Ctva 309. Film as Literature: Readings Dr. John Schultheiss Department of Cinema and Television Arts




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CTVA 309. Film as Literature: Readings

Dr. John Schultheiss

Department of Cinema and Television Arts

john.e.schultheiss@csun.edu
NOTE: Consult course syllabus for the Readings assigned for the current semester.
Table of Contents


  1. Nihilism

  2. Naturalism

  3. Existentialism

    • The Existential Ernest Hemingway & Albert Camus “World,” “Hero,” “Code”

    • Existentialism Chart

(3A) Existentialism Exercise (Term Paper Assignment)

  1. The Novel/Film of “Destiny” and “Erosion”: Two Strains of Sensibility

  2. The Limping Hero

  3. The Grotesque

  4. Themes and Patterns in the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

  5. Ernest Hemingway and the “Tough-Guy” Writers [Anthology of “Hard-Boiled––Tough Style” Examples]

  6. Existential Motifs in the Film Noir

10. Woody Allen’s Commencement to Graduates

11. “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus

12. “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

13. “Pen, Pencil and Poison: A Study in Green” by Oscar Wilde

14. Two Dramatic Monologues by Robert Browning:

“Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”

15. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

16. “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway

17. “Film as Literature: The Bitch Goddess and the Blacklist”

by John Schultheiss



~ ~ ~

THE FOLLOWING ARE “THOUGHT SYSTEMS” relevant to making both the creative process and the critical process comprehensible in analytical terms:


Reading #1: NIHILISM
NIHILISM is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes––epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness––have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with anti-foundationalism.


Reading #2: NATURALISM
IN ITS SIMPLEST SENSE NATURALISM is the application of the principles of scientific determinism to fiction. The fundamental view of man which the naturalist takes is of an animal in the natural world, responding to environmental forces and internal stresses and drives, over none of which he has either control or full knowledge. It tends to differ from REALISM, not in its attempt to be accurate in the portrayal of its materials but in the selection and organization of those materials, selecting not the commonplace but the representative and so arranging the materials that the structure of the novel or film reveals the pattern of ideas––in this case, scientific theory––which forms the author’s view of the nature of experience.

In this sense NATURALISM is the artist’s response to the revolution in thought that modern science has produced. From Newton it gains a sense of mechanistic determinism; from Darwin (the greatest single force operative upon it) it gains a sense of biological determinism and the inclusive metaphor of the lawless jungle which it has used perhaps more often than any other; from Marx it gains a view of history as a battleground of vast economic and social forces; from Freud it gains a view of the determinism of the inner and subconscious self; from Taine it gains a view of literature as a product of deterministic forces; from Comte it gains a view of social and environmental determinism.

In his The Experimental Novel (1880), the most influential statement ever made of the theory of naturalism, Emile Zola wrote: “I consider that the question of heredity has a great influence in the intellectual and passionate manifestations of man. I also attach considerable importance to the surroundings. Man is not alone; he lives in society, in a social condition; this social condition unceasingly modifies the phenomena. Indeed our great study is just there, in the reciprocal effect of society on the individual and the individual on society. The experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century: it continues and completes physiology; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical and chemical laws, and modified by the influences of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age.”

Since human beings are “human beasts”––in Zola’s phrase from his novel, La Bête Humaine, 1889)––characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Zola’s description of this method follows Hippolyte Taine’s observation that “virtue and vice are products like vitriol and sugar”––that is, human beings as “products” should be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures.

The works produced in this school have tended to emphasize either a biological determinism, with an emphasis on the animal nature of man, particularly his heredity, portraying him as an animal engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival, or a socio-economic determinism, portraying man as the victim of environmental forces and the product of social and economic factors beyond his control or full understanding.

The naturalist strives to do the following:



  • to be objective, even documentary, in his presentation of material;

  • to be amoral in his view of the struggle in which the human animal finds himself, neither condemning nor praising man for actions he cannot control;

  • to be pessimistic in his view of human capabilities––life, he seems to feel, is a vicious trap, a cruel game;

  • to be frank and almost clinically direct in his portrayal of man as an animal driven by fundamental urges––fear, hunger, and sex;

  • to be deterministic in his portrayal of human actions, seeing them as explicable in cause-and-effect relationships;

  • to exercise a bias in the selection of characters and actions, frequently choosing primitive characters and simple, violent actions as best giving him “experimental conditions.”


Characters. Frequently but not invariably central figures are ill-educated or lower-class characters whose lives are governed by the forces of heredity, instinct, and passion. Their attempts at exercising free will or choice are hamstrung by forces beyond their control; social Darwinism and other theories help to explain their fates to the reader.
Themes. A central theme is the “brute within” each individual, composed of strong and often warring emotions: passions, such as lust, greed, or the desire for dominance or pleasure; and the fight for survival in an amoral, indifferent universe. The conflict in naturalistic novels is often “man against nature” or “man against himself,” as characters struggle to retain a “veneer of civilization” despite external pressures that threaten to release the “brute within.”

Nature is an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings.



  • The romantic vision of Wordsworth––that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her”––is replaced instead by Stephen Crane’s view:

“This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual––nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” (Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1897)

      • A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.” (Crane, 1899)




  • The forces of heredity and environment are examined as to how they affect—and afflict—individual lives.

  • Summary: the universe is indifferent and deterministic. Naturalistic texts often describe the futile attempts of human beings to exercise free will, often ironically presented, in this universe that reveals free will as an illusion.

Basic LITERARY documents in the tradition of NATURALISM would include: the novels of Emile Zola (Thérèse Raquin; La Bête Humaine); strong elements are to be seen in works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, but American novelists have been more receptive to theories than have the English––Hamlin Garland (Under the Lion’s Paw), Jack London (The White Silence), Stephen Crane (Maggie, Girl of the Streets, The Red Badge of Courage), Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy; The Financier), Frank Norris (“A Deal in Wheat;” McTeague; Vandover and the Brute), John Steinbeck (Tortilla Flat; The Grapes of Wrath), James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan); cf. NIHILISM in the novels of Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men; The Road).


The following are representative from Stephen Crane:
“When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she

would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the

temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and there are no temples.”

(“The Open Boat,” 1897)



Existential Analysis: “The Open Boat” (1897) evolved from Crane’s real-life experience of being stranded in a dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. On December 31, 1896, Crane sailed out of Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Cuba, to cover the emerging war as a correspondent. His ship sank in the morning of January 2, and Crane and three crew members spent thirty hours in a dinghy before coming ashore near Daytona Beach. In the resulting story, “The Open Boat,” Crane conveys an existential view of humanity: that is, he depicts a human situation in which the individual is insignificant in the universe and yet, through free will and consciousness, must interpret a reality that is essentially unknowable. The men in the dinghy, particularly the correspondent, try desperately to justify their survival in the struggle against the sea, but the values by which they live and the appeals they make to the heavens are inadequate. The universe is indifferent to their courage, valor, and brotherhood, and there is no response to the men’s furious appeals to fate and God to answer for the outrageous misfortune that has befallen them. Crane’s use of the word absurd in the narrator’s refrain challenging fate—“The whole affair is absurd”—resonates well with the existentialist creed that the universe itself is “absurd” and that there is no meaning in the natural order of things. At best, these men can construct their own meanings, such as the “subtle brotherhood of men” they form, but in Crane’s vision, they are shut out from the cosmos.
The trees in the garden rained flowers.

Children ran there joyously.

They gathered the flowers

Each to himself.

Now there were some

Who gathered great heaps––

Having opportunity and skill––

Until, behold, only chance blossoms

Remained for the feeble.

Then a little spindling tutor

Ran importantly to the father, crying:

“Pray, come hither!

See this unjust thing in your garden!”

But when the father had surveyed, ––

He admonished the tutor!

“Not so, small sage!

This thing is just.

For, look you,

Are not they who possess the flowers

Stronger, bolder, shrewder

Than they who have none?

Why should the strong-––

The beautiful strong––

Why should they not have the flowers?”

Upon reflection, the tutor bowed to the ground,

“My lord,” he said,

“The stars are displaced

By this towering wisdom.” (Black Riders and Other Lines, 1895)

NOTE: Basic FILMIC documents in the tradition of NATURALISM would include various works with themes focused in social problems, war and anti-war, poverty-injustice-oppression; psychological, sexual, and economic coercion—e.g., I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy), Fury, You Only Live Once (Lang); Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (Wellman); The Crowd (Vidor); Dead End (Wyler); The Pawnbroker (Lumet); Paths of Glory (Kubrick); various film noir adaptations of James M. Cain novels [The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity––with its pervasive train imagery as metaphor of fate, its cross-reference being La Bête Humaine (Zola, Renoir)––and note The Runaway Train (Konchalovsky)); Out of the Past (Tourneur); Detour (Ulmer); Quicksand (Pichel). Especially note the Freudian and Marxist films of Paul Thomas Anderson: Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.
These artistic applications in literature and film reveal an awareness of historical reality:
Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other “acts of God” that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.
––Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History.

Reading #3 : EXISTENTIALISM
Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself, or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life.

By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

I think that the faces of most Americans over thirty are relief maps of petulant, bewildered unhappiness.

––F. Scott Fitzgerald


BASICALLY THE EXISTENTIALIST assumes that existence precedes essence, that the significant fact is that we and things in general exist, but that these things have no meaning (essence) for us except as we through acting upon them can create meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre claims that the fundamental truth of existentialism is in Descartes’s formula, “I think; therefore, I exist.” The existential philosophy is concerned with the personal “commitment” of this unique existing individual in the “human condition.” It attempts to codify the irrational aspect of man’s nature, to objectify non-being or nothingness and see it as a universal source of fear, to distrust concepts, and to emphasize experiential concreteness. The existentialist’s point of departure is the immediate sense of awareness that man has of his situation. A part of this awareness is the sense man has of meaninglessness in the outer world; this meaninglessness produces in him a discomfort, an anxiety, a loneliness in the face of man’s limitations and a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, although efforts to act in a meaningless, “absurd” world lead to anguish, greater loneliness, and despair. Man is totally free, but he is also wholly responsible for what he makes of himself. This freedom and responsibility are the sources for his most intense anxiety. Such a philosophical attitude can result in nihilism and hopelessness, as, indeed, it has with many of the literary existentialists.

On the other hand, the existential view can assert the possibility of improvement. Most pessimistic systems find the source of their despair in the fixed imperfection of human nature or of the human context; the existentialist, however, denies all absolute principles and holds that human nature is fixed only in that we have agreed to recognize certain human attributes; it is, therefore, subject to change if men can agree on other attributes or even to change by a single man if he acts authentically in contradiction to the accepted principles. Hence, for the existentialist, the possibilities of altering human nature and society are unlimited, but, at the same time, man can hope for aid in making such alterations only from within himself.


Existentialism is a term applied to a group of attitudes current in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought during and after World War II, which emphasizes existence rather than essence and sees the inadequacy of the human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as the basic philosophical question. The term is so broadly and loosely used that an exact definition is not possible. In its modern expression it had its beginning in the writings of the nineteenth-century Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger is important in its formulation, and the French novelist-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has done most to give it its present form and popularity. Existentialism has found art and literature to be unusually effective methods of expression; in the novels of Franz Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Simone de Beauvoir, and in the plays and novels of Sartre, it has found its most persuasive media. Existentialism in the Hollywood film is most notably represented by director Howard Hawks.

Basically the existentialist assumes that existence precedes essence, that the significant fact is that we and things in general exist, but that these things have no meaning (essence) for us except as we through acting upon them can create meaning. Sartre claims that the fundamental truth of existentialism is in Descartes’s formula, “I think; therefore, I exist.” The existential philosophy is concerned with the personal “commitment” of this unique existing individual in the “human condition.” It attempts to codify the irrational aspect of man’s nature, to objectify non-being or nothingness and see it as a universal source of fear, to distrust concepts, and to emphasize experiential concreteness. The existentialist’s point of departure is the immediate sense of awareness that man has of his situation. A part of this awareness is the sense man has of meaninglessness in the outer world; this meaninglessness produces in him a discomfort, an anxiety, a loneliness in the face of man’s limitations and a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, although efforts to act in a meaningless, “absurd” world lead to anguish, greater loneliness, and despair. Man is totally free, but he is also wholly responsible for what he makes of himself. This freedom and responsibility are the sources for his most intense anxiety. Such a philosophical attitude can result in nihilism and hopelessness, as, indeed, it has with many of the literary existentialists.

On the other hand, the existential view can assert the possibility of improvement. Most pessimistic systems find the source of their despair in the fixed imperfection of human nature or of the human context; the existentialist, however, denies all absolute principles and holds that human nature is fixed only in that we have agreed to recognize certain human attributes; it is, therefore, subject to change if men can agree on other attributes or even to change by a single man if he acts authentically in contradiction to the accepted principles. Hence, for the existentialist, the possibilities of altering human nature and society are unlimited, but, at the same time, man can hope for aid in making such alterations only from within himself.

In contradistinction to this essentially atheistic existentialism, there has also developed a sizable body of Christian existential thought, represented by men like Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, Nicolas Berdyaev, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich.

Often incorrectly referred to as a philosophical “school,” existentialism is more accurately described as a trend or current in European philosophy and literature—which has, of course, in turn influenced and imbued significant works of cinema. While widely divergent varieties of existentialism are articulated by many thinkers (Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty)—all emphasize the philosophical problem of being (ontology: real existence itself or substance) over that of knowledge (epistemology: essence or appearance). Existentialism’s emphasis on individual being and experience challenges those doctrines that situate reason as the impetus driving all human activity or those that assume the universe to be an ordered system whose laws and goals can be discovered through objective observation (teleology). For existentialists, society has overvalued rationality and technology—with the result that consciousness has lost a fundamental sense of “authentic” being: individuals thus live in a world that has no more than an absurd, superficial meaning and that threatens always to devolve into nothingness (absurdism).
[Absurdism is a literary and philosophical movement that flourished after the Second World War and bears a close relationship to existentialism. Although it dates back to Kierkegaard’s notion of the absurd in Fear and Trembling, twentieth-century philosophical works like Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sysiphus offer the most familiar presentation of the movement’s central ideas: in a world without God, human life and human suffering have no intrinsic meaning. This sense of a fundamental incongruity between human beings and the conditions of their existence is a recognition of the absurd—and calls for a response that mixes humor and horror (despair). The signature attitude of absurdism is therefore black humor (humor of the grotesque), an ambiguous mixture of tragic pathos and preposterous comedy.]
For theistic existentialists like Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, and Søren Kierkegaard, the anxiety or angst that is the product of recognizing and experiencing absurdity leads to the possibility of various kinds of redemption. Basic to these arguments is the assumption that the essence of an individual is discoverable and meaningful, transcending the nothingness that threatens to consume everyday existence.

In the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence,” implying that whatever meaning one’s life attains is generated not by some inherent inner meaning but by the choices one makes in life to create one’s values. For Sartre, as for Camus, this means confronting one’s angst—rather than acting in “bad faith” by avoiding that responsibility and giving in to the absurdity of conventions. Essence, then, is unique, individual, and created through the “authentic” existence entailed in confronting the anguish of living in an absurd, meaningless world.

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