‘Sight & Sound’ Poll Writes Screenwriters Out of the Movies

When the latest edition of the Sight & Sound poll was published last year, commentators were abuzz over the results. “Hitchcock knocks Welles off top of ‘greatest film’ poll,”1 announced one headline. “Hitchcock dethrones Welles,”2 proclaimed another. Again and again, the ascendancy of Vertigo to the top spot on the critics’ list was dramatized as one auteur vanquishing another. Taking this rhetoric to the limit, one blogger used the poll to decide on “the greatest auteur in cinema.”3 Even some critics who refused to participate in the Sight & Sound poll, such as Peter Bogdanovich, only did so on the grounds that it was impossible to narrow down the list of movies made by favorite directors to such a manageable number.4

If all the talk about directors and auteurs didn’t make the point clear: screenwriters, once again, were left out in the cold. Indeed, coverage of the results might lead one to assume that Vertigo emerged from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock fully formed, rather than from a screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, itself adapted from a novel (The Living and the Dead) written by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. To be fair, this oversight isn’t entirely the fault of bloggers and journalists. Directors are so feted by Sight & Sound that they have been invited by the magazine to vote in their own poll since 1992. Screenwriters aren’t afforded the same opportunity (nor is anyone else involved in the filmmaking process, for that matter). Worse, screenwriters aren’t even credited on the Sight & Sound website, which has an entry for every film to place on both the critics’ and directors’ polls but only indicates the films’ directors and most prominent actors.

Given the information provided by the magazine’s website, then, it comes as no surprise that although the results have been dissected by director, release date, and country of origin (all of which Sight & Sound provides), little attention has been given to dissecting the results by writer (or other characteristics that Sight & Sound does not provide).

To begin to correct this oversight, I have put together a list of every writing credit for the top 252 films in the critics’ poll. What I imagined would be a relatively simple exercise quickly revealed itself to be a complicated one, and I had to set a few guidelines to keep this project from becoming totally unmanageable. In service of time, I focused my attention on the critics’ poll, which seems to have drawn the majority of online attention out of the two polls. I only credited writers with the screenplay or story when they were recognized for their contribution on-screen, except in the two cases of documentaries that credited no screenwriter. For those films (Shoah, #29, and West of the Tracks, #202), in order to avoid writer-less titles on the list, I deferred to online sources that credited the films’ directors with screenwriting duties. Because I was interested in the ratio of original to adapted works in the poll, I allowed for the writers of uncredited (but widely acknowledged) source material to be included on the list. Such cases included uncredited adaptations such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”) and Apocalypse Now (based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness).

The list I’ve compiled is far from comprehensive. There are undoubtedly unauthorized and uncredited adaptations that I have missed. By deferring to on-screen credits, I have surely ignored countless screenwriters who were denied credit for a multitude of reasons. As a starting point, however, I think it is perfectly suited to this exercise, the results of which were illuminating.

On the Sight & Sound website, which sorts the poll by directors, the myth of the individual film author appears tenable. Directing teams such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are an exception to the rule; indeed, nearly all of the films in the poll have a single director. Sorting the poll by writers, the collaborative nature of filmmaking becomes much more apparent. Of the 252 films in the critics’ poll, only 120—fewer than half—are the work of a single credited screenwriter. Of those 120 films, 37 were adapted from source material by another writer, which leaves only 83 films on the list written by a single person. In all, the top 252 films in the critics’ poll involved 385 different writers.

Among the top 252 films in the critics’ poll, there are 23 directors who appear at least four separate times:

Seven films: Robert Bresson
Six films: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Five films: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick
Four films: Charlie Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, John Ford, Federico Fellini, Terrence Malick, Kenji Mizoguchi, F. W. Murnau, Yasujirō Ozu, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles

Looking at the top 252 films through the lens of writers rather than directors, the list of people appearing on the list four or more times is a bit different:

Seven films: Robert Bresson
Six films: Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Five films: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Tonino Guerra, Stanley Kubrick
Four films: Charlie Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, Yasujirō Ozu, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Yoshikata Yoda

By tracking the writers who contributed to the most films in the critics’ poll, one discovers a list that is as notable for whom it leaves it out as for whom it includes. Notable directors but infrequent screenwriters John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Kenji Mizoguchi, F.W. Murnau, and Andrei Tarkovsky each have fewer than four writing credits among the top 252 films in the critics’ poll (indeed, Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock do not have a single writing credit on the list). On the other hand, Federico Fellini, as the cowriter of Rome, Open City and Paisan, improves his standing in the poll as the writer of six films (but the director of only four). Tonino Guerra, an Italian screenwriter, appears on the list as a writer of five films (four of them collaborations with Antonioni, one a collaboration with Fellini).

On the subject of adaptations versus original screenplays, the originals are in the majority. Of the top 252 films in the critics’ poll, 108 are adapted from another source and 144 are original screenplays. Of the adaptations in the critics’ poll, 54 are based on novels, 20 on short stories, 10 on plays, and 24 on other material (ideas, poems, novellas, memoirs, articles, and nonfiction).

What I am suggesting by this blog post is not a radical rethinking of film authorship along the lines of David Kipen’s Schreiber Theory. Rather, my point is that organizations like the British Film Institute (publisher of Sight & Sound), which focus in part on establishing a film canon, do the appreciation of films a disservice by erasing nearly everyone but the director from the process of creation. With any luck, by the time the 2022 polls roll around, Sight & Sound will provide users with a much wider tool set than it currently offers to compare the results.

To accompany this post, Michael Kmet compiled a spreadsheet detailing the Sight & Sound poll results in terms of the films’ screenplay and story credits:

Click to download “SightandSoundTop250.xlsx” (48.6 KB)


1. ^ http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/02/showbiz/uk-hitchcock-greatest-film-poll/index.html
2. ^ http://www.wtop.com/541/2976747/Hitchcock-dethrones-Welles-as-Vertigo-tops-Kane
3. ^ http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/sight-and-sound-by-the-numbers-and-the-auteur-with-the-most-films-is-20120817
4. ^ http://blogs.indiewire.com/peterbogdanovich/the-sight-and-sound-poll

Author bio:

Michael Kmet received a B.S. in Cinema and Photography and a B.A. in 
Politics at Ithaca College, and an M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at 
UCLA. His research interests include early American science fiction
 television, audio-visual film and television marketing, product
 integration strategies for “Quality TV,” and developing digital 
teaching tools for cinema and media studies.

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