Discussion on Auteur Theory

Having read the chapter Auteur Theory in Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice by Steven Maras, here are some thoughts on the subject.

A definition of Auteur Theory can be found here:

Encyclopaedia Britannica definition of Auteur Theory

I do agree with some of the arguments that the auteur theory does seem to diminish the apparent responsibility the screenwriter had in bringing a particular film to the screen. Without the screenwriter, there would be no story to tell (or, at least, no script from a story, however that story was conceptualised – whether by the screenwriter on their own, or jointly, or as part of a ‘committee’).

Film-making is indeed ‘the most communal of art forms’ (Maras, p.99), so for the director to take the ultimate credit as the ‘author’ of the work does at times come across as egotistical. A few years ago there was a bit discussion / argument about this kind of issue going on, where directors had ‘a film by x’ plastered on posters and in the credits, making it seems as though the director had full responsibility for bringing the film to the screen (it seems that this has actually come back again after not happening for awhile, but that’s perhaps another issue).

Certainly, a screenplay is a ‘blueprint’ for a finished movie. But as Sarris quotes Joseph L. Mankiewicz as saying: ‘every screenplay is a directed movie and every directed movie a screenplay. That is to say that writing and directly are fundamentally the same function’ (Maras, p.109). I believe this is absolutely true. The screenplay is a creation in its own right. The writer has created it from a seed of an idea and brought this creation to life on their own terms (speaking as if the screenwriter has had the only input to this process, rather than design by committee), so it is their creation. The director then takes this script and interprets it visually, with the help of the other skilled professionals involved – especially, I believe, the director of photography, who can give a movie a feel of its own – creating potentially a whole other beast.

So, why then should the director assume the full credit for the final product when it was only brought in to being as an interpretation of what the screenwriter wrote in the first place?

As Mark Kermode commented about Ridley Scott during his review of Alien: Covenant (YouTube clip below), he truly believes that Scott’s films are only ever as good as his scripts – he’s a master of world building and the visual crafts, and indeed an extraordinary director, but he takes what he is given and uses that to make the film. Many films live or die on the script. The script is the backbone of the film, no matter how far away from the original screenplay the director decides to take the project.

It does, however, seem that Sarris and others have tried to distance themselves somewhat from the auteur theory, oftentimes perhaps to alleviate the negative reaction to the theory from screenwriters.

In “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”, within Film Theory and Criticism: 6th Edition (2004) Sarris states that ‘Truffaut has recently gone to great pains to emphasize that the auteur theory was merely a polemical weapon for a given time and a given place, and I am willing to take him at his word’.

Certainly recently, the term auteur with regard to directors seems to have taking on a meaning more of a ‘master’ than necessarily the overall author of a project, and more and more I have noticed film reviews praising – or deriding – the script itself as well as (or, at times, instead of) the director.

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