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Canonical Truth or Pulp Fiction?

Tracing the Exclusion of the Screenplay

from the Literary Canon

by Gregory K. Allen

Copyright © 2001
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“The only link between Literature and Drama left to us in England at the
present moment is the bill of the play.”
- Oscar Wilde

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word literature as “[l]iterary

productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period,

or in the world in general. Now also, in a more restricted sense, applied to writing

which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect”

(Oxford English Dictionary 342). It is ironic that one must appeal to a literary form in

order to locate a definition for literature. But even so, the essence of literature expands

far beyond mere definition. The nature of literature – what it is and what it isn’t –

seems, at first, to be a simple enough investigation. However, no definitive conclusion

to such a query has ever been reached by scholars, and the debate has raged for

centuries – perhaps even millennia. While these literary scrappers have not always been

of English origin, the process of literary canonization, to a certain degree, propels itself

into the next generation as a sort of method by which a culture can decide what, as the

Oxford dictionary puts it “has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form”

(Oxford English Dictionary 342).

Yet, somehow the process of literary canonization has moved beyond Oxford’s

all too clear and succinct definition. The question of the age no longer remains what is

literature, but rather, what is good literature. The literary concerns of the moment

sidestep the quantitative, the literal, and the textual; to embrace the qualitative, the

ethereal, and the subjective means by which one text is celebrated as a classic, and

another is merely forgotten. This forgotten text lingers only momentarily for critics to be

scorned and reduced to nothing, and like the foamy excess of some prohibited juicy

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concoction, the word pulp becomes the name by which these works come to be known.

But there are far more consequences for the critic and reader alike than readily apparent

in the distinction between pulp texts and canonized literature. Even a perusal of the

history of the literary canon provides enough background for one to identify the

privileging and exclusion of certain texts and authors. An enormous amount of

scholarship has already documented this phenomenon, and a great deal more probably

could and should be undertaken by scholars. But it is not the exclusion of authors or

certain texts that this project is engaged in, but rather the exclusion of entire formats or

genres of literature. Given the vast array of texts that critics have placed in the literary

canon such as the epic, the poem, the short story, the novel, the stage play, etc., it

becomes problematic that the film is discussed more in terms of being “read” like

literature, than the screenplay. In fact, while film studies as a discipline has become

increasingly more pervasive in the academy over the past thirty years, little public

scholarship has been attributed to the study of the screenplay as a literary format or

genre in its own right.

Film scholars and critics have generally excluded the screenplay from the literary

canon. Most film scholars, when discussing film narrative or even the creative choices of

the screenwriter, only position their projects in relation to the film production itself, and

not back to the screenplay as a text. Dana Polan’s analysis of Pulp Fiction, as published

by the British Film Institute, is an enactment of this phenomenon, among others, and

whose implications will be discussed somewhat more fully later. But that the literary

establishment has positioned the classic American screenplay against other more

traditional forms of literature, and that Hollywood has empowered and even

encouraged academia to do so, remains indisputable. The crisis and contradiction

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involved in a canonization that includes the dramatic script for stage, while

simultaneously excluding the dramatic script for cinema, based on reasons that initially

seem to relate to technology, but prove contradictory upon further interrogation must be

exposed for what it is – a prime example of how marketability and capitalistic concerns

inform and co-opt literary taste, and thus, the literary canon, above and beyond even the

traditional notions of aesthetics. If the literary canon is to remain a reliable “body of

writings [. . .] which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form,” the

literary canon must include the screenplay (Oxford English Dictionary 342). If it does not,

while allowing the stage play and even the film to remain, without at least some sort of

explanation, not only do literary critics become inconsistent in their judgment, but the

canon itself becomes jeopardized by intellectual hypocrisy. Double jeopardy ensues if

the screenplay can be proven to accomplish the same literary ends as the epic, the short

story, the novel, or the stage play to an equal or even to a greater degree of aesthetic


All of these formats as aesthetic productions exist in similar fashions as words on

paper produced by one or more authors by the time they are canonized. The screenplay

exists as words on paper created by one or more author, as well, but as a format, the

screenplay has yet to receive canonical attention. Certainly, the screenplay is an

aesthetic production. But, as a genre of text with all of its similar characteristics to the

novel, the short story, the stage play, and even the epic poem, the screenplay still has

been marginalized by both filmmakers and critics. This marginal positioning is not the

result of some sort of elitist cinematic prejudice, however, because even now, in certain

academic and critical circles, Film has already come to be regarded as Literature. David

Bordwell and Kristen Thompson observe in their textbook, Film Art: An Introduction:

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If you are listening closely to a song on a tape and the tape is abruptly

switched off, you are likely to feel frustrated. If you start reading a novel,

become engrossed in it, and then misplace the book, you will probably

feel the same way. Such feelings arise because our experience of artworks

is patterned and structured. The human mind craves form. For this

reason, form is of central importance in any artwork, regardless of its

medium. The entire study of the nature of artistic form is the province of

the aesthetician [. . .] But some ideas about aesthetic form are

indispensable in analyzing films (Bordwell and Thompson 41).

Countless commentaries have been published critiquing and analyzing films,

and while, on occasion, these commentaries might have included various drafts of the

film’s screenplay or shooting script, I have yet to encounter a critical work that engages

the screenplay independent of a cinematic production. Yet, when it comes to the stage

play, every sort of commentary imaginable has been produced, both in conjunction with,

and independent of theatrical production. For instance, when one studies a

Shakespearean play, it is virtually impossible to consider the text in light of any

particular production that the author himself might have had access to. Certainly, there

might be sixteenth-century notes of some sort referencing those in attendance, or a

performance date, or even a cast list, but the production itself would have since

dissipated in the memories of an audience long dead.

This difficulty recurs even when considering a specific performance of

Shakespeare’s Othello, for example. Let’s assume that two individuals wish to discuss a

staged performance of the Moor’s tragedy of jealousy, betrayal, and vengeance. Even in

light of contemporary theatrical production, unless this discussion is undertaken by two

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participants who have attended the exact same performance, dialogue regarding the

nuances of the production of Shakespeare’s play would be somewhat unattainable

because of the necessary variance from one theatrical performance to the next. In fact,

the only thing that would even identify this performance as authentically Shakespearean

to the two people would be the written text from which the performance was drawn.

But if our individuals were only interested in Shakespeare’s authentic text, and not the

possibilities of theater, they would merely purchase the published play from a

bookstore, and not subject themselves to someone else’s interpretation of the Bard’s

masterful, and fully-canonized text.

The relationship of a theater performance to the playwright’s text in terms of

aesthetic production is highly debatable, and the point in which the play ceases to

become authentic to the playwright in its yielding to the creative disposition of the stage

director is difficult to mark. Larry Gelbart, a Tony-Award winning playwright, an

Emmy-Award winning television writer, and a screenwriter, when asked to comment on

the differences between stage, television, and screen said this:

Probably the most satisfying is theater, because there your work is

considered yours and pretty much left alone. It’s a collaboration as the

other two are, of course, but there’s less of a presumption that everybody

knows better than you what you meant when you wrote the material. It’s

the first and probably the last refuge for the writer (Wolff & Cox 116).

Though a playwright may feel far more empowered behind the scenes of a stage

production of his or her own work versus being on the set of a film adaptation, as

Gelbart suggests, the marriage between the stage director and the playwright in terms of

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stage production still remains elusive at best since the Fences that can be attended at a

local high school may not necessarily be what August Wilson intended.

For this reason, it would seem that academics have privileged the text over the

production. As Walter Benjamin argues, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all

that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its

testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin 221). By this reasoning,

the academy in a Benjamin-like manner handles the stage text as if it more fully

transmits the authentic playwright. Though the published play may have been

mechanically reproduced by a printing press, or even a photo copy machine, it is almost

as if academics suppose that more of the theatrical “aura,” – to borrow a term from

Benjamin – resides in a copy of a stage text that is precisely transcribed and accessible in

written form than what could possibly reside in any such performance that may be

inspired by the text. This is not to say that critics would not consider a handwritten

manuscript of Measure for Measure by Shakespeare more valuable than an edition

published by Penguin Books; but it is to say that, in terms of literary merit, it is quite

possible that the two texts would be rendered of equal worth to the literary community

with one maintaining greater value only in terms of “duration to its testimony to the

history which it has experienced” (Benjamin 221). Since the study of literature tends not

to be based on a student’s access to original texts solely, but rather access to words and

ideas of authors, even if conveyed by translation, the historical testimony of original

texts has often been de-emphasized in favor of a more careful consideration of the

aesthetic merit that even a facsimile, like a printed paperback, can retain. Benjamin

complicates his argument by stating, “Since the historical testimony rests on the

authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration

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ceases to matter” (Benjamin 221). In this particular instance, the former refers to “the

essence of all that is transmissible from [a work of art’s] beginning” (Benjamin 221).

Since “substantive duration” or the amount of time that a text has been around does not

seem to matter to a canon that can produce literary criticism of Lorraine Hansberry’s A

Raisin in the Sun just as readily as for an Aristophanes trilogy, there must be some sort of

unbroken connection with the author’s own words that canonization is invested in. In

this respect, the Shakespeare of the text is more authentic than the Shakespeare of

today’s stage. Perhaps the sixteenth-century’s stage could have offered the most

authentic Shakespeare yet, but a lack of mechanical reproduction of those performances

prevents the access to determine whether or not this could be so. Besides, the difficulties

that contemporary playwrights encounter on today’s stage, even in the age of

mechanical reproduction, reinforces the notion of the authentic playwright’s presence in

the stage text.

But if literary critics are only interested in stage plays in relation to their textual

merit; i.e., language, character, plot, verbal authenticity, and all of the various other

qualities for which the poem, the short story, and the novel have been praised; true

Drama would lose its privileged position in the literary canon. Though Drama can be

read or performed, theoretically, so can most any other form of literature. Dialogue in

novels can be performed aloud by readers, and actions can be acted out if the reader so

desires. The sonnet can be recited in an attempt to woo the lover, and the short story

can be played out very often just as easily as a stage performance. The lack of proximity

of location and props might make this explanation seem ridiculous, at first. But stage

texts don’t come off the presses with their locations and props either. While one might

argue that the stage play exists as a genre more conducive to performance because of the

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style in which it is written, what is conducive versus what is not conducive still remains

a matter of relativity. Without question, it is conceivable to have a novel or short story

that is more easily translated into a dramatic production than a stage text, so in this way,

in purely textual terms, the stage play is more limited than other literary forms. The fact

is that stage texts are not studied merely for their textual merit because the potential for

Drama that can occur on a stage, ironically enough, is highly valued among literary

critics. Aristotle claims that, “Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama

was a larger and higher form of art” (Aristotle 7). While Andre Bazin says this:

Drama is the soul of theater but this soul sometimes inhabits other bodies.

A sonnet, a fable of La Fontaine, a novel, a film can owe their

effectiveness to what Henri Gouhier calls “the dramatic categories.” From

this point of view it is useless to claim autonomy for the theater. Either

that, or we must show it to be something negative. That is to say a play

cannot be dramatic while a novel is free to be dramatic or not. Of Mice

and Men is simultaneously a novel and a model tragedy. On the other

hand, it would be very hard to adapt Swann’s Way for the theater. One

would not praise a play for its novel-like qualities yet one may very well

congratulate a novelist for being able to structure an action (Bazin 81).

Bazin rightly notes the existence of certain “novel-like qualities” inherent in other

formats, and likewise, there exists certain qualities unique to the text written for the

stage. But Bazin continues, “if we insist that the dramatic is exclusive to theater, we

must concede its immense influence and also that the cinema is the least likely of the arts

to escape this influence. At this rate, half of literature and three quarters of the existing

films are branches of theater” (Bazin 81-82). So then if half of literature and three

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quarters of film is theater in terms of drama, the screenplay at the very least could be

considered a “[branch] of theater” based on dramatic merit, and thus be deemed

admissible into the literary canon based on its relationship to the theater.

One might argue, however, that stage plays are not canonized for their dramatic

merit. Being closer to poetry, some sort of appeal to the usage of language might be

offered in the stage play’s defense. But if a successful divorce between the drama of the

stage and the verse of the play’s dialogue can be effectively argued, the study of theater

is rendered impotent and impossible. To study stage plays independent of stage

production would be a fruitless enterprise if the end were to come to an understanding

of theater. The text does not become fully realized as theater until it is performed before

an audience. Yet, throughout the past few centuries of scholarship, one finds both

student and teacher alike pouring through the stage text as if it unlocked some sort of

mystical door to a full realization of theater, or even more erroneously the aesthetic

essence of the human artist.

Lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and more

appropriately The Wall Street Journal, Harold Bloom argues in his fascinating Shakespeare:

The Invention of the Human that before Shakespeare, literary characters remained static,

evolving only in an external relationship to the gods or God. However, Bloom insists

that after Shakespeare, literary characters achieved individualism and first began to

develop in relation to themselves, asserting that “there are more Hamlets than actors to

play them” (Bloom xxi). According to Bloom, Shakespeare’s work highlights humanity

most accurately because it is Shakespeare who, through his theatrical literature – in true

Wildean fashion, even before Oscar Wilde – invented the human by turning the human

into an aesthetic. According to Bloom, in Shakespeare’s texts one can discover “an art so

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infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us” –

making fiction more real than reality, and rightly so in Wildean terms where “[t]he first

duty in life is to be as artificial as possible” (Bloom xxi, Wilde 572). Being also the author

of a text entitled The Western Canon, it is important to note that as a scholar and critic of

English literature, Harold Bloom when considering Shakespeare’s stage plays, and thus

the literary potential for stage texts in general, states:

The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically,

cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond

the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare

will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us [. . .] (Bloom xix-


It is interesting to note that Shakespeare accomplishes this and Bloom comes to

recognize this without the aid of any particular stage production. So from a canonical

perspective, Bloom’s assertions support this being the aim of the stage text.

Supposing that it is the similarities of the stage play to other forms of literature

for which it has bound up an irrefutable place in the literary canon, an inventory of

those similarities must then be made. Aristotle in his Poetics insists that art must

“represent objects through the medium of colour and form,” by way of “rhythm,

language, or ‘harmony,’ either singly or combined” (Aristotle 1). One of the earliest

treatises on fine art, Aristotle discusses poetry in terms of tragedy and comedy, finally

concluding that the epic tragedy must be the higher form of art because it more perfectly

– in its presentation of beginning, middle, and end – evokes both fear and pity in the

absence of spectacle, that is, by merely being read. It is useful to note that while

Tragedy’s essence existed in epic poetry, as well as in the theater of the fourth century

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B.C., Aristotelian reasoning privileges not the performance of tragedy whose spectacle is

deemed “the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry,” but rather, the

reading of it (Aristotle 13). Certainly the academy has clung to much of Aristotle’s

thought process in the compilation of the literary canon, and such emphasis on the

legible stage text remains consistent with the primary disciple of the academy’s founder.

But how does this thought process justify the exclusion of the screenplay?

Like poetry, having meaning whether read silently or aloud, the screenplay

employs “rhythm, tune, and metre” (Aristotle 2). If, as Aristotle suggests,

“conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any kind of

verse,” the screenplay with its replete array of all manners of dialects and speech

patterns becomes a virgin canvas for the poet of verse or prose (Aristotle 8). When Jules

first recites Ezekiel 25:17 in Scene 8 of Tarantino’s screenplay, the poetic potential of the

screenplay has been skillfully interwoven into the text on many levels. First, Ezekiel

25:17 of the Hebrew Bible only consists of one line: “I will carry out great vengeance on

them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I

take vengeance on them.’” (New International Version, Ezek. 25.17). Yet in his

screenplay Tarantino writes:

There’s a passage I got memorized, seems
appropriate for this situation: Ezekiel
25:17. “The path of the righteous man is
beset on all sides by the inequities of
the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.
Blessed is he who, in the name of good
will, shepherds the weak through the
valley of darkness, for he is truly his
brother’s keeper and the finder of lost
children. And I will strike down upon
thee with great vengeance and furious
anger those who attempt to poison and

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destroy my brothers. And you will know my

name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance
upon you.” (Pulp Fiction, Scene 8, pp. 25)

This is an example of a screenwriter creating verse, and exercising what William Blake

termed, “Poetic Genius” (Blake 35). There is no such Scripture to be found anywhere in

the Bible that reads like this. It is a poetic invention of verse on the part of Tarantino via

the persona of Jules Winnfield. Tarantino has thus, like the director of Shakespeare fully

aware of the liberties of public domain, taken a public literary source and made it his

own. Not only has he fictionalized the Bible text through his character Jules, but also

through his own role as a screenwriter. It would be inaccurate to say that Tarantino has

merely misquoted the Bible text, because the fictional context prevents one from fully

knowing the intent of this pseudo-reference. It would be more accurate to concede that

through the persona of Jules, Tarantino has effectively aestheticized and made pulp, a

sacred text via his screenplay text. Bear in mind that this process occurs fully on the

page, even before Samuel Jackson comes to interpret the character. In fact, I only

mention Samuel Jackson’s performance, and thus the production of the film, in order to

augment the production of the film as superfluous to my argument. If there are more

Hamlets to be played than there are actors, certainly there is more than one Jules

Winnfield, who – after being noted in the screenplay as wearing a cheap black suit with

a thin black tie under a long green duster – is merely described by Tarantino as “black”

(Pulp Fiction, Scene 2, pp. 7).

Even if one erroneously concedes that Shakespeare was the first to define “an art

so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us,” it

would be difficult to contend with the screenplay’s ability to do the very same (Bloom

xxi). In fact, if a single film as a single interpretation of a given screenplay successfully

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endures beyond its own historical context, it too becomes an explanation of what is

human. As a screenplay, this explanation remains infinitely complex and variable,

depending on a director or reader’s vision. As a film, mechanically-reproducible and

accessible, this interpretation of the screenplay text is more convincing than anything

Shakespeare has managed to contrive. Not necessarily in terms of aesthetics, but, at

least in terms of the power to persuade. No doubt, film invades the consciousness of a

popular culture in a far more thorough and ubiquitous way than canonized literature.

Certainly, Hamlet has become in Wildean terms, a real person who never existed, but

who is to say five centuries from now whether Hamlet or Jules Winnfield will emerge

the more prevalent version of the human aesthetic. One need only study the James Bond

phenomenon to note cinema, and thus the screenplay’s effectiveness in terms of

mythmaking. (Granted, Bond first existed as a literary character, but it has certainly

been the film series which debuted in 1962 and not Ian Fleming, who died in 1964, that

has mostly been responsible for Bond’s international appeal.)

In this way, not only is Tarantino a poet, “who cared not for consequences but

wrote,” so is Jules, “making” light of Ezekiel, the prophet whom William Blake likens to

a poet in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a similar manner by likewise putting words

into the prophet’s mouth (Blake 35). Yet, where Blake’s work lays claim to beauty of

form by way of text, verse, prose, and picture, through the text of the screenplay both

Tarantino and Jules merge as poets, forging a poesis through character, drama, dialogue,

verse, prose, action, and the imagination. In this aesthetic collaboration, Tarantino and

Jules revise the prophet’s text, who by his own admission, according to Blake, failed to

see the need for such revision since “none of equal value was lost” (Blake 35). One can

only assume that Blake asserts this not only as Ezekiel’s defense of his texts that remain

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in the Biblical canon, but also as a defense of the words and phrases of these texts.

Unquestionably, Ezekiel would have had a problem with both Blake and Tarantino

altering the word of God. In this particular instance, Tarantino has reenacted Blake’s

controversial project with an entirely new genre of literary text. In religious terms, such

innovation may be blasphemous, but in artistic terms, such is the essence of grace,

enabling screenplays then “to be tributaries of the Poetic Genius” (Blake 35).

However, in addition to the screenplay’s content, the screenplay’s form in terms

of Poetic Genius ought to enhance its critical attention. “There are, again, some arts

which employ all the means above mentioned,--namely, rhythm, tune, and metre,”

states Aristotle, privileging language and its usage in his assessment of poetic and

literary art (Aristotle 2). The “means above mentioned” that Aristotle refers to has

imposed a sort of standard for literature, and a poet or maker’s employment of these

rhythmical, melodic, and metrical devices has proven crucial to a poet’s subsequent

canonical placement. Although the screenplay as an art form had yet to be invented in

Aristotle’s day, it is undeniable that as a format it too employs rhythm, pacing, and

metre. While a screenplay in general may lack tune, even the musical screenplay as a

genre proves to be an exception to this rule. Further, if a screenplay is read aloud or

acted out, dialogue can still take on a melodic quality.

Tarantino is fully aware of this fact, and makes use of it from the very first page

of his script by actually providing direction for how certain lines should be read.

Though it is possible to reference Tarantino’s screenplay directly as evidence for this,

Polan’s citation of this scene direction is more useful. While he does reference

Tarantino’s screenplay, stating “we’re told on the first page that Honey Bunny and

Pumpkin’s dialogue is to be said in a ‘rapid His Girl Friday style’,” the context of this

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reference still fails to escape the film’s production. Two full-color frame enlargements

from the 1994 film impose upon this particular page, forcing Polan’s written text toward

the bottom of the page (Polan 22). In fact, while Polan considerately references the film

throughout his book by way of frame enlargements instead of staged production stills,

he does not bother to maintain the 12-point Courier font that the official Hollywood

screenplay format requires when citing Tarantino’s screenplay. A film purist he may be,

but certainly not in terms of the authenticity of the screenplay text. So while this

screenplay reference may be useful, in terms of emphasis, it is clear that Polan’s

investment in his analysis of Pulp Fiction hinges on the film and not the screenplay

(Polan 22). But he is not alone. With little exception, the screenplay is rarely referenced

independent of production considerations, and I have yet to encounter a commentary on

a screenplay that ignores its film adaptation. Yet, if or when this process takes place in

literary studies, it would then be possible for a screenwriter to create a screenplay as an

art form that need not be produced by Hollywood for millions of dollars. The only

necessary tools for this aesthetic production would be paper and a word processor. Pen

or pencil would not suffice since as David Trottier observes in terms of the screenplay


Here’s what is wanted: A good, old-fashioned PICA (for typewriters) or

Courier 12-point, 10-pitch font with a ragged right margin [. . .] All of

the examples in this format guidebook are in Courier so that they appear

exactly the way they would appear in a script [. . .] Why all the fuss over

a font? Because the 10-pitch font is easier on the eyes of industry people

who read dozens of scripts every week. It also retains the “one page

equals one minute screen time” industry standard (Trottier 112).

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A counter argument to this convention of form may emphasize how such an

apparently minute detail like font in terms of the screenplay appeals to standard

conventions of film production more so than writing and literature with the emphasis

on screen time. Yet, there is no need to do away with these conventions completely

since, in fact, a true screenplay, whether produced or not, ought to always present the

potential for production. Granted, there are more screenplays written than will ever be

produced, but these literary works of art need not only be considered by critics after a

film has been adapted from them. There is a difference between a screenplay that could

be produced versus a screenplay that must be produced. The screenplay that could be

produced frees the screenwriter of budgetary, technological, creative, and even political

constraints that almost always ensue from cinematic film production. It is exhilarating

to consider how ingeniously the technique and form of screenwriting could be

expanded, if the screenwriter only had to concern him or herself with the text, and not

the constraining possibilities of production in an industry more controlled by capitalism

than creativity or the beauty of form. If a screenplay like Pulp Fiction was worthy of

Dana Polan’s criticism in his literary analysis – be it ever so brief – after its translation

into film, it is fair to conclude that such merit existed in the text even prior to


There are grave consequences for a canon that completely excludes the

screenplay as a format, while promulgating textual analyses of films with script

references that achieve nothing more than lip service. Since “[a]ny man today can lay

claim to being filmed,” but any man cannot produce a film because of the economical

burden of releasing the film to the general public, wealth privileges those who do the

representing in film over those who are represented (Benjamin 231). In addition, most

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men, or women for that matter, cannot afford to make, market, and distribute a film. So

even if the common man had fair access to the means of film production, his or her voice

would still be co-opted by those capable of showcasing his art. Even in cases like Robert

Rodriguez’ El Mariachi, which according to him only cost $7,000 to make, and can be

rented from any local video store, marketing and distribution for this film after it was

picked up by Columbia Pictures still cost over $1 million dollars (Rodriguez 176).

Yet, Walter Benjamin further states about the contemporary world of publishing

in which he lived that “[a]t any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer”

(Benjamin 232). While Benjamin’s conclusions serve to demonstrate the political

advantages of mechanical reproduction, this notion has considerable implications for the

screenplay, since as an aesthetic production, any man with knowledge of the form and a

typewriter or word processor can write a screenplay. This may be oversimplifying the

aesthetic process just slightly, but certainly a mere glance at the list of credits for a

Hollywood film proves that it is easier to write a screenplay than to produce a film in

terms of personnel, resources, and energy. Even so, in terms of literature, a screenplay

text that surpasses a film text is still quite conceivable. That the screenplay for Pulp

Fiction has more literary merit than the film print for Debbie Does Dallas may be a matter

of opinion, but it would be an opinion held by most. After all, how many times has one

heard it said that the film was not as good as the book? This common phrase supports

the inherit privileging that even the public maintains for written texts over those that are

visual. So if film as a format cannot always do a novel justice, it is within the realm of

possibility that a film director will not always do a screenplay justice in his

interpretation of it.

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Novels are published to be consumed by the public, but publication does not

innately change the essence of a novel. Publication merely duplicates the printed

material in order for larger masses of people to more readily consume it. Arguably, the

only real difference between an unpublished novel and a published one is an ISBN

number. So if a screenplay must be produced in order to be consumed by the public,

then the screenplay must change forms to be consumed by the masses – ceasing then to

be words on paper, and rather becoming images of light and shadow; and cacophonies

of music and dialogue; as conceived, often times, by another artist – the director.

Even in the case of Pulp Fiction, where the screenwriter and the director remain

the same, Dana Polan’s analysis of the film only furthers the distinction between the film

text and the screenplay text. However, being a playwright, a screenwriter, and film

director myself, I understand that the process of writing and directing are very different,

even if you have created both texts. The film is not a direct presentation of those words

on paper, but rather a mechanically-reproduced interpretation of those words on paper

that necessarily evolves independently of the written text. Thus, the screenplay is never

really made public, but instead hermeneutically sealed within the confines of the film’s

narrative. This phenomenon, even if the screenwriter and director are one in the same,

produces a sacred-like document with a sacred aura, where only those in the “cult” of

the film production itself have access to the true text prior to production. How many

film scripts has even the most fanatical film fan ever read or had access to before the film

was made? And even for every ten screenplays that have been published – after the

film’s production, of course – there are one-hundred times that many, at least, that even

the most connected and zealous of screenplay readers could never access. Not to

mention the thousands of screenplays that never become films in the first place. It seems

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then that the viewer, like the plebian or neophyte of old, comes to be considered

unworthy of dealing with the original text of the film called “the screenplay.” He or she

is denied the opportunity to engage the screenplay text critically through his own

“distraction” in a process that would create his own cinema of the mind (Benjamin 240).

Colin Higgins, who wrote Harold and Maude and Silver Streak supports this notion:

The job of the screenwriter is to run the film in the reader’s imagination.

And nothing should get in the way of that [. . .] Good prose is the only

way to have a reader envision an exciting film [. . .] The worse thing you

can do is direct the film on paper [. . .] It’s up to you to make [your

screenplay] the most exciting, appealing, fun-filled reading experience

possible. There’s nothing more boring to read than a shot-by-shot

description of the action. When I write a script, I write in the best prose

possible—writing that will vividly create the film in the mind of the

reader (Wolff & Cox 114).

Unfortunately, these intended readers in the present state of the film industry

tend to only be studio executives, actors, and directors. There is no truly public

screenplay reader. There is the Hollywood insider, and there is the viewer-outsider

forced to sit through a ceremony of mystery, ritual, spectacle, and interpretation,

prepackaged, cut, and edited by the producer, the director, and for all intensive

purposes. . .the priest. So while Benjamin argues that “for the first time in world

history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical

dependence on ritual” he is only partially correct, because the screenplay – a

mechanically-reproducible work of art in its own right – has already been tampered

with and reconstructed in its process of being filmed (Benjamin 224). While it may be

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true that “[w]ith the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing

opportunities for the exhibition of their products,” film certainly has not brought forth

this emancipation completely because the screenplay has no public exhibition (Benjamin

225). Hollywood makes sure of this:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Building at 8949

Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills (278-8990) has a library on the 4th Floor

that is open to the public for reading and study. Hundreds of produced

screenplays are available for your perusal on the premises (they cannot be

checked out). There is no charge, but your driver’s license must be left

with the librarian while you take your script to your table (Wolff & Cox


Hundreds may seem like a lot, but Hollywood produces over a hundred films

each year, so, in fact, of the thousands upon thousands of films that have been made this

century – the average Blockbuster video store alone probably carries at least 5,000 titles –

the reality is that not many screenplays that have been written are actually available

even in places like the UCLA Theater Arts Library, where scripts cannot be checked out,

and reference cards are required even for mere reading access (Wolff & Cox 105). Note

the security with which screenplays are protected so that a reader must leave their

driver’s license with the librarian, proving that even when scripts can be read, they

cannot be possessed. This example solidifies Hollywood’s apparent overprotection of

their own screenplays, pinpointing their own contribution to the format’s exclusion from

the canon. Even so-called screenplays available on websites such as www.script-o- do not always feature screenplays in their original formats, but rather

transcriptions, that in some cases, are not even penned by screenwriters, but by

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overeager fans transcribing their cinematic experience as they watch the film. There is

always an inherent risk in relying on the internet for authentic screenplays – that is, for

screenplay texts of films that have already been produced. For unproduced screenplays,

on the other hand, the internet, may indeed be the future.

If the screenplay has no public exhibition, neither does the common person, since

the process of screenwriting is far more accessible than the process of filmmaking.

Benjamin supposes that in terms of film, “with the different methods of technical

reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increase[s] to such an extent that

the quantitative shift between its two poles turn[s] into a qualitative transformation of

its nature,” but this is only true if one supposes that the aesthetic production begins with

the director, and not the screenwriter (Benjamin 225). If aesthetic production begins

with the former – the director – fitness for exhibition remains rooted in quantitative

notions of marketing and economics. Yet, even when aesthetic production begins with

the latter – the screenwriter – the qualitative still remains compromised, because, at

present, only the former’s work is mechanically reproduced frequently enough to meet

with critical assessment whether quantitative or qualitative.

The screenplay has much more potential than the film to exist independent of

marketing pressures. The screenplay can thus have more freedom to be intrinsically

aesthetic, because in and of itself, the screenplay can be created – written, produced, and

even published – outside of far less commercial considerations than the film that

inevitably will cost exponentially more to mechanically reproduce, distribute, and

exhibit. Why then has the film arrived at literary analysis prior to its more literary form?

Early films like Workers Leaving the Factory and L’Arroseur arrose (1895) did not have a

screenplay, and early silent films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Life of an

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American Fireman (1902) by definition lacked screenplays (Bordwell and Thompson 452-

455). They merely had scripts – brief descriptions of the action to be photographed with

perhaps a note of captions to be cut in later. It was only after the advent of sound in

1927 with The Jazz Singer, that “screenplay” became a viable term, being in fact a “play,”

as in stage play, for the screen. Yet, as an aesthetic production, the screenplay does not

become the equivalent of the unproduced film. Film existed before the screenplay. But

practically, in the making of a film today, the screenplay must exist before the film, and

therefore exist after it. Yes, there are tales of films that began before the script was

finished, or scripts that were changed as production continued. But what of the

screenplay that remains in the Poetic Genius of the screenwriter, that is not

compromised by the tradition of filmmaking, which eventually must be considered

separately from the screen text if the dimensions of cinema are to expand beyond the

corporate multiplex?

It is very probable that many screenplays of notable literary value will never be

produced as films. Therefore, a vast amount of deserving literature will never receive

the critical attention it is due. This is not to say that only unproduced screenplays can be

evaluated critically. Even the produced screenplay can still be considered after its film

production – and utterly independent of it. While this process may seem improbable or

difficult, as Polan’s treatment of Pulp Fiction suggests, it cannot be forgotten that this

occurs as commonplace in terms of theater criticism, and its canonical assessment by the


Though both the stage play and the film are dramatic works intimately linked to

commercialization, production, performance, and audience in terms of their ultimate

aesthetic relation to either viewer or reader, many stage texts have been studied to the

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point of establishing firm roots within the academic and critical “canon,” independent of

any of these production or commercial considerations. The converse is true with the

screenplay. On the one hand, the literary canon positions the screenplay outside of

literature because of its dependence on technology, via the mass-produced apparatus of

cinema. On the other hand, the stage play has been privileged among literary history

from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to August Wilson. However, at every historical point

the stage play has relied on modes of production and technology. In fact, it could be

argued that the stage play depends on technology even more so than the screenplay

because no two stage performances are exact. The nuances of technology manifested in

differences of production, lighting, venue, and budget rely heavily on technological

constraints. For example, Broadway’s rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar would no doubt

differ greatly from the production of a local high school in terms of technology, though

the text both directors would be using might be identical. This technological difference

holds true for stage texts that are produced over long periods of time, as well, because

technology is constantly advancing, and these advances inevitably will play out in

theatrical technique and presentation. Thus, technology and production actually inform

the play’s presentation to its audience more intensely since these factors “play”

themselves out almost infinitely when considering the many nuances of multiple theater

productions of a single text versus the exactness with which a cinema performance of a

screenplay can be reproduced.

The exact reproduction of screenplay performances facilitates a process that can

separate the film script from its production because, unlike in theater, a clear, tangible

distinction between the film production and the film script can be made and reproduced

for consumption. In other words, this distinction would be the difference between the

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screenplay and the actual film. Because stage performances cannot be studied by those

who are not initially present at the performance in any direct or specific way, the stage

text rather than the production has been fetishized and studied as the privileged

technology of study. Because film performances can be studied by those not initially

present during a film’s theatrical release – and because anyone who sees a film

ultimately becomes its audience – the screenplay possesses a unique relationship to its

mode of production. Technology allows for the production of a screenplay, and

therefore, the film itself, to be studied in specific ways that theater productions, because

of their multivalent, subjective, temporal, and elusive natures cannot be. While these

same adjectives may be applied to cinema, the difference is that when two critics discuss

a film, they are discussing the same film – in terms of the empirical experience of light

and shadow and sound as it is recorded by strips of celluloid acetate, video, or digital

disc. Unfortunately, it is this very access to the screenplay’s film production that has

justified its exclusion from the literary canon in its more basic written form, the

screenplay itself. However, by examining how this exclusion has occurred, a motion

towards the revision of the literary canon can be made. In this way, just as critics have

considered literature in terms of language, and theater in terms of Drama, etc., the

screenplay, a hybrid of both, can in the future be analyzed by way of its own unique,

aesthetic merits. Like the stage play, the screenplay can be dramatic both in the general

sense, and in the more Aristotelian sense. Though in the contemporary, Drama has

come to be regarded as a genre, or style of literature, Aristotle conceived it more as a

necessary quality for the tragedy. Like the Aristotelian stage play, the screenplay too,

“has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation,” but unlike the

stage play, the screenplay can be cinematic (Aristotle 59).

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Walter Benjamin notes about the stage play, “The artistic performance of a stage

actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor,

however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence” (Benjamin 228). But

this supposition is turned on its head by the screenplay where there is still no accessible

actor – but like in the novel, a character is instead imagined in the mind’s eye – yet

unlike in the novel, and more like in the short story as argued by Edgar Allan Poe, the

character can be engaged “as an integral whole” at one sitting (Benjamin 228). When

Benjamin insists that in film “the actor’s performance is presented by means of a

camera,” and that “the audience takes the position of the camera” it is useful to realize

that the screenplay is the only literary form where, while there is no actual photographic

device present, the narrative still proceeds as if there were (Benjamin 228). In this way,

while a novel can be cinematic with its various perspectives, extended timelines, and

multiple settings, it is far less likely that a stage play would be considered cinematic.

However, because of the traditions of its form, the screenplay is the only fully

cinematic form of written literature. Even if merely read, the screenplay exists as one of

the most open forms of literature. While traditionally meant to be read in only two

hours or so, this is merely a convention. Once the screenplay comes to be read

independent of the parameters of production or exhibition, it is feasible that a screenplay

could possess the literary potential to be as dense as a novel in terms of plot and

character development. That a screenplay reader takes on the perspective of a “camera”

while still being engaged in a written genre complicates notions of literary form and

audience in fantastic ways. Pulp Fiction, with its non-linear narrative, and multiple-story

lines treads on this potential only slightly. There is so much more that can be

accomplished with the screenplay in terms of aesthetic production.

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Some directors have said that the film itself is the last draft of the screenplay.

Other directors have mused that films are never completed, but only abandoned because

a film can always be re-edited, changed, or tweaked, infinitely. If this is true, then the

last draft of the screenplay is never truly completed, only abandoned by a particular

director, or interpreter. But what happens if that screenplay falls into the hands of

another? Whether they are merely reading the screenplay text, or intending to produce

their own version of that screenplay, this dilemma lends credence to the notion of the

screenplay as an aesthetic production.

Pulp Fiction is a screenplay, an aesthetic work that is semi-canonized on its merits

as a film as illustrated through Dana Polan’s British Film Institute project. The

screenplay for this film has even been published in various editions, and yet when this

work is considered critically, direct reference to the actual screenplay text remains

minimal. This effectively demonstrates the exclusivity of the literary canon, even when

both the film and screenplay are accessible and considered by many to be cinematic


The publication of certain screenplays over others, already seems to be making

some sort of move towards a kind of canonization. But the screenplay itself, as a style of

literature poses canonical possibilities from which more innovative texts can be studied

and created. Like the film, the screenplay too is cinematic. So why must a

screenwriter’s text be produced as a film before it can be studied? The film is already a

study of the screenplay – a project of interpretation, taken on by the director. Why then

are only directors backed by major studios, production companies, and big budgets, the

only “makers” privileged enough to access the film’s screenplay text? Why not the

intellectual? Why not the scholar, or the film student? Why not even the average

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moviegoer? Why must scripts be locked away in college libraries where ID’s are

demanded and collateral is expected? It is almost as if the screenplay has been guarded

by Hollywood because they are aware of the genre’s intrinsic value as literature, as a

true literary format, and as an aesthetic production.

As Benjamin states, “there is indeed no greater contrast than that of the stage

play to a work of art that is completely subject to or, like the film, founded in,

mechanical reproduction” (Benjamin 230). Since the screenplay as a text somehow

manages to split this difference, linking Drama and Literature in ways Oscar Wilde

could only imagine, the screenplay proves to be the unique literary and textual

negotiation of the greatest literary contrast. When the literary canon comes to accept

this, then and only then, can the missing link of Literature move beyond the bill of the


Allen 28

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997.

Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1967.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Dover

Publications, 1994.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York:

Riverhead Books, 1998.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York:

McGraw-Hill, 1993.

“Literature.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971.

Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.

Rodriguez, Robert. Rebel Without a Crew. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Tarantino, Quentin. Pulp Fiction. New York: Miramax Books, 1994.

Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible. Los Angeles: Silman-James P, 1998.

Wilde, Oscar. The Major Works. Ed. Isobel Murray. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Wolff, Jurgen & Kerry Cox. Successful Scriptwriting. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s

Digest Books, 1988.