“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” When we hear these words, one person comes to mind. J-F-K. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy sparked the hearts of millions of Americans, patriots, leaders, and spectators from around the world at a critical time in history in an unforgettable inaugural speech.
What doesn’t come to mind, however, is the man who wrote it. Ted Sorenson was the original speechwriter and the creator of the infamous quote. But decades later, we still know them as JFK’s words.
This same kind of idea is frequent among the wide tension between credit given to directors versus screenwriters. A director becomes the face of a movie, and is often remembered over the writer. Partly, this is because there is one director and sometimes multiple writers. Others may feel that directors use their skill to turn scripts into good movies. Yet, some cases show that good scripts can become bad movies. For example, Quentin Tarantino is a revered writer. Yet in his earlier days, when making Natural Born Killers, his original script for the film was rewritten by Oliver Stone and others, resulting in a 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. Tarantino even denied any affiliation with the film claiming that they changed his writing so much he didn’t want any credit.
As a writer, our words are an extension of us. They can be a weapon. They can heal. They can teach. Writers make them what they want. There’s the power of language, and there’s the language of power. The way words are construed and put together is a defining aspect of who we are. Words can make all the difference in the world. So, when our words are known by the voice of others, albeit at times when this is the intention, it can still feel like some kind of moral and creative robbery.
In some instances, it makes sense. It’s the job of many writers to serve the purpose of others. Speechwriters, and ghost-writers, have an objective beyond their own creative processes. But it seems like a silent tragedy that they are not seen for work that is so incredible it makes history. And part of the issue is that we not only lack awarding glory, but we label others as ‘brilliant’ and ‘genius’ when the true masterminds are behind closed doors.
Like in film, many Hollywood movies follow the “A film by…” sequence which explicitly credits a movie to a director, despite its common creation by someone else. In some cases, directors don’t even let writers on set because they want ownership of the story. They are the ones in control. That’s why it’s easy to name directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan.
Still, it’s not about stealing credit. It is possible for writers to make big names for themselves. And surely, they are recognised in their own worlds. But there’s still some kind of barrier that has to be broken for this to occur. It’s much harder to name scriptwriters unless they are also distinguished directors, for example Aaron Sorkin, Wes Anderson, and Greta Gerwig.
Simply put, it’s not a natural thing to credit the writer behind the thing we love. We like what we can see. It’s easier to remember the faces we see, and credit the names we already know.
This brings forward lots of questions. Is there only so much acclaim we can give? As if like a child that looks for someone to blame when things go wrong, is there some innate human need to praise someone when things go right? If so, does it matter if it was really them, so long as we don’t know better?
When highlighting the work of writers, there is no reason to unnecessarily dis-credit the ones who we do remember. JFK was JFK. He was THE President. He gave Sorenson’s words a certain weight in a way that no one else could have delivered had they not been in JFK’s shoes. The same goes for filmmakers. There’s no denying that they hold an important realm of control that creates the hype for the world the writers had created in the first place. And there’s no denying the talent and skill in directing and cinematography.
Plus, ghost-writers, screenwriters, and speechwriters generally have their names on their work, and are known to those in the industry. But here, we make the distinction that being acknowledged for and being remembered for are two separate things.
As many go unphased by this seemingly cataclysmic flaw in human history and social nature, the blissful ignorance is bothersome to me. It feels like when you tell a really funny joke and no one hears, then someone repeats it louder and everyone laughs. Now multiply the effect of that on a global stage, with huge impacts on society and history. It feels like we now have lost moments in time. It makes me feel like second-guessing key events of the past.
To ignore this leaves us as slaves to human tendency. And our society is built this way. Most elite politicians are made to have speechwriters. Many directors use other people’s scripts. That’s just how it goes. But is it time to start praising these writers for their contributions to society and history?
Praise is good, and it's important. But when it’s not distributed correctly there are consequences. Besides the obvious personal detriment and amorality served to the writers, I feel there is some inherent wrongness to this. The only upside I can see is that those people also take the heat when words go wrong.
To me, writers are being swindled left, right, and centre. It’s tricky in that these situations allow for the adding of value to people and things where they should be somewhere else. We applaud the voice that speaks and not the mind that feels, the mind that creates. And sometimes this leads us to praise puppets over pioneers. And beyond clout and fame, this injustice is also reflected in pay gaps and career inequity as well.
It’s the same when you associate a character, or an actor with a one-liner, or a quote. It’s natural to associate visuals, atmosphere, and people to the things we like. But while it’s ordinary to think that a character or actor is hilarious or intelligent, it’s easy to forget that someone in real life had to be that funny and that smart in order to be able to write the people we see.
Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” When a quote goes down in history, or when a film reaches unprecedented bounds, magic is being made. In these cases, writers are part of the process that creates a piece of genius, or an act of timeless brilliance. But as time goes on it's easy to forget and mis-source their origins.
Now with the rise and accessibility of technology, the increase in authorship, and the push for political and moral correctness, the issue, one would think, would not be as big. And this can be true in some circumstances. Because information, at the very least, is fairly accessible. But while historians, or fanatics, will remember facts and specifics, there is still great difficulty and inequity in allowing the writers behind great things to become household names, and become celebrated.
There’s much to ponder on the other hand also. If we shared this credit, would we then have double the people to praise or would it be harder to receive praise at all?
Ultimately while this is just life as we know it, and does not (shockingly) seem to upset the status quo or the average person, these unnoticed footnotes leave a feeling of realisation; maybe history leaves some geniuses behind.