Opinion

Will a screenwriter ever win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Another year, another snub

Another year, another Nobel snub for screenwriter Paul Schrader — and every screenwriter there is. The Nobel Prize began in 1901, and 120 years — and several hundred thousand movies — later, no writer whose primary work is for the screen has been awarded the top literary prize on Earth.

In some ways, this makes sense. When the first Nobels were awarded, movies were still a fledgling art form. Even now, film and screenwriting generally aren't taken as seriously as their more prestigious literary cousins.

But in other regards, this is a baffling omission by the Swedish Academy's Nobel Prize Committee. Screenplays are among the most-consumed forms of literature in existence, and movies are increasingly considered an elite art form. Moreover, the committee has signaled its interest in awarding nontraditional forms of literature. It's past time screenplays were included.

Surely the subject has come up in committee meetings. In a recent interview with Nobel Prize Committee chair Anders Olsson, The New Republic's Alex Shepherd asked about recent awards, like "Svetlana Alexievich's hybrid of fiction and nonfiction in 2015 and, most notably, Bob Dylan's songwriting in 2016. [Now], are you still interested in this expansive approach?"

"I think that it's very important for us right now to expand and widen our horizons," Olsson replied. "Rather than losing the grip of quality. Literary merit: That is the absolute and the only criterion for us within the academy. But what we can do is to widen our orientation of literature." For Olsson, this has meant moving beyond the painfully eurocentric and predominately male history of laureates. It also seemed to leave a door open to a broader conception of "literature." Still, screenplays have yet to be invited in.

Of course, many writers who've won Nobel Prizes also wrote screenplays, but none of those honorees worked first and foremost as screenwriters. William Faulkner, for example, scribed dozens of movies for Hollywood studios — but he's cited by the Swedes specifically for his "powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel." Kazuo Ishiguro, likewise an occasional screenwriter, was singled out for his "novels of great emotional force." Playwright George Bernard Shaw, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for the adaptation of his play Pygmalion in 1938, was awarded his Nobel Prize in 1925, long before the movie. His screenwriting isn't mentioned on his Nobel biography page. Even Peter Handke, whose literature award is the closest the Swedish Academy has come to honoring a screenwriter, was recognized as "one of the greatest novelists of his generation" (he's also known, rather more infamously, as a euologist of Slobodan Milošević).

Some have argued screenwriting is simply too collaborative an artform for the Nobels to honor a single "author" of a film, especially since dialogue can be improvised by the director or actors on set. But fiction can also be wildly collaborative, and anyway, other organizations have managed to hand out screenwriting awards for decades. Besides, isn't the question of primary authorship often an uncertainty? (That's the entire plot of The Wife). It seems strange for screenwriters alone to be dismissed outright on this ground while many of the same concerns could be raised with Nobel-winning playwrights like Eugene O'Neill or Harold Pinter.

It can't be a question of a dearth of talent, either. Take the body of work of Spike Lee, whose powerful, relevant, imaginative films and screenplays range from Do the Right Thing to Da 5 Bloods. Or consider the master Pedro Almodóvar, who uses his Spanish-language scripts to "question different types of sexuality, make fun of the bourgeois and religious conventions, but never of true love," as put in a wonderful summation by Kino Tuškanac. New Zealand's Jane Campion, too, is a brilliant writer whose distinctly female way of turning over a story proves that adaptation is as much a creative art as any original script. And that's just to name a handful of living, eligible screenwriter-directors — but where was the recognition for Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala when she was still alive?

Perhaps it still comes down to "seriousness." The Nobel Prize in Literature has been in flux for several years. No longer can it award writers without fear of scrutiny and critique — either for being too pretentious and obscure, or too crowd-pleasing, or too controversial, or otherwise just plain disappointing. Purists would roll their eyes if a lowly screenwriter won the most prestigious literary award in the world.

Even so, it seems silly to float that explanation in 2021, when you can discover some of the year's best writing on your TV, and when film criticism can be just as fraught, snobby, and elitist as any traditional literary debate. It seems ignorant, too, to pretend no screenwriter has ever fulfilled the terms of Alfred Nobel's will, which directed the Nobel Prize Committee to recognize "the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction." 

After all, as Alfred Hitchcock once said, "To make a good film, you need three things: the script, the script, and the script." And certainly, there have been good — great! — films in the past 12 decades. Nobel recognition of their writers is long overdue.

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