The Importance of the Screenplay

Every film begins with a script. Not only does this provide the skeleton from which directors build their vision, but actors derive their characters and motivation from it.And, ultimately, when the chips are down, the success or failure of a film usually can be traced back to it.

Screenwriters are the architects of film, and this year, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has given a nod to some veterans and novices.

Two types of scriptwriters are singled out every year – those who adapt someone else’s story and those who produce an original work.

Cameron Crowe received a nomination for “Almost Famous,” his autobiographical tale about a 15-year-old who experiences the adventure of his life when he goes on the road with the rock band Stillwater.

Set in 1973, this coming-of-age story captures a period in music history, before corporate takeovers and slick marketing campaigns, and it also contains honest and fully realized characters.

William Miller, played by the charismatic Patrick Fugit, has a wide-eyed innocence that never lapses into naivete. And Penny Lane, the effervescent Kate Hudson, sparkles every time she’s on the screen. She’s like a butterfly, flitting wherever her heart takes her.

As with so many of his previous scripts, Crowe gives us human characters we can identify with and care about. They experience love and loss but never emerge too bruised.

Crowe’s a sucker for that elusive happily ever after.

With several radio, television and theater projects under his belt, Lee Hall made a tremendous splash with “Billy Elliot,” his first feature film. His script focuses on a protagonist who uses ballet to escape his oppressive environment, despite his family’s objections.

Set in northern England, the land of coal mines and Thatcherite economics, “Billy Elliot” succeeds because of its palpable human drama and rich characters.

This also is a coming-of age story about an underdog struggling against societal expectations and triumphing. A rich cast, including Julie Walters and Jamie Bell, and perfect direction by Stephen Daldry bring out the goodness already rooted in Hall’s script.

Susannah Grant has given Hollywood something it often lacks – strong, independent female characters. If the girl gets the guy, it’s not because she needs someone to prop her up.

In “Erin Brockovich,” the chief protagonist is a single mother trying to raise three children. Although she encounters prejudice because of her sexy wardrobe, she never shrinks under the criticism. She is what she is, take her or leave her.

Brockovich’s attitude crackles with acerbic wit and zingers, but beneath that toughness, one also finds compassion.

This legal assistant is a force to be reckoned with, and we see how much as the story progresses. Determined to obtain justice and compensation for the residents of Hinkley, Brockovich unearths evidence of hexavalent chromium in the water.

In the end, Pacific Gas & Electric is forced to pay up for the resultant breast cysts, Hodgkin’s disease, uterine cancer, asthma and immune deficiencies it has caused.

To produce her script, Grant spent many hours interviewing the real Brockovich and her family, former boss and ex-boyfriend.

She also immersed herself in videotapes, legal documents and notes taken by Brockovich.

The story, which uncovers corporate greed and negligence, brings environmental awareness to the front and proves how one person can make a profound difference.

With its honest situations, realistic dialogue and real-life characters, “You Can Count on Me” is the type of screenplay filmgoers thirst for. The film opens with a car crash that will overshadow the unfolding drama and characters.

When Sammy Prescott, just 13 years old, answers the door, she welcomes in a parentless future for herself and her brother, Terry.

But despite the conflicts and problems these siblings encounter, Kenneth Lonergan offsets everything with genuine humor.

This isn’t a script from the Hollywood cookie cutter. As we watch, we experience real everyday problems and neurosis. And we go away from the film with a deep understanding of the pain and joy others feel.

“You Can Count on Me” distinguishes itself by being a glorious script without an ounce of contrivance.

Finally, David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson have brought history to life in “Gladiator” and placed an almost archetypal Job-like figure at its center.

General Maximus is the noble and morally upright man put through extreme adversity. A great military strategist, he serves his country with a dedication to prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

Poised on the other side of the spectrum is the treacherous Commodus, who will kill or corrupt whoever or whatever gets in his way.

“Gladiator” contains the familiar elements of good versus evil, set in a sweeping epic form. But director Ridley Scott and, especially, actors Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe take the story to a new emotional level.

Each of the three nominees brings considerable skill to “Gladiator.”

Franzoni penned “Amistad,” Logan wrote “RKO 281” and “Any Given Sunday” and Nicholson received a nomination for his “Shadowlands.”

Adapting an existing story can prove as challenging as writing something original. Robert Nelson Jacobs took up the challenge of adapting Joanne Harris’s novel, “Chocolat.”

He remained faithful to the chief protagonist, Vianne Rocher, a vagabond who travels with her daughter, Anouk, and helps those she encounters with her chocolate creations. But he changed the story’s setting from present day France to the 1950s.

He also further developed smaller elements in the novel, such as giving Rocher a Mayan heritage rooted in ancient spirituality and making more of her romantic liaison with Roux, an Irish gypsy.

Seeing more potential in the war between the chocolatier and the Comte to Reynaud, Jacobs changed the latter from a priest to a self-appointed nobleman. What Jacobs does with his adaptation, then, is retain the soul of Harris, while making a mark of his own.

Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung get the Oscar nod for their adaptation of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Although director Ang Lee isn’t included in this group, he was instrumental in uncovering the tome, originally penned by Wang Du Lu. He had wanted to bring the story to life for five years.

This Chinese pulp-fiction novel was written in five parts; “Crouching Tiger” comes from episode four.

As Lee said, characters fly, but the story is grounded in reality. And, unlike other Chinese stories, with their passive females, “Crouching Tiger” features rebellious, active women.

Having worked with Schamus and Ling previously on “Eat Drink Man Woman” and with Schamus on every film since, he brought them on board for the adaptation.

Schamus actually wrote the first draft based on Lee’s scenario of the book. Ling did the second draft, writing in Chinese. The final product combines martial arts action with an undercurrent of romance and social obligation.

The Coen brothers aren’t strangers to the Oscar. Both walked away with a win for “Fargo.” Although essentially an original work, “O Brother Where Art Thou” is loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

Only a few similarities stand out. They include the fast-talking hero with the name Ulysses, a perilous journey, encounters with a Cyclops, Sirens and a blind prophet and the transformation of a human into an animal.

In “The Odyssey,” Ulysses’ men are turned into pigs. In “O Brother,” Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) thinks Pete has been turned into a frog.

The Coens’ strengths lie in witty dialogue, off-the-wall characters and bizarre situations. Their sensibilities are just a bit off-kilter, which lends them tremendous originality. No one else can make classical literature so much fun.

Stephen Gaghan enjoyed success writing for television dramas, including “NYPD Blue” and “The Practice,” before turning his attention to feature film. He wrote the military-themed “Rules of Engagement” and the Oscar-nominated “Traffic.”

For this latter film, based on a British miniseries, Gaghan changed the setting from Europe and Pakistan to the United States and Mexico and infused it with characters occupying every stratum of society, from Washington politicians to Mexican police officers.

What makes this film such a tremendous effort is Gaghan’s ability to move from one character to the next without ever confusing voices. His ability to take an unflinching look at drugs in America is another strong point.

Gaghan also handles the multiple and intersecting story lines with aplomb. But then, this comes from a man who claims his favorite writer is Tolstoy.

The final nominee is Steve Kloves, a writer and director who specializes in the character piece. His breakout film was “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” a story about piano-playing brothers whose routine got a lift from lounge singer Susie Diamond.

Since then, Kloves has written “Flesh and Bone,” a dark drama set in Texas, and adapted Michael Chabon’s 368-page novel, “Wonder Boys.”

In the story, a university writing professor, Grady Tripp, who finds his professional and personal life in a mess, befriends an equally troubled student, James Leer.

Whittling down the novel was no easy feat, and Kloves spent about four years doing it. Having a deep respect for the characters, he said he built on what was in the book but also added his own touches, fleshing out some of the supporting characters.

Although “Wonder Boys” wasn’t a box office smash, studio officials felt so strongly about its film that they re-released it, hoping to spread the word.

The script is aided by the powerful performances of Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand and Tobey Maguire and direction by Curtis Hanson.

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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