RESEARCH ON MANUALS FOR SCREENWRITERS
Dick Gilsing, drama teacher at the Dutch Department of InHolland University, wrote his doctoral thesis in theater science in 1989. The research on manuals for screenwriters originated from the screenwriting courses he himself took at the Hague School of Language and Literature and the Santbergen training institute of the NOB. “Both courses followed ’the American method’ (…), it became clear to me that writing a screenplay is a matter of construction and structuring. The structure prescribed in American handbooks became the starting point of his thesis. The core of his study material, the three American film poetics: ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ by L. Egri, ‘Screenwriter’s Bible’ by J.W. Bloch, W. Fadiman, and L. Peyser, and ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting’ by S. Field, are central to his analysis. He compares these with Aristotle’s poetics (“in fact, the first (normative) handbook for (dramatic) text writers”) to discover the dramatic structure that these poetics actually offer. He manages to mirror them against each other and also highlight their differences. As a practical example of his intentions, he explains it again using the dramatic structure of the film ‘Chinatown’.
Part 1 – The pre-filmic dramatic structure begins with an explanation of Aristotle’s poetics. For those unfamiliar with the classics, it requires attention, but Gilsing takes his time and explains it clearly. In Chapter two of this first part, he delves further into the ‘pre-filmic’ by referring to the book ‘dramaturgy’ by Verhagen. This book was written in 1923 and is based on pre-war theater. With this paraphrase, a refinement and complementation of Aristotle’s model is achieved, providing the reader with more insight and captivation.
In Part 2 – The filmic dramatic structure, Gilsing examines the three American models. After a detailed description of each book individually – there is repetition, but the complexity of the subject justifies it – he concludes by integrating the models. The comparisons between the pre-filmic and filmic models seem to offer more similarities than differences up to this point. Both theories are characterized by a descriptive and prescriptive tone, meaning that the model is capable of telling the drama, but the drama cannot be told without the model (according to their creators).
Further research is needed, leading us to a deeper comparison in Part 3 – Pre-filmic versus filmic dramatic structure – tragedy versus Hollywood film. The histories of both are thoroughly examined in terms of presentation and storytelling. It is at this point that much becomes clear, as the Hollywood film seems to be a continuation or extension of Greek tragedy. Both can be considered as updates of mythology or biblical stories. Furthermore, the American dream exhibits elements of the Oedipus problem and various other contemporary Hollywood themes show a direct connection to the overall mythology of ancient Greece. With this understanding of mythology, both models can be interpreted, and the difference lies in the technical aspects and structure of the models. Gilsing then makes this evident by describing the film ‘Chinatown,’ which is found to be based on many existing traditional dramatic structures. The associated final conclusion raises the question of whether there are alternative models. In the appendix, Gilsing mentions that his intention was also to find alternatives to the American models, but it did not fit within the scope of the thesis. Nevertheless, he mentions a few from the more alternative circuit and suggests that such research might yield a different framework.
Finally, the question arises for the undersigned whether the answer might not be found in the history of the people rather than the history of the story. Cultural criticism versus scriptwriting criticism. After all, the research transcends the ‘Judeo-Christian-Greek-Eurocentric’ or simply ‘Western civilization.’ Perhaps, by following an ‘Egyptian-Afrocentric-African-American’ path, there is much more to discover. Perhaps, in the end, the question of “why” revolves around who holds the scepter of cultural/political/economic/philosophical power and how it influences the collective thinking of the world.
Gilsing’s book stirs up discussion, inspiring anyone interested in writing and culture, and it also provides a pleasant but above all interesting exploration for even the less engaged cinema-goer. It is unfortunate that such an impressive work is offered for sale in a format reminiscent of a school newspaper or mimeographed materials.