Courses / Undergraduate

Spring 2023

  • Auteur Theory – The Cinema of Tennessee Williams: The Writer as Auteur

    172 002 | CCN: 30529

    Dolores McElroy

    Location: Dwinelle 142

    Date and Time: M, W 2:00pm - 3:29pm

    4 Units

    “Forgive me if I disappoint you in saying that the face of Greta Garbo, silver and white and black in the dark, had a greater effect on me and my desire to tell stories than all the books in the library. My need to know more about people like those in the movies led me to books, because I wanted to consummate what had begun there in the dark, my heart racing, and my wanting so much to tell someone––anyone––something.”

    ––Tennessee Williams/Interview with James Grissom

    The work of mid-20th century American playwright Tennessee Williams has a unique relationship with film––in the span of twenty years (1950-1970), fifteen of this playwright’s plays were adapted by Hollywood as major feature films. Williams’ simultaneous success, notoriety, and failure as a Broadway playwright at the time of these films’ release, in addition to a small and sometimes recurring group of directors who helmed the adaptations of his work (including a close collaborations with Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Joseph Mankiewicz, Joseph Losey), and a particular stable of stars (Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Anna Magnani, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Madeleine Sherwood, Jack Carson) mark the films as a distinctive group. But what kind of group is it?

    Film students familiar with “auteur theory” may know it as a way of distinguishing technically proficient, stylistically unique, and thematically consistent film directors. The auteur is considered a “great” director, notable for their ability to render their unique personality in cinematic terms over the course of a career. Throughout the years, many have taken issue with the auteur theory for its inability to acknowledge the essentially collaborative nature of film, and to account for the many other influences in the making of any given work (studio, star, genre, cinematographer, editor, writer, etc.).

    Tennessee Williams, perhaps the most famous playwright of the 20th century American stage, is not a film director. But he is certainly an “author” in a traditional sense, in that he is the sole creative source of his poetic plays, most of which explore the battle between desire and spirit, mendacity vs. truth, social and familial expectation vs. freedom. The film adaptations of his work seem to have a distinctive look and feel, and they represent Williams’ unique creative obsessions, but can we consider the writer of the source material an auteur in the traditional sense? Or are the films a genre? Some scholars have counted the Williams films among a small but very successful group of “Southern Gothic” films of the 1950s-1960s; some have marked them as typical of the “small adult film” genre that sprung up after WWII to cater to an American public that could no longer invest in the escapist fantasies of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood film; and nearly everyone has counted them as important to the gradual dissolution of the Production Code, Hollywood’s self-censorship organ which ruled what could and could not be shown or spoken onscreen.

    In this course, we will consider questions of authorship, adaptation, and genre. Students will read, discuss, and analyze theories of adaptation and authorship, and will be asked to think through the creative and practical decisions involved in adapting a play into a film by producing a shot-by-shot analysis of certain scenes from the Williams’ films, as well as creating their own storyboard adaptation of a scene from Williams’ unfilmed play, Camino Real, and reflecting on their own experiences of adaptation. Additionally, this course aims to familiarize students with the social, cultural, and film industry history of mid-20th century Hollywood (and beyond), including the end of the studio era, and a rapidly changing postwar culture on the brink of many social and sexual revolutions.

    Lastly (but not least) this course is an opportunity for students to encounter the poetry, violence, and beauty of the writing of Tennessee Williams.

    PLEASE NOTE: The material for this course deals frankly with sexuality and sexual violence. In addition to the centrality of sexual desire (a prominent theme in every play and film), the works of Williams also feature rape, statutory rape, sexual coercion, severe mental illness and lobotomy, literal castration, and even cannibalism. If you are not comfortable discussing these themes, or if you simply do not want to spend 16 weeks with them, this may not be the course for you.