separates this genre of literature from all the rest.
I had aspirations of being a novelist earlier on. I made several submissions, receiving, in return, nibbles with less conviction than minnows around an empty hook. I came to the conclusion that something was missing. I needed to sharpen my writing skills. So I started attending the writing workshops. It happened at a workshop at Arizona State. A reader told me point blank, “You’re writing screenplays, not novels.” There it was and that led me down a less traveled road that I have not regretted. It’s kinda like the story of the Ugly Duckling. The little creature wasn’t an ugly duckling at all, but a displaced swan. Among its own kind it was ugly no more.
So, screenplays are a genre of literature that read like none other. I recently read a screenplay by one of my moviemaking heroes, Yasujiro Ozu. The play is “Tokyo Story” which he wrote with Kogo Noda. The movie he directed is brilliant. It is, of course, subtitled and that gets in the way just a tad. When looking away from the screen one risks missing an important piece of dialogue. The published screenplay fills in the blanks and is a book on the bookshelf that matches any other great piece of literature.
The same holds true for a volume by Mike Leigh containing Naked and other screenplays. I’ve seen his movies, but reading the plays brings as much pleasure as Melville or Joyce.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone remark about a movie, “It wasn’t like the book at all,” or “I enjoyed the book much more.” There’s a reason for that. Being spoon fed on the big screen is entertaining, but seldom wholly satisfying. Words in a good book, however, suck the imaginative juices out of the very marrow of one’s soul. I’m looking at an example right now. Raintree County. Listen to this:
“I didn’t exist before or after. I exist always. It’s a riddle of Time. Time was when Time was not. Man doesn’t live in Time, but Time in man, eternal conjugator of the verb To Be.”
I read that while in “the field” with my Army unit. I got to that paragraph and had to close the book and think. I thought about it while riding in a jeep over rough terrain. I thought about it while shoveling down C Rations. I thought about it as I stood on guard duty in the middle of the night. I thought about it when snuggled in my sleeping bag. It wasn’t until our convoy wound its way back to the base that I finally, somewhat feebly, understood Lockridge’s words. No movie has ever plunged into the depths my my mind in that way. Certainly not the 1957 film by the same name starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. That’s the power of the written word. It accesses all of the senses.
While reading Ernie Pyle I can actually smell the gun smoke and feel the roar of the Howitzer.
As we write a screenplay, we are contributing to an endless body of literature that never dies. The only electronic gear one needs to enjoy a good book is a reading lamp. With a bound screenplay in hand, one can read a scene, then stop, digest it, read it again, and make notes in the margin. Try that with a DVD.
Of course we must conserve words and nix the flowery descriptions to eliminate wasted space. But the genius of our genre is that we write tight without sacrificing story. An able screenwriter writes on a page that which would perhaps take a whole chapter in a novel. And, by the way, it’s perfectly O.K. to wax eloquent now and then.
Here’s a snippet from scene 108 on the printed page of Ghost World by Clowes and Zwigoff.
“She continues walking. The sun has set and there is a calm stillness to the city. She turns a corner and is startled by her reflection in a large window made of one-way glass. She stops and looks at herself. Everything about her looks perfect for once. No need to change a thing.”
Now, in the context of what’s gone before, that’s a literary jewel. That’s the power of the written word. Try as she might, a director is hard pressed to capture with the camera that which the mind captures from the page.
Nothing can replace the written word, and you, dear writer, though you write for a visual medium, have the grand opportunity to contribute to the body of literature stories that pass on from generation to generation; stories that in time may well fall in among the classics listed on a College sophomore’s reading list.