Reading screenplays is the best way to improve your skills as a screenwriter.
Apart from actual writing, it’s certainly the most fun way.
Reading scripts helps you understand correct screenplay formatting, absorb how successful writers express their ideas on the page and how the story flows visually.
When you are writing your screenplay it is important to study scripts from that genre but it is vital you read scripts across all genres and era’s of filmmaking to broaden your knowledge.
The list has been compiled across many genres going back 90 years.
The scripts are at varying stages of development some are shooting scripts which contain shots.
You don’t want to include shot usually but these screenplays were production ready and written by the director.
There are also spec scripts, which most of you no doubt are writing.
Here’s a challenge:
Binge read screenplays.
Read 3 a week for four weeks.
That’s 15 scripts in a month.
That task isn’t as big as it sounds.
It’s the equivalent of watching 2 seasons of tv in a month.
I bet most of you do that in a week.
1. Stand By Me
Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
Comedy/Coming Of Age
Nominated for the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay proving an adaptation doesn’t have to be an exact version or faithful to the novel.
There are several key changes made from Stephen King’s novella ‘The Body’.
This unconventional coming of age comedy is an 80’s favourite and is funny, heartfelt and touching.
Evans and Gideon bookend the story with ‘The Writer’ reflecting on his childhood experience of the first time he saw a dead body through voice over.
It’s the perfect study of how to use voice over. Voice over shouldn’t carry or explain the story.
In Stand By Me it is used to give insight, sharp observation and comedy which adds layers and colour to the story.
2. Toy Story
The first of Pixars many successful and brilliantly written screenplays was also the first-ever computer-animated feature film.
A funny and thrilling adventure about Woody – a cowboy and favourite toy of 6 year old Andy who is suddenly threatened by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear.
As they fight for Andy’s attention they realise they must learn to work together for a greater goal.
Toy Story established Pixar’s story paradigm which they used for all their subsequent screenplays.
3. The Matrix
Written by The Wachowski’s
One of the best films from the late 90’s back when Hollywood still made original films not based on existing properties.
The screenplay has influences from mythology, martial arts and philosophy.
Set in a dystopian world, Neo undergoes the classic ‘Hero’s Journey’ where through great struggles and doubt he comes to realise his true potential and destiny.
Littered with many classic moments, it’s hard to go past the ‘Lobby Scene’ for pure action brilliance on page 101.
4. The Borne Identity
Tony Gilroy & William Blake Herron
The Borne Trilogy’s are the best action thrillers in modern cinema.
While each one gets bigger and more action packed, this screenplay has a superb balance between mystery – the protagonist doesn’t even know his identity, great plot twists and exciting action sequences.
Braveheart is the last great cinema epic.
The screenplay about Scottish independence plays fast and lose with historical facts but weaves an epic story of friendship, betrayal, love and the fight for freedom.
Even at 3 hours long there isn’t a flat moment, every scene builds the story or develops the characters.
The script contains some unforgettable battles scenes.
6. The Godfather 1&2
Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo
A contender for the ‘greatest film ever made’.
Coppolla’s screenplay, co-written and based on Mario Puzo’s novel, focuses on the Shakespearean structure of a king needing to select which of his three sons will take over his thrown when he retires.
This complex and brilliant story dissects the nature of ‘The American Dream’ and is a fascinating character study that resulted in many legendary performances and launched the career of Al Pacino.
Godfather 2 is also considered the best sequel made and possibly even better than the original.
7. 4 Weddings and a Funeral
Whilst genres go in and out of fashion Rom Coms have endured across the decades and often box office hits.
The English excel at Rom Coms and Richard Curtis classic screenplay is a sweet, funny and endearing classic.
8. The Hangover
Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Lucas and Moore sold the screenplay to Warner Bros for 2 million dollars.
A simple premise for a comedy –
“a group of friends go to Vegas for a bachelor party and lose the groom only days out from his wedding”.
The premise sustains with the simple question
‘What happened that night’ ?
but doesn’t answer the question until the final scene.
The scenario lends itself to lots of comic moments but it doesn’t rely on them solely.
The screenplay keeps the audience engaged with a high stakes race against time showing that a ‘bro comedy’ doesn’t just have to be gratuitous jokes.
9. North By North West
One of Hitchcock’s best films as it’s written by one of the best – Ernest Lehman.
His screenplay bristles with sharp and witty dialogue, a classic use of ‘The Maguffin’ and suspense that keeps you guessing the whole way through.
Whilst the screenplay has more detail in the scene descriptions than modern ones, it is worth reading simply for the classic purely cinematic ‘crop duster’ scene.
The 7 page sequence escalates the tension perfectly and is expressed only through visuals.
One of the great Vietnam War films.
It takes the perspective of a ‘new to the group’ protagonist who is naive, inexperienced and out of their depth.
They becomes wiser, hardened, even cynical through what they experience.
The screenplay is based Oliver Stone’s own tour of duty in Vietnam and is a really good example of taking your own experience but turning it into a dramatic story.
Many argue Alfred Hitchcock’s mega classic is the greatest film ever made.
It certainly has stood the test of time and still packs a real punch more than 50 years later.
Adapted from Robert Bloch’s creepy novel of the same name, the screenplay contains arguably the most infamous moment in cinema history ‘The Shower Scene’.
This classic suspense horror is a must read.
12. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry & Charlie Kaufman
Love Story/Sci Fi
Kaufman’s quirky screenplay about a man who has the memory of his lover removed from his brain is ingenuous, funny and incredibly unique.
Incredibly, Kaufman manages to combine a contemporary love story with science fiction.
The key component to a love story is ‘what keeps the lovers apart’?
Kaufman found a universal and timeless answer to this question
‘The lovers are unable to accept the flaws in each other’
13. The Dark Night
Jonathan and Christopher Nolan
Action Comic Book/Super Hero
The Nolan brothers took the comic book genre into even darker territory than its origin story Batman Begins and delivered one of the best modern super hero films.
The screenplay’s depiction of The Joker as modern day terrorist provided Heath Ledger with the material to deliver an incredible and fascinating performance.
14. Pulp Fiction
This multi plot story about redemption with so many quotable lines and memorable characters
is the best screenplay Quentin Tarantino has written.
Its success elevated him to pop culture celebrity writer/director.
It’s use of shuffled narrative was not the first screenplay to do so Beau Geste used the technique back in 1939 but it works brilliantly to keep the audience engaged and guessing.
It’s impossible to read this screenplay without hearing the soundtrack in your head.
15. A Quiet Place
Scott Beck & Bryan Woods
Whilst A Quiet Place isn’t in the same league as most of the films on this list it’s a very effective horror film and massive box office hit.
The screenplay is a must read as it provides a great lesson in visual story telling and shows the importance of rewriting and draft development.
To be a successful screenwriter you need to learn to kill your babies.
To improve your screenplay draft by draft you need to be flexible enough to change or even get rid of characters, scenes and sequences to improve your script.
The brilliant opening sequence of the film was not in this original early draft.
Read this screenplay then watch the film to see how Beck and Woods kill a baby to kill a baby.
16. The Silence Of The Lambs
Written by Ted Tally
Based on Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence Of The Lambs is one of the all time great crime thrillers.
A race against time hunt for a serial killer where the protagonist must develop a dangerous relationship with one of the best ever ally/antagonists in cinema history – the legendary Hannibal The Cannibal Lecter.
There are too many great aspects to this screenplay to mention but the back story is perfectly tied to the protagonist internal and external motivation and the heart stopping climax is an ingenuous use of the ‘hero at the mercy of the villian’ convention.
Written by Jim and John Thomas
An 80’s classic that has stood the test of time.
It skilfully combines the action genre with Sci Fi and a touch of horror.
Predator is a rollercoaster ride of action sequences, gruesome death and memorable one liners like
“I ain’t got time to bleed”
one of the most quoted from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
“Get to da choppa”.
18. Star Wars
One of the most famous films in history Star Wars is the quintessential study of ‘The Heroes Journey’.
The screenplay charts Luke Skywalker’s arc from farm boy to decorated pilot in the rebellion.
You’ve probably seen the film countless times…or maybe not but either way revisiting the story through the screenplay is worth the time.
19. The Conjuring
Chad and Corey Hayes
This modern reworking of ghost and possession horror genre employs many of the tropes and conventions from the classics of the 70’s like The Exorcist and Amityville Horror and delivered audiences with plenty of scares.
The tension builds beautifully, particularly in the ‘clapping game’ scene.
Spawning sequels and franchise origin films the story has been incredibly successful at the box office.
Larry Gelbart & Murray Schisgal
A classic that uses the structure and conventions of the rom com perfectly.
Rom Coms need to have the protagonist living a lie or in denial.
They protect themselves with this mask but as they story unfolds they have to unmask themselves in a painful and public way and discover their true self.
Tootsie is a literal expression of this idea where an actor dressed as a woman reveals his true self live on TV, ruining his career in the process.
Outlandish, funny and a very smart screenplay.
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunga
& Gary Dauberman
A feature film adapted from Stephen King’s epic novel (was made as a TV mini series in the 90s).
The writers found a great solution to how to fit the sprawling 1,000 page story spanning 40 years into a single feature.
They got rid of half the book and only focussed on the children’s experience of being haunted by Pennywise.
It worked really well as a stand alone film and allows for a sequel to be made about the other half of the novel when the children reunite as adults.
22. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
Goldman won the Oscar for best screenplay with this unconventional Western about two famous outlaws.
Combining humour, shootouts, chases and a love story, it’s most famous scene and by Goldman’s admission, the one that made his career, is the exchange between Butch and The Kid on the cliff before they jump into the river.
A great and entertaining read from one of hollywoods best and most varied screenwriters.
23. All About Eve
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
They don’t make films like this anymore…sadly.
Mankiewicz won the Oscar for best screenplay in an era when the competition was tough.
The story of an ageing actress who’s life and career are threatened when a young actress works her way into her life, bristles with sharp dialogue and feisty exchanges.
It gave screen icon Bette Davis one of her most famous lines
“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”.
24. Annie Hall
One of the best screenplays Allen has written, is an original take on the rom com and the best execution of Allen’s neurotic, self analytical, alter ego trying to navigate relationships in the modern city.
It essentially created a distinct sub genre of Rom Com – ‘The New York Neurotic Looking For Love’,
It’s influence is as widespread as When Harry Met Sally and Seinfeld.
Andrew Kevin Walker
The story sounds like so many detective stories – partners who dislike each other, thrust together to solve a series of murders.
Seven is utterly original and a thrilling and terrifying journey into the nature if evil.
In the DVD commentary David Fincher said when he was three quarters of the way through reading the script he called his agent and said he wanted to direct it.
I won’t spoil why but the plot twist at the second act climax redefined the detective genre and set up one of the great climaxes in modern cinema.
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
How to take a true story and turn it into an Oscar winning screenplay.
Quirky storytelling with plot twists, black comedy and violence – just what we’ve come to expect from the Cohen Brothers.
Everyday people getting involved in crime that goes wrong and their once normal life spirals out of control is a common theme for the Cohen Brothers
The setting of Minnesota with it’s regional accent
“Yah, you betcha”
endeared the characters to the audience.
There will always be debate about which is the best screenplay they have written, Fargo is certainly a contender.
Want to launch your career, write a screenplay like Rocky.
As a struggling actor Stallone wrote the role for himself about a working class, underdog boxer in the biggest fight of his career.
It went on to be a world wide hit and cultural icon, people to this day enact the famous ‘Rocky Steps Scene’ when in Philadelphia.
Rocky’s now classic theme ‘winning through losing’ has been the premise for many films since.
28. Before Sunrise
Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
Getting your script made is incredibly hard so a great way to break into the industry is to do a low budget screenplay which is cheap and easy to make.
Linklater is a master of minimalism and Before Sunrise is a simple premise involving a cast of two meeting on a train and spending the night walking around and talking.
The engaging conversations and different world perspectives of the characters combined with the romantic notion of ‘anything can happen when you are travelling’ make this a highly entertaining story.
29. Finding Nemo
Pixar have constantly written brilliant screenplays that have translated into world wide success and critical acclaim.
This time it’s a funny and heart warming adventure about an overprotective father clownfish on his desperate search for his son captured by fisherman.
A story about the importance of risk, letting go and growing up.
30. Oceans 11
The history of heist films is an impressive one
The Usual Suspects
Dog Day Afternoon
to name just a few
Oceans 11 is one of the best modern heist films.
Fast paced and witty, the screenplay is a must read for action writers.
31. There’s Something About Mary
Peter & Bob Farelly, John J Strauss and Ed Dector
This hilarious comedy is the biggest hit for the Farelly brothers and the script is worth reading for the two iconic moments
‘The Zipper Scene’
’The Hair Gel Scene’.
The script is also a great study of comedy writing because it isn’t just about gags, what gives it greater depth is characters and a story we care about.
32. A Clockwork Orange
Adapted from Anthony Burgess’ subversive novel Kubrick’s screenplay is a philosophical debate about the importance of individual human choice.
Provocative, daring and shocking it’s a great example of how to create empathy for a violent antihero.
Screenplay Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
A hilarious and tragic character study of two friends, one a depressed teacher and failed novelist the other a past his prime actor who take a holiday in Santa Barbara wine country.
The conflict and dialogue exchanges between these chalk and cheese friends is witty, sharp, tragic and thoroughly entertaining.
A small film that was a financial and critical success.
John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Though technically not the original slasher film Halloween heralded the golden age of slasher films (1978-84).
It’s mainstream success popularised the horror sub genre and John Carpenter and Debra Hills’ screenplay became the template for the modern slasher film.
A masked killer
A group of teens
They are murdered one by one
In increasingly violent ways
The climax of the screenplay has become common place
The final girl defeats the killer…but not quite.
Depicting the chilling reality that evil can never be fully defeated.
35. The Babadook
A modern day ghost horror as metaphor for the effects of trauma.
A sleeper hit that received high praise from Stephen King and William Freidkin.
The screenplay is a great study in understated horror that builds rather than relying on the all to common jump scares of many modern horrors.
For a different type of horror screenplay switch the lights of and enjoy.
Tom Cruise plays an anti hero in this fast paced and smart action thriller about a hitman who takes a taxi driver hostage as he hunts down 5 targets from a court case.
Beattie originally had the idea for the film when he was 17 years old – he revisited it many years later.
A good idea when you are young may not be your first screenplay but it never goes away.
37. Die Hard
Steven E. De Souza & Jeb Stuart
One of the all time great action films, it’s a rollercoaster ride of action, shoot outs and explosions.
However at it’s core is the beating heart of memorable and complex (for an action film) characters.
The villain Hans Gruber, a highly organised boss with a foreign accent has been much copied since.
The ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, a must in any action film, where John McLane meets his nemesis Gruber and doesn’t even realise it is a truely gripping moment.
McLane’s subsequent plan to turn the tables is exhilarating and ingenious.
38. The Princess Bride
A story about telling a story.
The Princess Bride is many peoples favourite film and it’s easy to see why.
Goldman’s screenplay, based on his own novel, is a fun reworking of the classic fairytale love story with giants, villains, a swashbuckling hero.
Easy to see why it is an enduring cult classic across many generations.
39. Rain Man
Barry Morrow & Ronald Bass
A self centred jerk who pursues a superficial goal and uses people as commodities but learns how to be a better person is a common character arc for screenplays and Rain Man is one of the best.
Though Hoffman won the best actor Oscar the screenplay provided Tom Cruise with a character that is arguably the best performance of his career.
40. The Sting
David S Ward
One of the best crime caper films ever written is a consummate study in plotting.
Full of great twists, memorable characters and mystery, The Sting is a great piece of entertainment that keeps you guessing till last scene.
The protracted poker scene has a the perfect structure and build from the moment Newman enters the cabin through to the surprising and hilarious climax.
Great monsters make great horror films and the writers of Alien have created one of the all time greats.
The Alien is fascinating, terrifying and utterly memorable with it’s inspired defence mechanism of acid for blood!
The gut buster scene is an all-time classic in not only horror but cinematic history and from that point Alien is a masterclass in claustrophobia and growing dread as the hapless crew are killed off one by one.
In stark contrast the climax is quiet, almost intimate but no less terrifying.
42. Terminator 2 – Judgment Day
James Cameron & William Wisher
Sci Fi Action
One of the great sequels is essentially a remake of the first film but turns the antagonist of Arnie into a co protagonist with John Connor.
Superbly written action scenes and a superior villain, this film had ground breaking special effects but they helped tell the story rather than being a substitute for a lack of story.
A breakneck and fun read.
43. Groundhog Day
Harold Ramos & Danny Rubin
Rom Com Fantasy
A classic story of a bad guy turning good through the trial and tribulations of a situation he finds himself in.
The rom com with a fantasy aspect has a great premise of a weatherman becoming stuck in a time loop where he perpetually experiences the same day.
Groundhog Day has now become a pop culture term, not many screenplays can claim that!
44. The Karate Kid
Robert Mark Kamen
A martial arts film that is also a love story and a buddy film.
An 80’s favourite where the writing and portrayal of the mentor character Mr Miyagi was so great that he’s the most memorable character in the film.
The scene where Daniel learns that the manual labour of painting the fence, sanding the floor and waxing the car is in fact his karate training is perfectly constructed with a beginning middle and end.
It’s a great revelation and dramatises one of its central themes
‘not everything is as seems’
There isn’t a person who has seen the film and not wanted a Mr Miyagi in their life.
45. Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
A mega classic that has stood the test of time.
It created the template for film noir and has been copied endlessly.
Told almost entirely as a long dramatised flash back the screenplay bristles with whip smart dialogue, shocking twists and a fascinating execution of a scam.
The initial meeting between protagonist insurance salesman Walter Neff and the femme fatale is one of the best exchanges ever written.
46. La La Land
Musicals are one the most enduring film genres that are ever present, from the classics of The Wizard Of Oz and Singing In The Rain, every year musicals and dance films continue to get mainstream releases.
In fact some industries, particularly India, produce hundreds a year.
Reading La La Land is a great way to see how to integrate songs into the screenplay.
47. The Truman Show
Andrew M Niccol
Great writers seem to be slightly a head of societal trends and The Truman Show was written and made just before the explosion of reality TV.
Reading it now it is freakishly accurate depiction of what TV has become and a fascinating observation about our obsession with tuning in to watch everyday people in contrived situations approximating real life.
It’s hard to believe it lost the Best Screenplay Oscar to Shakespeare In Love.
Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting captures the early 90’s Brit Pop culture of Edinburgh perfectly.
A fun and darkly comic story about 4 friends who are heroin addicts.
The energy of the story and characters springs off the page as you read it.
Hodge won Best Screenplay in the British Academy Awards for this gem.
49. The Goonies
Another 80’s classic that has stood the test of time.
One of the best ‘group of friends on an adventure’ films.
The Goonies overcome physical obstacles, a crime family and group conflict to find the treasure and save their family homes from developers.
It is so much fun and has memorable characters like Sloth, Chunk and One Eyed Willy.
The genre is still widely popular and it’s influence is seen in recent films like Hunt For The Wilder People, Super 8 and TV series Stranger Things.
50. To Kill A Mockingbird
Courtroom Drama/Coming Of Age
Another contender for ‘Best Screenplay ever’.
Foote’s adaptation of the Harper Lee’s classic novel is a superb piece if writing and has possibly the greatest hero in American cinema history – Atticus Finch.
This much lauded story needs nothing else said about it – just print a copy and enjoy the pleasure of reading this classic piece of screenwriting.
So there you have it. My top 50 mustered Screenplays. Let me know what you think in the comments below.