A College Essay on Auteur Theory: Auteur Theory is a Necessary Evil for Film Classification

         I found this, A College Essay on Auteur Theory as I hunted my hard drive for material – I hope you enjoy! The auteur theory allows us to classify films in order to further our understanding of cinematic studies. As Peter Wollen states, “What the auteur theory does is to take a group of films – the work of one director – and analyze their structure” (Braudy and Cohen, PG. 575-6). This school of thought, of course, has its own inherent problems. A film is borne from the creative minds of several individuals and not just the imagination of one person. So, the question is, is the auteur theory an idea which is advantageous or disadvantageous to the study of cinema? I would argue that the pros outweigh the cons in this case and, despite it’s flaws, the auteur theory is one of, if not the best way to consider a body of work for the advancement of the cinematic art-form.

Kubrick the Auteur

            The works of the late, great Stanley Kubrick serve as an excellent model for this debate. For one, nearly all of Kurick’s films past Killer’s Kiss (1955) were literary adaptations (with the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)). This connection between literature and cinema brings into question all sorts of notions about authorship and who a body of work truly belongs to. Also, Kubrick’s films were often large, lavish, and ambitious undertakings. After all, what would Barry Lyndon (1975) be without the brilliant cinematography of John Alcott? What would Dr. Strangelove (1964) be without the superlative acting of Peter Sellers? Kubrick’s films would have been unimaginable without the support of numerous other talented individuals. Is it fair then to brand Kubrick an auteur when he had such significant assistance from others?

Peter Wollen’s Take:

            The method in which to best categorize films is by way of the auteur theory. As Peter Wollen states, “It [auteur theory] has survived because it is indispensable” (Braudy and Cohen, PG 567). Auteur theory allows for a very specific view of film. Classification of films by genre, for example, is too broad for an accurate study of cinema. Genre is not specific enough and matters of personal taste can hinder a critic’s proper consideration of a given movie. For example, the horror flick is not the type of film that everyone can enjoy and too often this bias can detract from achievements made in that field which benefit the whole of filmmaking. By confining cinema’s classification to genre we intrinsically allow certain gems to fall through the cracks. If The Shining (1980)was ‘just another horror movie’ and not a ‘Stanley Kubrick horror movie’ many, many people would have written it off as trash. The technical achievements, such as the marvelous use of steadicam or haunting approach towards sound, would have gone unnoticed and set cinema back a step.


            Stanley Kubrick made nearly an entire career off of adapting the literary work of others. Does this lessen his status as an auteur? I do not think so. Firstly, I believe it is important to recognize that the cinematic auteur is just as much an author as a novelist. This is because a film must be written/constructed. Wollen affirms this point when he says, “It [auteur theory] implies an operation of decipherment; it reveals authors where none had been seen before” (Braudy and Cohen, PG 566). In other words, a film must not only be written/constructed but it must also be read/readable by it’s audience. This act of decipherment that the audience engages in proves that cinema can be elevated to the level of high art and thus shows us how film has it’s own specific form of authorship.

            Kubrick may have drawn from the ideas of others to paint his own masterpieces but he did so in order to touch upon the themes which were so important to the story in it’s original format they required revamping on-screen. Kubrick also had his own agenda as an auteur, his own messages and modes of delivery which made his body of work stylistically unique. The liberties Kubrick took as an artist altered the text but proved that film authorship is a different ball game. Wollen exemplifies this argument when he says, “The director does not subordinate himself to another author; his source is only a pretext, which provides catalysts, scenes which fuse with his own preoccupations to produce a radically new work” (Braudy and Cohen, PG 576).

The Shining

This can be seen prominently within the context of The Shining. Stephen King disliked the way Kubrick re-wrote his story so much that he went so far as to remake his own version in the form of a three-part 1997 mini-series. When speaking of The Shining casually who ever really is referencing the TV mini-series? In fact, most of the time the movie will be remembered before even the novel. This is exactly the point Wollen is driving at. Kubrick is an auteur for drawing the elements he deemed fit from King’s story and ‘producing a radically new work.’ We have seen the successful transformation of literature to film but auteur theory goes on to show that directors can advance cinema collectively by building upon one another’s ideas and methods. Stephen Spielberg is one noted director who frequently cites Stanley Kubrick as a source of inspiration. Considering his own body of work we can see how Spielberg follows Wollen’s formula and creates a ‘radically new work’ by drawing from the work of another.

Not Just One Person

            As stated above Kubrick’s films required numerous helping hands to realize his vision. This once again begs us to ask, “Does auteur theory grant too much credit to the director?” Auteur theory may place a lot of the beauty of a film behind the director but common sense tells us that a great movie is not merely the work of one person. Like the author, the auteur must understand the world he is creating in its entirety and make sure that the audience is able to follow said world through the channels provided by the author’s style. The novel uses the metaphor, whereas cinema uses acting or sound. These channels are created by various people with expansive knowledge of their field. It is the job of the auteur to arrange these channels into one cohesive vision, to direct.

Can we, in good faith, rely on the Auteur Theory?

            Another point to consider is that an auteur receives so many helping hands because of their ability to form their work into a profitable endeavor for the studio. It is simply easier to present, in a trailer for example, that a forthcoming movie is a ‘Stanley Kubrick film,’ or a ‘Martin Scorsese picture.’ It is easier to place the credit upon one name for a film in order to gain an audience for it’s release. The hope of the studio, by heaping praise upon this one name hopes that the audience will remember certain elements of that single director’s work and subsequently see the film. This was the case with District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009). No one had heard of Neill Blomkamp prior to this film. However, this film was wildly successful due to Peter Jackson’s name being plastered all over it. 

            The auteur theory is a double edged sword. It may be a great way in which to consider film and some of its most masterful practitioners, but at the same time it has a tendency to ignore the workers in the shadows who really make the vision of the director a reality. Earlier I had asked if it was fair that Kubrick receive as much praise as he does. I believe this is fair based upon the job a director inherently takes on. The auteur arranges and directs things meticulously. As Andrew Sarris says, “the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” (Braudy and Cohen, PG 562).

The Perfect Model

Stanley Kubrick is the perfect model of the meticulous prima donna who did things his way because he knew what was best for his vision. It may not exactly be ‘fair’ to single out Kubrick as the mastermind of all aspects of each of his films but the prominence of working on a film that said it was a ‘Stanley Kubrick film’ assuredly did wonders for his cast and crews’ resumés. I think Peter Wollen sums up auteur theory, and asserts Kubrick’s status as an auteur perfectly in the end of his article when he says that, “A valuable work, a powerful work at least, is one which challenges codes, overthrows established ways of reading or looking, not simply to establish new ones, but to compel an unending dialogue, not at random but productively…” (Braudy and Cohen, PG 580).

Works Cited:

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. “Andrew Sarris – Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Theory and                Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 561-64. Print.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. “Peter Wollen – From Signs and Meaning in the Cinema: The Auteur               Theory.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.                        565-580. Print.