Novel to Movie Adaptations – John Updike

witches-of-eastwick-etbscreenwritingThe death of John Updike earlier this week, prompted lots of comment on and analysis of his prolific work. His most famous books are his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and Rabbit Remembered). Both Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest received the Pulitzer Prize, America’s highest literary honor. Updike described his subject matter in the Rabbit series as “the American small town and Protestant middle class.” This kind of setting and characters has always been rich territory for American films but didn’t translate into cinematic success for Updike. Why?

A film of Rabbit, Run was made in 1970. It was not a popular success. There were a few other adaptations of his work for TV, but his biggest cinematic success was The Witches Of Eastwick (starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer).

Why did so few of Updike’s works translate effectively to the screen? Because his books are largely interior– filled with a character’s thoughts, feelings and insights. His characters’ rich inner lives are what make his novels so evocative. In a film adaptation, the screenwriter must make those internal moments external and active.

When looking for a novel to adapt, look for a story that has a strong external narrative. Find a story in which a character’s actions lead to specific external consequences with real impact and which effect important transformation in the character or others. Find stories in which emotion, meaning and insight can be portrayed through action. No matter how brilliant the book, no matter how many awards it’s won no matter how popular it is– if the book doesn’t have dramatic, observable and impactful action it is not a good candidate for a movie adaptation.

The cliche is that second-rate books make first-rate movies and first-rate books make second-rate movies. Deeply-felt interior novels make delicious reading but simply do not translate to the screen.

The Reader – Power of Idealism

Memory, loss and disillusionment are all part of a Power of Idealism Coming of Age Story. The Academy Award nominated film The Reader taps into the powerful resonance of this kind of story.
In the film, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) shows kindness to a much younger Michael Berg (David Kross). The two begin a passionate affair. Michael delights her by reading aloud and discussing the books assigned in his literature classes. One day, Hanna abruptly leaves– without a note or a goodbye. She simply vanishes from his life.  Michael is devastated.  Years later, when he is in law school observing a war crimes trial, Micheal finds her again. Hanna is a defendant. She is accused of being a Nazi guard who locked hundreds of Jews in a burning church.
Michael is horrified that the woman he loved could be involved in such brutal war crimes. He is also stunned to realize that she is illiterate. Hanna is accused of signing the order and writing the report on the Jews who died in the fire. She would rather be convicted (unjustly) than admit she doesn’t know how to read or write. Just as years earlier, she would rather disappear than turn down a job promotion at the tram company because of her illiteracy. Michael doesn’t tell the court the truth. Hanna is convicted and is sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna, Michael begins taping his readings of books and sending them to her.  She teaches herself to read and write by following along with the tapes.  Michael refuses to see her or write to her, although she painstakingly writes to him.  He does find her a flat when she is scheduled to be released but she commits suicide rather than be set free.  On her own she had been reading accounts of Holocaust survivors and their stories.
Years later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) still hasn’t recovered emotionally from the relationship. All these years he kept the shameful secret of his relationship with Hanna to himself.  It poisoned all his other relationships.  In classic Power of Idealism fashion, the memory of the past continues to exert tremendous power in the present. Youthful innocence is replaced by profound disillusionment about someone who was an icon of his youth. Only by revealing his secret relationship and resolving his loss is the Michael able to move on with his life.
In carrying out Hanna’s last request– that her money be given to the families of those who were killed in the fire– Michael also reconnects with his own daughter.  He tells her the story of his relationship with Hanna. The awful sorrow that defined his life seems to lift.  He is able to remember Hanna’s kindness to him lets go of the rest.  He finally visits her grave and lays flowers there with his daughter.  By conforming to this pattern of loss and understanding, The Reader speaks to the pain of Coming of Age in a universal way.  It reminds us that forgiveness is necessary to a full whole and complete adulthood.

The-Reader-etbscreenwritingMemory, loss and disillusionment are all part of a Power of Idealism Coming of Age Story. The Academy Award nominated film The Reader taps into the powerful resonance of this kind of story.

In the film, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) shows kindness to a much younger Michael Berg (David Kross). The two begin a passionate affair. Michael delights her by reading aloud and discussing the books assigned in his literature classes. One day, Hanna abruptly leaves– without a note or a goodbye. She simply vanishes from his life.  Michael is devastated.  Years later, when he is in law school observing a war crimes trial, Micheal finds her again. Hanna is a defendant. She is accused of being a Nazi guard who locked hundreds of Jews in a burning church.

Michael is horrified that the woman he loved could be involved in such brutal war crimes. He is also stunned to realize that she is illiterate. Hanna is accused of signing the order and writing the report on the Jews who died in the fire. She would rather be convicted (unjustly) than admit she doesn’t know how to read or write. Just as years earlier, she would rather disappear than turn down a job promotion at the tram company because of her illiteracy. Michael doesn’t tell the court the truth. Hanna is convicted and is sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna, Michael begins taping his readings of books and sending them to her.  She teaches herself to read and write by following along with the tapes.  Michael refuses to see her or write to her, although she painstakingly writes to him.  He does find her a flat when she is scheduled to be released but she commits suicide rather than be set free.  On her own she had been reading accounts of Holocaust survivors and their stories.

Years later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) still hasn’t recovered emotionally from the relationship. All these years he kept the shameful secret of his relationship with Hanna to himself.  It poisoned all his other relationships.  In classic Power of Idealism fashion, the memory of the past continues to exert tremendous power in the present. Youthful innocence is replaced by profound disillusionment about someone who was an icon of his youth. Only by revealing his secret relationship and resolving his loss is the Michael able to move on with his life.

In carrying out Hanna’s last request– that her money be given to the families of those who were killed in the fire– Michael also reconnects with his own daughter.  He tells her the story of his relationship with Hanna. The awful sorrow that defined his life seems to lift.  He is able to remember Hanna’s kindness to him lets go of the rest.  He finally visits her grave and lays flowers there with his daughter.  By conforming to this pattern of loss and understanding, The Reader speaks to the pain of Coming of Age in a universal way.  It reminds us that forgiveness is necessary to a full, whole and complete adulthood.

Note: Not all films about young people are Power of Idealism Coming of Age Stories. Another universal pattern deals with the Life Lessons of the Power of Ambition character. In these films, a young person, usually someone new to the group, has the opportunity to join the “cool kids.” To do so he or she must conform to the external standards and superficial behavior that ensures success and popularity. Another group of less popular or “loser” kids offers real relationships, based on authenticity and genuine connection. The protagonist must choose. An iconic film about young people that follows this pattern is Mean Girls.

Top Ten Political Movies

Politcal-Movies-etbscreenwritingI am still abuzz about the Presidential Inauguration. So here is a list of some of the best American political films compiled by Entertainment Weekly. Enjoy!

In 2008, Entertainment Weekly set out to identify some of the best-loved political films of all time. The publication combined staff choices with readers’ votes to come up with a list of 16.

Here are the top 10, with each film’s primary star:

Election (1999): Reese Witherspoon

The Man (1972): James Earl Jones

The American President (1995): Michael Douglas

The Candidate (1972): Robert Redford

Primary Colors (1998): John Travolta

Bulworth (1998): Warren Beatty

Dave (1993): Kevin Kline

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992): Eddie Murphy

The Manchurian Candidate (1962): Laurence Harvey

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): James Stewart

To see the full list, and a slideshow summary of each film check out Entertainment Weekly Political Film List.  Let me know what your picks are!

Revolutionary Road – Power of Idealism

revolutionary-road-movie-poster-etbscreenwritingThe film Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), two Power of Idealism characters who feel trapped in the bonds of a mundane suburban lifestyle. It is a devastating shock to discover they are more like their neighbors than not.

Power of Idealism characters fear living and loving without the passion and intensity of a Grand Destiny. They want their lives to matter and their love to mean something important in the greater scheme of things.

These characters fear not attaining their true pinnacle of excellence, courage or nobility. They worry about not fulfilling their highest potential. These characters fear a lack of deep and true meaning in their lives and love. Consumed by such fears of mediocrity, meaninglessness or mundane-ordinariness, Frank and April become bitter and deeply disillusioned.

Although Frank and April have no special talents, they are convinced they are destined for something extraordinary. When a trip to France doesn’t pan out, because April becomes pregnant and Frank is offered a lucrative new job, their marriage and their lives fall apart. April kills herself in despair, by inducing an abortion at home.

The yearning and the longing “for something more extraordinary” creates a white hot intensity of feeling. In contrast, long-term relationships and the comfortable companionship that committed loving couples (and families) share seems suffocatingly pedestrian to these characters. The sheer ordinariness of day-to-day love is a staggering disappointment to Frank and April.

Power of Idealism ETB ScreenwritingIn order to find salvation, Power of Idealism characters must turn away from the Dark Side of narcissism and the yearning to be “special.” They must learn to find the magic and passion in the small details of life with family, friends and the ordinary miracle of being alive.

Power of Idealism characters often are unprepared to make the ordinary, small, everyday sacrifices real long-term love requires, especially when there are children involved. These characters would rather fantasize about a perfect or “unattainable” love than try to make a less than perfect love work. Their tragedy is failing to accept the limitations of being human. That is the tragedy of Revolutionary Road.

Doubt – Truth vs Conscience

Doubt-etbscreenwritingThe movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, has an emotional disconnect at its core– in the most unsuccessful sense of the word. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a Power of Conscience character at the center of a Power of Truth story. She is the wrong protagonist for the film and this mistake fatally skews and distorts the story’s emotional focus. It makes the ending feel false (or as described by various critics– “a cop out”). Here’s what went wrong and why.

Meryl Streep plays a classic Power of Conscience protagonist. In all the reviews and press information her character is described variously as: stern, rigid, inflexible, intimidating, judgmental, authoritarian, single-minded, strict, moralistic, harsh, punitive and punishing. Early in the film, she glares at children whispering, fidgeting, slumping or snoozing in Mass and admonishes them with a variety of hisses and thumps on the head or raps on the knuckles. She describes herself a number of times in the movie as “certain” or having “absolute certainty.”

Power of Conscience ETB ScreenwritingPower of Conscience characters see something and immediately “know” if it is right or wrong. If they witness an action or activity they view as improper, immoral or corrupt and they are compelled to act. These characters simply cannot stand by or be silent in the face of perceived injustice or wrong-doing. Inspector Javert, in Les Miserables is another example of a hardened, unforgiving and unrelenting Power of Conscience character in pursuit of a “wrong-doer.” Less dark versions of this Character Type in religious life are Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Thomas Becket in Becket. Both men defy a king whose actions they judged as immoral or improper. Both men died as a result.

Suspicion or doubt, by their nature are at the heart of a Power of Truth story. The Story Questions in a Power of Truth film are: Who can I trust? What is really going on here? Did I really see what I thought I saw? Who is my ally and who is my enemy? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty? How can I be really certain of anything? What does it all mean?

None of these questions occur to Sister Aloysius. She never doubts her own judgment. She is unwavering in her pursuit of what she “knows” must be the corruption at the heart of Father Flynn’s actions. She is single-minded and sure of herself. She is absolutely determined to root out wrong-doing wherever and however it rears its head in her school.

Sister James (Amy Adams) is the person plagued and tormented by each of these Power of Truth questions. She is torn and doesn’t know what to believe. It is very difficult to suspect someone you genuinely like and admire of a horrible act. Sister James likes and respects the warm charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest at the center of the controversy. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church turned on the difficulty those in authority had in believing that competent, well-respected and well-liked priests could also be bad men with deeply criminal impulses.

Power of Truth ETB ScreenwritingIf the story is about really is about doubt, then the ages and positions of the nuns should have been reversed. Sister James should have been the older school principal and protagonist. Sister Aloysius should have been a younger gung-ho Power of Conscience nun. If Sister James had been goaded into accusing Father Flynn, despite her uncertainty and doubt, then it would be entirely credible that she would be tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.

A Power of Conscience character cannot be the protagonist of a Power of Truth film without causing an emotional disconnect. That’s why the ending of the film feels so contrived and false. We never quite believe that Sister Aloysius, who is so certain in all things, would inexplicably dissolve into tears of doubt and remorse once she had accomplished her goal– removing a man she believed to be corrupt from her school.

If this is Power of Conscience film then the central issue is not doubt, it is the dangers of executing a God-like judgment of others. If the harsh unyielding Sister Aloyius is the protagonist, then her character should have been proven wrong with horrible results. Her hard, unrelenting, moral certainty should have been her tragic downfall.

Wesley Morris writing in The Boston Globe about the film says: “…The truth is that Sister Aloysius’s steely single-mindedness is actually quite simple, which is why the movie’s (and the play’s) abrupt final scene is a cop-out.”

Milk – Lack of Internal Conflict

MILK-POSTER-etbscreenwritingMilk features standout performances and worthy subject matter of real historical significance. The film, however, is severely lacking in story on several accounts. It is a object lesson on the need for conflict, conflict, conflict. Too much backstory compromises the emotional power of the film.

The story is too episodic. We watch Milk setting a goal and achieving it for the vast majority of screen time. Sean Penn’s performance is a stunning achievement but it is constrained by the screenplay’s step-by-step by the numbers plot. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moves to San Francisco and becomes a Gay Rights activist. He runs unsuccessfully for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and is elected on his third try. Milk becomes the first openly gay man in America to be elected to public office.

External Conflict

We see Milk overcome obstacles in his quest for elective office but those are all external obstacles; prejudice, lack of funds or lack of broad-based support. External conflict is the least emotional kind of conflict. There is little relationship conflict in the film and no inner conflict. These kinds of conflicts are the most intense and powerful for an audience.

On the relationship front, Milk breaks up with his long-time partner, James Franco (Scott Smith) over political ambitions. This is handled in a few short scenes, none of which have any real heat. It is a sad but amiable dissolution of the relationship and the two men remain committed and affectionate friends through-out the film. Not much intense conflict there.

Franco and Milk’s other friends disapprove of Milk’s new partner, Jack Lira (Diego Luna) a flamboyant needy younger man. Lira complains of feeling excluded but we never see any real rejection, cruelty or even nastiness on the part of Milks friends. Nor do we see much conflict between Lira and Milk. Tepid exasperation on Franco’s and his friend’s behalf, brief child-like petulance on Lira’s behalf and tolerant bemusement on Milk’s behalf is about as intense as the relationship conflict gets. When Lira kills himself, this big emotional moment simply isn’t earned. Where are the cat-fights, personal fireworks, desperation, deep frustration or anger that leads to that intense dramatic moment? It’s just not there.

Internal Conflict

Most troubling is the lack of internal conflict. Milk is portrayed as a smart, caring, committed, passionate, inspirational and good-humored man through-out. Were all his political ambitions noble and pure? Were there no darker impulses at work– selfishness, ego, pride or hubris? We never see him struggle with his baser and his more noble desires for political power.

Nor do we ever see Milk wrestle with himself. He never struggles with two competing values. He appears to sacrifice his love relationships to his political ambitions but we don’t we see him struggle to make that choice. Break-ups of deep caring relationships don’t just happen. There is conflict leading to a moment of personal choice– This relationship isn’t worth my time or I want something more. Where are the tears, recriminations or the uncertainty that politics is worth sacrificing some who loves you? Instead, we simply see the report, after the fact, that a relationship, has ended (tragically in suicide in Lira’s case). Where are the intense passionate conflicts as Milk neglects his partners and sacrifices them for him aspirations and ambitions?

The real, and most interesting, conflict emerges in Milk’s relationship with Dan White (Josh Brolin) This is where the emotions on the screen finally heat up and start to get real. From a character and conflict standpoint, the film catches fire with Milk’s election. Do we really need to know the step-by-step process by which White was elected? We can watch the documentary to understand that process.

The complex psychological dance between Milk and White is where the true emotional power of the film lies. White (Brolin) has an intense need to connect with Milk and earn his respect. He blames all his troubles on Milk. In turn, we get glimpses of Milk playing with White both personally and politically, taunting him and occasionally condescending to him. We finally get a tiny glimpse of Milk’s less than perfect humanity and his hubris. White is desperate and feels deeply threatened, humiliated and inadequate. How do the emotions build to the culmination of a tragic double murder? That is the heart of the most emotional story in the film and it gets too short a shrift.

Watching Brolin and Penn go at it in highly charged scenes fraught with powerful subtext and deep personal conflict is a joy to behold. THAT is the movie. The rest is purely prologue and should have been cut from the story.

The Wrestler – Power of Idealism

Wrestler-etbscreenwritingThe Wrestler opens with a montage of clippings, photos and playbills extolling the career of 1980’s professional wrestling star Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke).

Twenty-years later, Randy’s glory days are long-gone. He is reduced to a battered battle-scarred hulk self-medicating his psychic and physical pain with a cocktail of drugs, steroids and booze.

Randy is a Power of Idealism Character fallen to the Dark Side.

At their worst, Power of Idealism Characters suffer from delusions of grandeur and, alternately, deep despair. They are self-destructive, self-loathing and self-harming. Randy is locked in a self-annihilating dance with the ghost of his former fame. He is consumed by the fantasy, loss and drama of his stage persona. Randy only feels “alive” in the elaborately choreographed hero’s role he plays in the ring.

Ty Burr, writing in The Boston Globe, contrasts the two main characters in the film: “Pam (Marisa Tomei), (is) an aging stripper whose stage name is Cassidy and who understands far better than The Ram the tensions between selling a persona and living in reality. Both use their bodies for the fantasies of others, but only Pam sees that when the body fails, the fantasy goes with it.”

Pam/Cassidy also realizes her real world and real life is with her son. The fantasy of her stage persona is just a way to make a living– Nothing more. Her true self-identification is as a mother.

Randy can’t embrace the simple reality of ordinary family life. He continually abandoned his daughter for the brief hero-worship of strangers. He breaks her heart yet again by not showing up after a fragile reconciliation. Instead, he chooses to party with a young woman who sees a liaison with him as a novelty retro sex act. Randy also rejects Pam/Cassidy’s real offer of love for the cheering strangers in yet another grimy run-down converted gym/wrestling arena. As he makes his trademarked leap from the top of the ropes, his heart literally gives out.

Burr comments: “(P)ro wrestling has always been a cartoon, and that’s the appeal to performers and fans alike: It resolves life’s complexities with a turnbuckle to the skull. The Wrestler is about the seductions of superficiality and the dull ache of living beyond one’s moment.”

Power of Idealism ETB ScreenwritingIn order to find salvation, Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the magic and passion in the small details of life with family, friends and the mundane, ordinary moments of living. Randy’s tragedy is he finds magic only in the empty choreographed illusions of the ring. He compulsively plays the spray-tanned bleached blond hero to dwindling numbers of cheering strangers.

Frost/Nixon and the Power of Ambition

Frost Nixon ETB ScreenwritingThe film Frost/Nixon is one of the best of a dispiriting lot this movie-going Holiday Season.  Although there have been some remarkable performances in the current crop of films, many of the stories on screen have been weak and unsatisfying.

In contrast, Frost/Nixon has it all– towering performances and a tight script that builds to a satisfying finish.  The film is the story of an epic battle between two Power of Ambition characters.  The characters and film are pitch perfect.

Power of Ambition characters fear failure in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the world. The worst thing that could happen to these characters is being publicly “unmasked” for the fraud, failure or loser they fear they are.

Image is everything to these characters.  They are terrified of any kind of public embarrassment, becoming unpopular or appearing to be of no public or social  importance. They are always keeping score and worry that they will fall behind somehow. It is nearly impossible for these character to admit their mistakes or acknowledge their failings.

In their worst moments these characters exhibit manic depressive swings— obsessive self-serving action punctuated by nearly paralyzing shame, despair, self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and failure.

The following scene from Frost/Nixon articulate the Power of Ambition character’s fear perfectly.  The scene is intimate, personal and comes at just the right moment in the story.  Before their film taping session Nixon calls Frost’s hotel room late at night:

NIXON
We’ve sat in chairs opposite one another, talking for hours, it seems– days on end– and yet I’ve hardly gotten to know you. One of my people– ah– as part of the preparation of this interview–did a profile of you, and I’m sorry to say– I only got around to reading it tonight. (Nixon looks in the file: sees evidence or Frost’s humble childhood)  There’s some interesting stuff in there. The Methodist background, modest circumstances. Then off to a grand university. Full of richer, posher types. What was it? Oxford?

FROST
Cambridge.

NIXON
Did the snobs there look down on you,too?

FROST
I .. I ..

NIXON
Of course they did. That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost? No matter how high we get, they still look down at us ..

FROST
I–. really– don’t know what you’re talking about ..

NIXON
Yes, you do. C’mon. You know exactly. No matter how many awards– or how many column inches are written about you– or how high the elected office is for me– it still isn’t enough, am I right? We still feel like the little man? The loser they told us we were? A hundred times. The smart-asses at college. The high-ups. The well-born.The people who’s respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now? Why we fight for every inch. Scrambling our way up, in undignified fashion, whatever hillock or mountain it is, why we never tire, why we find energy or motivation when any sensible person would lie down, or relax.  (Nixon looks in the file: articles about FROST’s failure in America. The network show being canceled)  If we’re honest for a minute. If we reflect privately just for a moment– if we allow ourselves … a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here now? The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun? Into the limelight? Back onto the winner’s podium? Because we could feel itslipping away? We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust. Humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that. We’re not going to let that happen. Either of us. We’re going to show those bums, and make them choke on our continued success.Our continued headlines. Our continued awards, power and glory. We’re going to make those motherfuckers choke. Am I right?

FROST
You are. Except only ONE of us can win.

NIXON
And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got. Because the limelight can only shine on ONE of us. And for the other, it’ll be the ‘wilderness’. With nothing and no one for company, but those voices ringing in our heads.

It is my belief, facts are less important than the emotional truth of a story.  Just because it never really happened that way doesn’t mean it isn’t true!

Slumdog Millionaire – Power of Idealism

Slumdog Millionaire is set in truly horrific circumstances, involving extreme poverty and the foulest kind of child exploitation.  I also discovered it is a Power of Idealism film about the triumph of love and the human spirit.  It is must-see viewing this holiday season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Power of Idealism films are about the difference between fate and destiny. Chance, God or the Universe determines fate.  It is written.  You can’t change your fate.  It is outside your control. Your destiny is an opportunity that lies before you.  You recognize this chance and choose either to walk away or hurry toward it.  This choice defines who you are.  Seizing your destiny determines how and for what you are remembered.
Dr. Howard Suber, film structure professor to generations of UCLA students, teaches and writes eloquently about the distinction in his wonderful book, The Power of Film.  In brief, Dr. Suber says:  “You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate.”
In addition to Slumdog Millionaire, two other very diverse Power of Idealism films demonstrate the same principles and choices—Lawrence of Arabia and Ratatouille.
The hero’s circumstances in all three films are determined by his birth.  Fate would have it that these circumstances are impossible to escape.  It is a condition that cannot be changed.  It is completely outside the hero’s control.
In Lawrence of Arabia, young Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is born an unrecognized illegitimate son of a wealthy man.  Lawrence is eccentric and a social misfit.  In the class-driven British system such an outcast should never rise to orchestrate and lead one of the greatest military campaigns in history.
Young Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille is born a rat. Chefs consider rats filthy vermin. Remy is also an outcast and should never rise to become a famous chef.
Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire is born in overwhelmingly dire poverty in Mumbai, India.  He is considered no better than human vermin. Jamal, too, is a social outcast and should never hope to rise above and triumph over his circumstances.
Each of these Power of Idealism heroes has an over-riding passion, a great love that calls him to seize his destiny and attempt the impossible.  Lawrence’s great love is the desert and freedom of the Arab people.  Remy’s great love is gourmet cooking.  Jamal’s great love is the beautiful young Latika (Freida Pinto).
A key scene in Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the difference between fate and destiny.  Lawrence attempts the impossible, to cross the worst desert on earth, “The Sun’s Anvil,” with a handful of Arab fighters.  He aims to launch a surprise attack on the city of Aqaba.  Near the end of the arduous journey Lawrence notices one young fighter (Gasim) is missing.  Gasim’s camel trots along riderless. Lawrence demands they go back into the desert to find him.  Sheik Ali (Omar Sharif) refuses.
Sheik Ali: “In God’s name understand, we cannot go back.”
Lawrence: “I can.”
Sheik Ali: “If you go back, you’ll kill us all. Gasim you have killed already.”
Lawrence: “Get out of my way.”
Another Arab Fighter: “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence. It is written!”
Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”
Sheik Ali (riding along with and haranguing Lawrence): “Go back, then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer! But you will not be at Aqaba!”
Lawrence (riding ahead he turns back toward Sheik Ali): “I shall be at Aqaba. That is written… (He points at his heart)… in here!”
Lawrence then courageously retraces his steps and finds the half-dead Gasim.  He returns with the young man strapped to his saddle. Lawrence defiantly repeats to Sheik Ali: “Nothing is written.”
Later in the film, Sheik Ali acknowledges Lawrence’s remarkable courage and fortitude, first witnessed in Gasim’s rescue. Sheik Ali says: “Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”
Nothing is written for Lawrence, Remy or Jamal unless each writes it in his own heart.  For each of these  three characters, seizing his destiny is an extraordinary act of faith powered by an overwhelming passion for one great transcendent love.
The lesson of being an extraordinary Power of Idealism hero is voiced in Ratatouille by Restaurant Critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole).  He writes about the talented rat and chef, Remy saying: “…Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”
Here is how Jamal follows his passion for his great love in Slumdog Millionaire.  At the beginning of the film, Jamal is interrogated by the police. He is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal makes it to the final round of the quiz show and is in reach of the grand prize.  Before the final round is played, Jamal is kidnapped, arrested and accused of cheating.  Even under torture, he insists that he did not cheat.
The police chief is willing to give Jamal the benefit of the doubt if Jamal can explain how he answered the show’s questions. Jamal tells the story of his life, turning his suffering and pain into an inspiring tale of enduring love.  The film flashes between the questions on the quiz show and Jamal’s childhood.
He recounts how he and his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) grew up in the chaotic squalor of a Mumbai slum.  They are orphaned when their mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot and subsequent widespread arson. The boys escape the burning slum together.  Despite Salim’s objections, Jamal invites the orphaned Latika to join them.  It is love at first sight.
The three children scavenge in one of Mumbai’s largest dumps until they are taken to an orphanage.  The orphanage is a front for a begging operation that uses horrific tactics to make the children more pitiful.  Jamal is taught to sing.  Salim (a young Power of Will character) is recruited to bully and capture other children.
Salim is not afraid to use violence to help him and his brother survive.  He protects Jamal and stages their escape. When the boys jump on a freight train, Salim lets go of Latika’s hand and she is left behind with the gangsters.  Salim is jealous of Jamal’s love for Latika.
The brothers spend years scamming and stealing from tourists.  Jamal refuses to forget Latika.  He obsessively searches for her.  Jamal finally finds her only to lose her again.  His brother rapes Latika and vanishes with the young girl.  Jamal eventually finds work delivering tea in a call center.  Searching the computer company’s mobile phone records he locates his missing brother.  When he finds and follows Salim he also finds Latika.
Salim and Latika live in the thrall of a powerful Mumbai crime lord.  Latika is one of the man’s concubines. Salim is one of his thuggish enforcers.  Jamal convinces Latika to escape and meet him at the train station.  Salim follows, recaptures and brutalizes her.
To escape his other larger problems, the crime lord is forced to leave Mumbai.  He takes Salim and Latika with him. Jamal attempts to find and reach out to Latika by becoming a contestant on her favorite quiz show, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Jamal’s fate is that of a slumdog.  He is poor, uneducated and one of millions just like him.  Fate should dictate that he live and die in the slum, unheralded and unsung.  He should accept his fate as a piece of human garbage, disposable and easily forgotten.
Instead, Jamal turns the pain, humiliation and hopelessness of his life into the answers that complete an epic quest for the love of his life.  Jamal refuses to surrender to his fate or to the gangsters who control the slums.  He chooses instead to seize his destiny and pursue the impossible. The police chief’s reaction is much like Anton Ego’s in Ratatouille.  His preconceptions about Jamal are shattered.  He rips up Jamal’s arrest warrant and returns him to the quiz show to play the prize-winning final round.
Jamal’s destiny is Latika.  However unattainable their love is, Jamal chooses to race toward his passion.  His choice defines who he is.  Seizing his destiny ensures Jamal will live forever as a legend in slums.  He never gives up.  He never gives in.  His unending quest finally inspires the love of his brother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in recognition of the unquenchable intensity and purity of Jamal’s love.
Jamal and Latika find each other at the train station at the end of the film.  The two have a tearful and passionate reunion.
Latika:  “I thought we would meet again only in death.”
Jamal (shaking his head):  “I knew you would be watching.” (Jamal turns her head to gently touch the scar disfiguring the side of her face, which is Salim’s punishment for her previous escape. She tries to turn away.)
Jamal:  “This is our destiny.” (He kisses her scar tenderly)  “This is our destiny.”  (He kisses and holds her tight)
I am happy to close out 2008 with a newsletter about such an inspiring film. Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer-winning American author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature famously wrote:  “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”
I challenge you all to be young at heart in 2009, seize your destiny and aim for the impossible.  As President-elect Barack Obama proved—Nothing is written unless we write it in our hearts.  This year, resolve to write your best self.  Defy the odds.  Fly in the face of your fears.  Make a Leap of Faith.  I will be there with you, every step of the way.

Slumdog-Millionaire-etbscreenwritingSlumdog Millionaire is set in truly horrific circumstances, involving extreme poverty and the foulest kind of child exploitation.  I also discovered it is a Power of Idealism film about the triumph of love and the human spirit.  It is must-see viewing this 2008 holiday season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Power of Idealism films are about the difference between fate and destiny. Chance, God or the Universe determines fate.  It is written.  You can’t change your fate.  It is outside your control. Your destiny is an opportunity that lies before you.  You recognize this chance and choose either to walk away or hurry toward it.  This choice defines who you are.  Seizing your destiny determines how and for what you are remembered.

Dr. Howard Suber, film structure professor to generations of UCLA students, teaches and writes eloquently about the distinction in his wonderful book, The Power of Film.  In brief, Dr. Suber says:  “You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate.”

In addition to Slumdog Millionaire, two other very diverse Power of Idealism films demonstrate the same principles and choices—Lawrence of Arabia and Ratatouille.

The hero’s circumstances in all three films are determined by his birth.  Fate would have it that these circumstances are impossible to escape.  It is a condition that cannot be changed.  It is completely outside the hero’s control.

In Lawrence of Arabia, young Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is born an unrecognized illegitimate son of a wealthy man.  Lawrence is eccentric and a social misfit.  In the class-driven British system such an outcast should never rise to orchestrate and lead one of the greatest military campaigns in history.

Young Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille is born a rat. Chefs consider rats filthy vermin. Remy is also an outcast and should never rise to become a famous chef.

Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire is born in overwhelmingly dire poverty in Mumbai, India.  He is considered no better than human vermin. Jamal, too, is a social outcast and should never hope to rise above and triumph over his circumstances.

Each of these Power of Idealism heroes has an over-riding passion, a great love that calls him to seize his destiny and attempt the impossible.  Lawrence’s great love is the desert and freedom of the Arab people. Remy’s great love is gourmet cooking.  Jamal’s great love is the beautiful young Latika (Freida Pinto).

peter-otoole-lawrence-of-arabia-etbscreenwritingA key scene in Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the difference between fate and destiny.  Lawrence attempts the impossible, to cross the worst desert on earth, “The Sun’s Anvil,” with a handful of Arab fighters.  He aims to launch a surprise attack on the city of Aqaba.  Near the end of the arduous journey Lawrence notices one young fighter (Gasim) is missing.  Gasim’s camel trots along riderless. Lawrence demands they go back into the desert to find him.  Sheik Ali (Omar Sharif) refuses.

.

Sheik Ali: “In God’s name understand, we cannot go back.”

Lawrence: “I can.”

Sheik Ali: “If you go back, you’ll kill us all. Gasim you have killed already.”

Lawrence: “Get out of my way.”

Another Arab Fighter: “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence. It is written!”

Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”

Sheik Ali (riding along with and haranguing Lawrence): “Go back, then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer! But you will not be at Aqaba!”

Lawrence (riding ahead he turns back toward Sheik Ali): “I shall be at Aqaba. That is written… (He points at his heart)… in here!”

Lawrence then courageously retraces his steps and finds the half-dead Gasim.  He returns with the young man strapped to his saddle. Lawrence defiantly repeats to Sheik Ali: “Nothing is written.”

Later in the film, Sheik Ali acknowledges Lawrence’s remarkable courage and fortitude, first witnessed in Gasim’s rescue. Sheik Ali says: “Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”

Nothing is written for Lawrence, Remy or Jamal unless each writes it in his own heart.  For each of these  three characters, seizing his destiny is an extraordinary act of faith powered by an overwhelming passion for one great transcendent love.

ratatouille-etb-screenwritingThe lesson of being an extraordinary Power of Idealism hero is voiced in Ratatouille by Restaurant Critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole).  He writes about the talented rat and chef, Remy saying: “…Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”

Here is how Jamal follows his passion for his great love in Slumdog Millionaire.  At the beginning of the film, Jamal is interrogated by the police. He is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal makes it to the final round of the quiz show and is in reach of the grand prize.  Before the final round is played, Jamal is kidnapped, arrested and accused of cheating.  Even under torture, he insists that he did not cheat.

The police chief is willing to give Jamal the benefit of the doubt if Jamal can explain how he answered the show’s questions. Jamal tells the story of his life, turning his suffering and pain into an inspiring tale of enduring love.  The film flashes between the questions on the quiz show and Jamal’s childhood.

He recounts how he and his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) grew up in the chaotic squalor of a Mumbai slum.  They are orphaned when their mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot and subsequent widespread arson. The boys escape the burning slum together.  Despite Salim’s objections, Jamal invites the orphaned Latika to join them.  It is love at first sight.

The three children scavenge in one of Mumbai’s largest dumps until they are taken to an orphanage.  The orphanage is a front for a begging operation that uses horrific tactics to make the children more pitiful. Jamal is taught to sing.  Salim (a young Power of Will character) is recruited to bully and capture other children.

Salim is not afraid to use violence to help him and his brother survive.  He protects Jamal and stages their escape. When the boys jump on a freight train, Salim lets go of Latika’s hand and she is left behind with the gangsters.  Salim is jealous of Jamal’s love for Latika.

The brothers spend years scamming and stealing from tourists.  Jamal refuses to forget Latika.  He obsessively searches for her.  Jamal finally finds her only to lose her again.  His brother rapes Latika and vanishes with the young girl.  Jamal eventually finds work delivering tea in a call center.  Searching the computer company’s mobile phone records he locates his missing brother.  When he finds and follows Salim he also finds Latika.

Salim and Latika live in the thrall of a powerful Mumbai crime lord.  Latika is one of the man’s concubines. Salim is one of his thuggish enforcers.  Jamal convinces Latika to escape and meet him at the train station. Salim follows, recaptures and brutalizes her.

To escape his other larger problems, the crime lord is forced to leave Mumbai.  He takes Salim and Latika with him. Jamal attempts to find and reach out to Latika by becoming a contestant on her favorite quiz show, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Jamal’s fate is that of a slumdog.  He is poor, uneducated and one of millions just like him.  Fate should dictate that he live and die in the slum, unheralded and unsung.  He should accept his fate as a piece of human garbage, disposable and easily forgotten.

Instead, Jamal turns the pain, humiliation and hopelessness of his life into the answers that complete an epic quest for the love of his life.  Jamal refuses to surrender to his fate or to the gangsters who control the slums.  He chooses instead to seize his destiny and pursue the impossible. The police chief’s reaction is much like Anton Ego’s in Ratatouille.  His preconceptions about Jamal are shattered.  He rips up Jamal’s arrest warrant and returns him to the quiz show to play the prize-winning final round.

Jamal’s destiny is Latika.  However unattainable their love is, Jamal chooses to race toward his passion.  His choice defines who he is.  Seizing his destiny ensures Jamal will live forever as a legend in slums.  He never gives up.  He never gives in.  His unending quest finally inspires the love of his brother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in recognition of the unquenchable intensity and purity of Jamal’s love.

Jamal and Latika find each other at the train station at the end of the film.  The two have a tearful and passionate reunion.

Latika:  “I thought we would meet again only in death.”

Jamal (shaking his head):  “I knew you would be watching.” (Jamal turns her head to gently touch the scar disfiguring the side of her face, which is Salim’s punishment for her previous escape. She tries to turn away.)

Jamal:  “This is our destiny.” (He kisses her scar tenderly)  “This is our destiny.”  (He kisses and holds her tight)

I am happy to close out 2008 with a post about such an inspiring film. Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer-winning American author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature famously wrote:  “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”

I challenge you all to be young at heart in 2009, seize your destiny and aim for the impossible.  As President-elect Barack Obama proved—Nothing is written unless we write it in our hearts.  This year, resolve to write your best self.  Defy the odds.  Fly in the face of your fears.  Make a Leap of Faith.  I will be there with you, every step of the way.

Creating a New Character – Fear

edvard-munch ETB ScreenwritingI have been silent on the blog these last few days because I’ve been struggling with a terrible cold.  Not a pleasant way to spend a romantic holiday in Paris with my husband (he’s been sick too)– but there you have it.  It’s a good thing we are staying with loving family members who have taken good care of us.

I am now preparing for a television show I’ll be working with in Europe. I just received a bio which describes a new character soon to be added to the show’s ensemble.  It is a male character, a father, whose greatest fear is described as the terror that something might happen to his daughter.

When I first developed the Character Map I asked writers “What is your biggest fear?”  This kind of answer would often come up.  As adults we often fear most for those we love, especially our children.

I realized this was the wrong way to ask the question.  I then asked “What was your biggest worry as a child?”

This question yielded much more useful answers.  How do we turn around the character’s natural fear about a child’s welfare into something more specific to that particular character?

We must look at the ways the character is most worried about failing others and becoming unloved or unlovable.  This often is traceable back to the character’s own childhood fears.  These early fears powerfully stay with us and color our adult lives.

The question to ask the character (a father) in this case is– “How do you fear you might be the cause of something terrible happening to your child?”

This makes the fear specific and personal and keys it directly to the Character Type.  Here are some examples:

I fear I am not strong enough to protect my child.  If I show any weakness my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Will father (like Tony Soprano on The Sopranos).

I fear I am not good enough to protect my child.  If I don’t judge correctly or make bad choices my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Conscience father (like Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights).

I fear I am not cautious enough to protect my child.  If I don’t see all the hidden dangers my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Truth father (like the father fish, Marlin, in Finding Nemo).

I fear I am not extraordinary enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act with honor and heroism my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Idealism father (like William Wallace in Braveheart).

I fear I am not objective enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act rationally my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Reason father (like Dr.Matt Fowler in In the Bedroom)

I fear I am not successful enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough money my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Ambition father (like Fletcher Reed in Liar Liar)

I fear I am not responsible enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough maturity my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Excitement father (like Samuel Faulkner in Nine Months).

I fear I am not useful enough to protect my child.  If I my family doesn’t realize I know best they might be exposed to danger. This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Love father (like Stanley Banks in Father of the Bride).

I fear I am not significant enough to protect my child. If I am too simple my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Imagination father (like Guido Orefice in Life is Beautiful).

The trick is to make the fear personal to the character and fit the Character Type.  Simply fearing for a child is too general.  The fear must speak directly to the character’s own Worldview, View of Love and how one protects and cherishes those one loves.  Or how specifically one might fail to do so.