Screenplay as Literature: Shell Shock, a Book to Be Read by PortiaLily Taylor

“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”  Boris Pasternak

Novelist and poet Boris Pasternak described “literature” as finding the extraordinary in people and relating that discovery through “ordinary” words. He does not list the types of writing that meet this threshold. However, other definitions of “literature” focus more on writing genres than the impact of what has been written.

The online Oxford Learners Dictionaries defines literature as “pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays, and poems (in contrast to technical books and newspapers, magazines, etc.).” The inclusion of novels, plays, and poems relate to the requirement found in many definitions that literature must be written primarily to be read.

Douglas Garrett Winston in his blog “The Screenplay as Literature” discusses some reasons that screenplays have not been considered literature. They were said to be mere blueprints for the production of a film and not to be read as autonomous forms. Although a screenplay may seem similar to plays, plays are considered literature because they may be read as a singular work while being staged in multiple ways unlike a film. In addition, a screenplay is the result of the efforts of many involved in production from the director to the producer and beyond. The original screenwriter does not have the control over their work as would writers of novels and other categories of literature. See

Times changed since screenplays fit the above descriptions which denied them inclusion as a literary art form. In the 1980s, the audience to read screenplays grew as more bookstores began to stock the genre in their establishments. But these sales usually included screenplays for classic and well-known films and not screenplays simply written to be read as would other forms of literature like the novel.

Exceptions to published screenplays’ being only those based on class and popular movies did exist even before the 80s. An example is the “closet screenplay” meant to be read and not produced. Some Japanese and Western writers of this and the last century first created such scripts. An example is James Baldwin’s screenplay One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario. wrote about this work in an article found at Baldwin wanted to write the script for a move based on Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcom X. When that situation did not come about, Baldwin continued to write his screenplay that was ultimately sold in book form and not produced as a film. Other screenplays were first written as “spec scripts” that were commissioned but never chosen for production. The poet Dylan Thomas wrote several screenplays commissioned during WWII that were never produced and finally offered in book form, as Twenty Years A-Growing.

Screenplays published and sold in book form have gained in popularity over recent years — whether or not they are connected to a produced film. A growing number of individuals are enjoying the reading of screenplays for their own merit. In addition, the expansion of Film Studies programs in many colleges and universities have strengthened the concept of screenplays as literature.

Keeping in mind that a screenplay may be considered “literature” to be read without the requirement of its being produced as a film, I wrote Shell Shock, a screenplay. I have loved movies since I first saw “Lady and the Tramp” as a child and watched old movies on television with my dad who would tell me stories about their stars. My love intensified as I realized the art behind the writing of films when I took a screenwriting class years ago. I started writing a screenplay based on the information I learned in that class.

It took years to finally complete my screenplay, Shell Shock. It is the story of a WWI veteran who returns to his native Ireland only to find himself in the midst of another war – the Irish Revolution. When he is compelled to support the Royal Irish Constabulary as a member of its “Black and Tan” force, formed to control those in rebellion, his war-induced “shell shock” (PTSD) rises to the surface during a skirmish with independence-supporting villagers. As a result, his duties change from combat to police investigation. Through an assignment to investigate a brutal crime against a young woman, he finds a troubled, yet kindred soul, as well as the stand he must take in the troubles engulfing his country and his life.

I believe Shell Shock represents what Boris Pasternak said about literature for my screenplay seeks to use “ordinary words” to convey the extraordinary about seemingly ordinary people who embody my characters. So, I offer Shell Shock, a screenplay, a piece of literature, to be read and enjoyed.

by PortiaLily Taylor

Image: Photograph by W.D. Hogan (1920), R.I.C. military and armoured car leaving Limerick on a scouting expedition, from National Library of Ireland on The Commons

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