So, you heard you should read screenplays, but you aren’t sure where to start. Worry no further!
Not only will this article present you with the top 15 screenplays every screenwriter should read, but it will also give you tips on how to make the most of your reading.
How to Read Screenplays
Reading screenplays because someone told you it’s good for you as a screenwriter won’t take you that further.
To reap the real benefits of this activity, consider the following tips:
- Have an aim why you read the screenplay.
You can even pick the same screenplay and read it several times – each time with a different aim in mind.
- Try reading different drafts of a screenplay, so you can see how it evolved – what was added and what was removed.
- Pick a scene, read it, and then watch it. Notice the differences (if any) between what’s on the paper and how it had been brought to life.
- Read the whole screenplay and then watch the film or vice versa; both will be beneficial.
- Try reading the screenplay while watching the film. You can, of course, pause and analyse.
- Pay attention when the screenwriter and the director of the film are the same and when they differ. How does this affect the screenplay and the film?
- Pick a scene and watch it. Then write it down as if you were the screenwriter. Compare what you wrote with the actual screenplay.
- Don’t get disheartened if your writing is not yet at the level of the screenplays you read. Use the latter as motivation and inspiration.
Without further ado, here are the top 15 screenplays every screenwriter should read (in chronological order):
Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Synopsis: What does publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s dying word “Rosebud” mean? And what will reporters learn about his life while trying to figure it out?
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Why you should read it: Many qualify the film as a watershed in filmmaking history, and its screenplay only adds to it – a perfect example of how to fictionalize a real-life figure.
By and large, the main character depicts William Randolph Hearst – a US businessman and newspaper publisher. His company Hearst Communications exists to this very day and is the country’s largest mass media conglomerate.
Some Like It Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Synopsis: Two male musicians disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band to leave the state after witnessing a mob hit.
Genre: Comedy, Music, Romance
Why you should read it: Based on “Fanfare of Love”, a German film written by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan, the film unleashed a series of screwball comedies – the more sarcastic subgenre of romantic comedies.
Examine the rhythm of the scenes and the different ways they convey energy.
Psycho (1960) by Joseph Stefano
Synopsis: On her way to California, after embezzling $40,000 from her employer’s client on a whim, a Phoenix secretary checks into a remote motel managed by a young man and his domineering mother.
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Why you should read it: An adaption of the eponymous novel by Robert Bloch, many consider Hitchcock’s Psycho the best film of all times.
The lack of a real protagonist, killing the closest to such midway, are just some of the points that transcend the screenplay.
A masterclass of suspense, it’s worth reading (and watching) even if it is only for the iconic shower scene.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) by William Goldman
Synopsis: After a failed train robbery and chased by a posse, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, leaders of a criminal band, decide to escape to Bolivia.
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Why you should read it: A classic example of a dual protagonist story, or as it is commonly called “buddy picture”, the screenplay is a fine mixture of humour, action, and romance.
It all crystalizes in its undoubtedly most memorable scene – the conversation between the two leading characters on the cliff before they jump into the river.
Goldman also brought home an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
The Godfather (1972) by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Synopsis: An insight into the life of organised crime in America, we witness the transfer of power from the family’s aging patriarch to his reluctant son.
Genre: Crime, Drama
Why you should read it: The screenplay is an adaptation of the book with the same name, whose author Mario Puzo co-wrote with the director of the film, Francis Ford Coppola.
While the story is Shakespearean in nature – a “king” must choose his successor among his three sons, its most prominent feature is the emotional transformation of the characters.
Puzo and Coppola created yet another contestant for the title “the greatest film of all times” and received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Chinatown (1974) by Robert Towne
Synopsis: A woman hires a private investigator to expose her husband, but instead, he finds himself amidst a whirlwind of deceit, corruption, and murder.
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Why you should read it: One of if not the best screenplay of all times. Perfection. There are not enough superlatives when it comes to Chinatown.
The structure of the screenplay is exemplary, and its biggest asset is the way Robert Towne develops the characters.
Mysterious figures in a mystery.
Not surprisingly, he won the Oscar for Original Screenplay at the 47th Academy Awards.
Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Synopsis: Follow the recollections of Alvy Singer, a divorced Jewish comedian, on his relationship with ex-lover Annie Hall, a struggling nightclub singer.
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Why you should read it: Considered not only one of Woody Allen’s best films but one of the best films ever made, Annie Hall laid the foundations of the romantic comedy genre.
True to his revolutionising nature, Allen breaks all scriptwriting conventions while telling a personal story everyone can relate to.
The opening scene where he starts his monologue talking straight to the camera is just one example.
Allen received the Academy Award for Best Director and shared that for Best Original Screenplay with Brickman.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Ted Tally
Synopsis: The life of a serial killer victim depends on the cooperation between a young FBI trainee and a cunning incarcerated cannibal killer.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Why you should read it: An adaptation of Thomas Harris’ book, the screenplay is unanimously proclaimed as one of the greatest crime thrillers.
Closely examine the unconventional and dynamic relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist turned ally.
Not only did Tally receive an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but the film also won in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress categories.
Groundhog Day (1993) by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Synopsis: A sarcastic weatherman gets stuck in the small town of Punxsutawney, where he finds himself inexplicably reliving the same day over and over again.
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Romance
Why you should read it: The screenplay encompasses a classic story of a bad guy turning good, a genius idea, and flawless execution.
It is a masterclass in how to write a high-concept comedy.
Rubin and Ramis received the BAFTA for Best Screenplay in 1994.
Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Synopsis: The stories of two hitmen, a boxer, a gangster and his wife, and a pair of armed robbers are brought together in an unexpectedly humorous and violent way.
Genre: Crime, Drama
Why you should read it: Many consider Tarantino’s second feature film his best screenplay.
The non-chronological order of the multiple-plot story, the extensive monologues in combination with Tarantino’s infamous casual conversations are among the screenplay’s highlights.
Tarantino and Avary jointly received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the 67th Academy Awards.
American Beauty (1999) by Alan Ball
Synopsis: An insight into the life of the American suburbia through the story of a frustrated father who goes through a mid-life crisis after he is infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.
Why you should read it: There is not a unanimous opinion on what this screenplay is about exactly.
While it does satirises the pretentious and shallow life in the American suburbia, it also raises questions about the meaning of life and how to live it in general.
One thing, however, is sure – the screenplay is a masterclass in how to write a scene, character establishment, stakes, and genre.
The Academy recognized Ball’s ingenious writing with an award for Best Screenplay in 2000.
The Matrix (1999) by Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers)
Synopsis: A beautiful stranger lures computer hacker Neo to a forbidden world where he comes to a devastating revelation about the true nature of our life.
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Why you should read it: The film opened a new page in filmmaking, specifically when it comes to action scenes and special effects.
Its screenplay, however, is a classic “hero’s journey” – the main character overcomes struggles and self-doubt to realise his full potential and fulfil his destiny.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Charlie Kaufman
Synopsis: What will happen if you have your ex-lover and painful relationship memories erased?
Genre: Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Why you should read it: This unique and ingenious screenplay is an ode to weirdness.
Well-deservedly, Kaufman received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Inside Out (2015) by Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley
Synopsis: Following the life of a young girl, Riley, whose whole world turns upside-down after moving to a new city, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness try to mitigate the change.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Why you should read it: Animations are long not only for children, and Inside Out is undoubtedly one of the best in this category.
Another example of a high-concept premise, the screenplay takes us on a unique journey – a close encounter with the little voices in our heads.
Wrapped in a greatly dosed and detailed humor, it raises existential questions about maturing and the importance of our emotions. All of them!
The animation won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2015.
La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle
Synopsis: The love story of aspiring pianist and actress in Los Angeles whose lives are brought together but will this stay so for the future?
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music
Why you should read it: Just when you think there are no more musicals, Chazelle came out with and directed an original one with the great prospect of joining its classic counterparts.
The exquisitely written screenplay shows the life of the main characters in a non-linear kaleidoscopic manner.
Besides this, you can learn how to incorporate songs.
Oh, and there is no happy ending, or is it? I leave it to you to decide.
And there you have it, top 15 screenplays every screenwriter should read.
Although I tried to include films of all times and various genres, this list is by no means exhaustive.
Consider it a great starting point!
Happy reading (and learning), and don’t forget to share what screenplay you think should also be on the list.
Dilyana is a freelance writer with a vivid passion for films and filmmaking, among others. She has also completed numerous related online and onsite courses, including courses in Scriptwriting and Directing at the Budapest Film Academy in Hungary and a Filmmaking course at MetFilm School in London. While Dilyana has long lost the number of how many films she has seen, she has no intention of losing the spark to bring a little bit of their magic into everyday life. Come say “Hi!” here or here.