This is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list, but these are ten scripts every screenwriter–whether aspiring newbie or seasoned pro–should read, the sooner the better. All of these screenplays are extraordinary, not just due to the quality of the writing but also because of their far-reaching impact on American cinema.
Chinatown is widely considered to be the Great American Screenplay, and for good reason. It’s a moody, atmospheric narrative that functions both as a postmodern interpretation of the 1940s hardboiled P.I. film noir (think The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past) and as a genuine entry in that genre. Structurally, the script is masterful. Every act break is razor-sharp and perfectly placed. You feel the different parts of the story…they are all distinct…and yet they absolutely tie into each other to form a unified whole. The script is also second-to-none in how it seamlessly links theme and character. It’s a dark, cathartic story that stays with you long after it ends.
Dances With Wolves is an extraordinary script in several ways. One, it was a Western and got picked up and packaged by a superstar-turned-director at a time when the conventional wisdom was that Westerns were dead. And not only was it a
Western, at 180 pages it was an epic Western. That it got made and became a success gives hope to us all that great writing will get noticed, even if it goes against the grain and what is currently considered commercial in the market.
The script also exemplified the trope of a soldier interacting with a race of Others and finding a sense of identity and solidarity with them and choosing them over his own people. Would we have The Last Samurai and Avatar without Dances With Wolves?
Psycho is a glorious anomaly. It breaks so many rules and gets away with it, it’s almost criminal. First off, there is no real protagonist. Janet Leigh as Marion Crane is the closest thing to it, and not only is she far from likable, she gets killed off a third of the way through the film. The character that is the most endearing and personable is Anthony Perkins’ iconic Norman Bates, and we still feel for him even after we learn the truth about him in the film’s twist ending…and speaking of twist endings, is there a more definitive model for the modern twist ending than Psycho?
4. Die Hard
Die Hard forever changed an entire genre. Instead of the globetrotting James Bond formula or the (delightful) excesses of 1980s Schwarzenegger and Stallone, here was an average joe, shoeless and vulnerable, in the wrong place at the wrong time… a guy that didn’t want to be a hero and would have happily watched anyone else step up to the plate. Die Hard proved that innovation—within a broad commercial framework—sells like gangbusters. One man. One mission. One location. Die Hard proved so successful, it forever infiltrated the Hollywood mindset and became its own point of reference: “it’s Die Hard on a…”
For better or for worse, without Die Hard there would be no Speed, Under Siege, Passenger 57, Con Air, Air Force One, as well as White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. It also proved that you could and should have an antagonist every bit as layered, entertaining and wily as your protagonist. 25 years and four sequels later, and Die Hard still exists as the gold standard of modern action movies. And it all started with the script.
Everyone loves Casablanca. It’s a perfect story: great characters, great story, great arcs, great message, great setting. It’s simple and universal and timeless, and it has arguably the most powerful ending of any love story ever. And the great irony is, as the production history of the film reveals, Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch made it all up as they went along. The lesson here, dear writers, is this: if you don’t know what you’re doing, fake it.
Little needs to be said about The Godfather except this: it showed you can make Shakespearean art out of pulp. Four decades later, we’re doing the same thing with comic books.
You can’t ask for a more literate, prescient and devilishly-entertaining script than Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. It’s nasty, mean-spirited, super-smart and altogether brilliant. It’s cinematic satire of the highest order, and it set the precedent for dense, structurally ambitious ensembles. Would Tarantino and P.T. Anderson and Paul Haggis be doing the kinds of films that defined their brand without Network? It’s a must-read.
8. Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump is probably the most successful and iconic example of the Traveling Angel narrative, where the story isn’t so much about how the protagonist changes but by how the protagonist causes others to change. The script also proves that you can be creative with an adaptation and improve upon the source material… or at least make it more commercial.
Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s The Apartment helped make dramedies into not only a genre but a mainstream one at that. It’s an indie script wrapped in studio gloss. It’s sad and funny and deceptively simple, and it reminds us that you don’t need scope to tell an epic story.
The Silence of the Lambs is another one of those perfect adaptations. It streamlines the source material while preserving its key beats and characterizations, tone and emotional core.
The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise—both written, made and released at roughly the same time—ushered in a new era of complex female protagonists and proved that women could lead commercial blockbusters. Lambs also earns major points for linking protagonist and antagonist so skillfully and for redefining that age-old battle for dominance. It also, arguably more than anything that came before it other than The French Connection, popularized the police procedural… a genre that saturates the American film and television landscape to this day.
So there you have it. Ten unforgettable scripts. What else should be added to the list?