Art Media and Performance / Book review

Reading Movies in Print

By Jan Baetens

On: Films à lire. Des scénarios et des livres, ed. by Mireille Brangé and Jean-Louis Jeannelle. Brussels : Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2019, 364 p., ISBN : 9782874496691

Movie scripts are weird. They are neither the works themselves (after all, movies are supposed to replace them), nor the simple blueprint of these works (for the production of the film does not necessarily program their obsolescence). Their status and nature become even weirder when one takes the decision to publish them and the studies collected in this fascinating volume, which complements another volume on scenario and adaptation by Alain Boillat and Gilles Philippe that I presented here a couple of months ago (see: https://culturalstudiesleuven.net/2018/05/07/adaptation-studies-after-the-fidelity-issue/). These publications make very clear that this editorial practice is extremely widespread. Ever since the beginning of cinema as a cultural industry, scenarios have been issued in various forms and formats, ranging from movie magazines to specialized book series, and for widely varying reasons, hovering between art and commerce (published scenarios are a typical movie tie-in product, but they also cater to the needs of die-hard cinephiles).

Reading movies

In Films à lire (with a subtitle that nods to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), Brangé and Jeannelle offer the first general overview of the emerging field of “scenarios in print studies”, which will set the standard for all research in the coming years. This book is ground-breaking for different reasons. First of all, it dramatically questions the very definition of the “scenario”, since a scenario in print, that is edited and made available to a non-professional audience, is very different from the technical meaning and practice of scenario, which still dominates most thinking in the field, be it theoretical (what is a scenario?) or practical (how to write a scenario?). A published scenario becomes a work on its own, exploring aspects of literary communication and artistic experiment that classic approaches of the scenario do not touch upon. In addition, the book also challenges all forms of homogeneity in its reading of the scenario. As clearly shown by the many examples of the collection, which contains almost twenty detailed case studies covering various periods and styles of film making in different countries, one should consider the scenario a network of many different types and genres that cannot be reduced to a single mold.

Yet this more open and context sensitive approach of the scenario, as made possible by the shift from the scenario to the scenario in print, is not restricted to the published texts. The most fascinating aspect of Films à lire is the invitation to simultaneously question the twin notions of scenario and movie themselves. In light of what happens when scripts make it into print –and this move is never an automatic or mechanical one–, all contributions help us rethink not only the work of the script writer, but also that of the film maker –both of them being a collective agent rather than an individual and moreover an agent working in conditions that cannot be separated from a large site of technological, legal, aesthetic, financial and highly subjective constraints.