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A Brief History of Screenwriting

By Martin Keady · November 15, 2022

A Brief History of Screenwriting

Ready for a history lesson? Okay, history isn’t the most exciting topic in the entire world, but maybe the history of screenwriting is just the thing that will make you want to jump into the annals of cinematic storytelling to see where your most beloved art form came from.

In this article, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, looks at the origins and development of screenwriting to help us all understand where the craft came from as well as where it might go.

Read More: The History of the Screenplay!

The Idea of Cinema (and Screenwriting)

In the posthumous collection of his writings that became a history of cinema,  Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (What Is Cinema?), André Bazin, the great French film critic and spiritual father of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), speculated that the idea of film had always been in humanity’s mind, just like the idea of flight. If so, it is possible that the very first “screenwriters” were those earliest storytellers who told highly visual stories in caves to the rest of their tribe, stories that their listeners could literally see, at least in their mind’s eye. 

Bazin’s idea of cinema persisted beyond caveman times and storytelling by the fire. Shakespeare famously wrote:

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

William Shakespeare

These lines are often quoted to suggest that Shakespeare was the first real screenwriter, using highly visual language and relatively short scenes to create plays that have been easy to translate into film.

However, as Bazin concluded, it was only the technological developments of the Victorian era that finally made such eternal human dreams as flight and film possible. And so, with the dawn of cinema at the end of the 19th century, there finally came the films – the permanent (or seemingly permanent) capturing of reality – that humans had always dreamed of. 

Storytelling In The Silent Age, including Wilding

In The Silent Age of Cinema (from the earliest films at the end of the 1800s to the release of The Jazz Singer, the first successful sound film in 1927), screenwriting as we know it today did not really exist, or at least it only existed in half the form that it does today. As there was no way of capturing dialogue and hence no need for it (bar the dialogue cards or “surtitles” that were occasionally used to articulate characters’ thoughts or key exclamations), the emphasis of “writing” for cinema was purely on the formulation of the story, or plot. 

Consequently, the first screenplay is generally regarded as being that for George Melies’ 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). Essentially, Melies’ script just consists of screen “directions”, both for the camera and cast, with no dialogue whatsoever. Nevertheless, it provided the all-important “blueprint” for the film, similar in outline and in principle to an architect’s drawing of a building they had designed and intended to construct.

A Trip to the Moon

‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902)

However, although most other filmmakers came to follow Melies’ lead by creating scripts that they could adhere to while filming, the complete absence of dialogue meant that the role of the screenwriter, as we understand it today, did not really exist. Many of the earliest films were simply adaptations of existing plays, particularly those of Shakespeare, not least because long-dead writers like Shakespeare were out of copyright and so could be used with impunity. Indeed, so little was thought of actual storytelling in early cinema that, as the British comic Paul Merton memorably recreated in his BBC series The Birth Of Hollywood (2011), some studios even employed drunks who they called “Wilders”, simply to come up with wild, drunken ideas to advance the storyline, however ridiculous those ideas might have been. 

Read More: What Was the First Movie Ever Made?

The Coming of Sound And Dialogue

With sound came dialogue and thus the screenwriter as we know the role today was effectively invented at the end of the 1920s, especially in Hollywood. As the major teething problems with sound were finally fixed over the next few years, there was an enormous appetite for writers of all kinds (playwrights, novelists, and even the odd poet) to produce detailed scripts with detailed lines of dialogue that could then be mass-produced by the studios. The goldrush for writers was memorably captured by the famous telegram that Herman J. Mankiewicz (one of the first arrivals in Hollywood who of course would later write Citizen Kane) sent to his friend Ben Hecht in 1926 when the coming of sound was imminent: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Mankiewicz, Hecht, and other literary luminaries were at the forefront of the new “Talking Hollywood” of the 1930s when they pumped out rat-a-tat-tat dialogue akin to the machine gunfire peppering American cities in the age of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. In a succession of great screenplays, from It Happened One Night (1934) to the Hecht-penned His Girl Friday (1940), these first real screenwriters wrote films where the relatively slow and limited camerawork often struggled to keep up with the undeniably rapid and dazzling word-work. 

His Girl Friday (1940)

‘His Girl Friday’ (1940)

Post-War Storytelling: The Coming of Television and European Cinema

Of course, Hollywood’s First Golden Age continued long after World War Two. Nevertheless, there was undoubtedly increasing pressure on Hollywood from two different sources. 

The first was the coming of television. Billy Wilder famously joked that he welcomed the arrival of TV as “it made the movies look good”. However, over time TV increasingly challenged and eventually overtook cinema as the prime medium for screenwriting, beginning with Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty in the 1950s, which was originally a TV program and then later remade as a film, and reaching its peak with the Holy Trinity of TV in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: The SopranosThe Wire; and Mad Men.

However, there was also a geographical threat to Hollywood’s cinematic storytelling dominance from other film industries, mainly European, which, in the wake of World War II, may have lacked Hollywood’s economic and technological resources but made up for it with radically new ways of telling stories on screen. First, there was the Italian neorealism of the immediate post-war period, as perfected in Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (1948), which was the simplest but most powerful story imaginable. Then, even more importantly, there was the Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave) of French cinema, which eschewed supposedly impersonal studio storytelling in favor of the most personal storytelling on the streets – literally. 

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948)

The most important cinematic storyteller of this period was the recently deceased Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022), many of whose famous maxims became almost biblical truths for screenwriting, in particular, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and, most famously of all, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”, with which he effectively invented the jump-cut (unseamless editing, which allowed a film to jump around in time) and eventually exported it to other narrative arts beyond cinema. 

The Second Golden Age of Hollywood: The 1970s

The Second Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1970s, owed as much to Godard and the Nouvelle Vague as it did to Mankiewicz and Citizen Kane. After a 1960s that was largely creatively barren, often consisting of increasingly mindless and big-budgeted musicals, Hollywood and English-language cinema, in general, was reborn in the next decade. That was because “The Movie Brats” (the term given to those film-makers who had first attended film schools), such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, imported all the energy and iconoclasm of the Nouvelle Vague to America but then coupled it with classical American cinematic storytelling. 

The greatest screenwriter of this Second Golden Age of Hollywood was undoubtedly Coppola, who not only wrote or co-wrote The Godfather (Parts I and II)The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, in addition to directing them, but somehow also found the time to write two other classic screenplays for Patton (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974). No wonder he was burnt out by the end of the decade; by then, he had virtually said it all.  

The Godfather

‘The Godfather’ (1972)

Nevertheless, it was Coppola’s revolutionary screenplay for The Godfather Part II, effectively making it both a prequel and a sequel to the original film, alongside the screenplay by Robert Towne for another dark masterpiece, Chinatown (1974), that made 1974 for screenwriting what 1939 is for Hollywood film-making in general, namely its absolute and almost universally recognized peak. Essentially, 1975 might’ve been the greatest year for screenwriting ever.

21st Century Screenwriting

In the 21st century, it often seems as if all the world is quite literally a screen, as the digital revolution since the turn of the millennium has made so much cinema both more magical (thanks to the wonders of CGI) and more banal (as epitomized by the all-conquering Marcel Cinematic Universe). 

However, it is still possible to create truly great, adult (in the sense of serious, not pornographic) cinema, as demonstrated by what remains arguably the greatest film, and screenplay, of the 21st century so far, Arrival (2016). Based on Story of Your Life (1998) by Ted Chiang, a short story or novella that realistically portrays both a first encounter with aliens and time travel, Arrival is a new classic of cinematic storytelling and screenwriting that has at is heart an examination of the near-impossibility of human-to-human communication, let alone communication between humans and other species.

The Sopranos

‘The Sopranos’ (1999 – 2007)

Masterpieces such as Arrival offer hope for 21st-century screenwriting, as do the aforementioned Holy Trinity of TV (The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men), which have already revolutionized TV storytelling as surely as Shakespeare did theatre and Citizen Kane did cinema. Finally, there is also the nascent narrative art, XR (or Extended Reality), which is still in its infancy but nevertheless offers the promise of a fully immersive screenwriting experience in which there is no longer a screen at all between the storyteller and the viewer. Instead, the viewer is literally welcomed into the story they are watching and ultimately becomes part of it.