1. The Shawshank Redemption
2. The Godfather
3. The Godfather: Part II
4. The Dark Knight
5. Pulp Fiction
6. Schindler's List
7. 12 Angry Men
8. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
9. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
10. Fight Club
11. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
12. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
13. Forrest Gump
15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
This has me thinking: What is the commonality here? What sticks out?
How many of these films were not based on novels or stage plays? The Dark Knight (whose characters were developed in comic books). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (which was based off a story by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Leone), Pulp Fiction, The Empire Strikes Back, and Inception.
Of those exceptions, how many screenplays and productions were not ultimately in complete control of the director? Zero.
Today, most film stories are written by many people in a long tortured process (Chris Nolan & Quentin Tarantino movies being notable exceptions), Screenplays are found by production companies (many of which have first-look agreements with the studios). The screenplays are rewritten, and rewritten again (by different writers-for-hire). Top talent is attached, as is a director (both of whom may make script changes). The film is then pitched to the primary studio, and if passed on, to other studios. The studio that bites orders rewrites and puts in its casting requests. A banking company or another studio may be called in to co-finance, and may make changes as well. The film may languish in development hell for years, and come out rewritten many times over by even more writers.
Eventually, a film is shot. The studio(s) request more changes. At some point the project is completed. The only guarantee is that the script, and more importantly, the characters, are probably significantly different than those of the draft that was initially optioned.
What we tend to see from the films that audiences rank among the greatest of all time is that they're based off of novels that were written by one author (and improved by an editor), or that they're made with one person in control, usually a writer/director that could veto any change requested by the various powers that hovered above and around.
This isn't surprising. As the old adage goes, the Mona Lisa could not have been painted by 1,000 artists, each doing one brushstroke at a time. Instead it was painted by one person—perhaps one of the most brilliant and talented minds in the history of humanity. But that one person, Leonardo da Vinci, was in complete control of his work, and mankind benefited greatly from that fact.
It's not that art-by-committee can't work. Casablanca, a film that I would argue is better than any on that top fifteen list (with the possible exception of #15), was largely made by committee in the old studio system. But films like Casablanca are the rare exception.
I believe part of the reason why we're in such a golden age of television is that many showrunners are given significant control over their series. This results in narratives that range from bad to superb, but to me that's better than what happens with committee work: a range that typically goes from bad to good.
I often wonder what terrific scripts were written by very talented writers over the years that were destroyed by people downstream who didn't have much writing talent. I wonder if there're any professional screenwriters out there that haven't had their work diminished by the Hollywood rewrite process.
Most of the greatest writers that we know of happen to be novelists. I wonder how many writers had the potential to be as good as Nabokov, but didn't get there because they chose to become screenwriters. I'm not suggesting that rewrites are a bad idea. It's the fact that almost everything in Hollywood is rewritten so many times, often by people who aren't talented writers, that I'm complaining about. Too many films follow a very boring and non-creative standard paradigm and it's made going to the theatre a chore instead of being a fun experience.
If Hollywood produced an ample number of terrific films that were loved by most, it wouldn't be such a big issue. But one often has to wonder after stepping out of a theatre: how the hell did that script get locked for production?
I rarely go to movie theatres anymore. The risk that I'll waste my money and time on a substandard product is too great. I believe this is a result of a process that leans too heavily on rewrites and not heavily enough on the original screenwriter's story and characters. There are plenty of great scripts out there. They're just not being found, and when they are found, they're being destroyed.