When I was teaching screenwriting at the University of Sydney there were a few things that came up, reliably, with every class. For example, it got so I would give a prize to the first person who mentioned Fellini or Bergman, with bonus points going to the person who mentioned them both in one sentence. It usually went something like this: “Why do we have to spend so much time learning all these rules about structure and plot? Bergman and Fellini didn’t adhere to these rules.” Once I got so frustrated with this line of thinking that I looked each student squarely in the eye and said “Unless I’m horribly mistaken, no one in this class is Bergman or Fellini so why don’t we just shut up and learn something?”
Possibly that was a bit harsh but really, Australian undergrads comparing themselves to Bergman and Fellini. It would be funny if it didn’t make me want to cry.
This was a compulsory course in a certificate of “film-making” you see. Compulsory because if given their druthers these students wouldn’t bother with script-writing. Several of them even told me on the first day, “I don’t want to write screenplays; I want to direct.” Another favorite was something along the lines of “Oh but Woody Allen/Mike Leigh/Some-foreign-auteur-whose-name-I-can’t-pronounce never uses screenplays. It’s all improvisation”.
I did a lot of nodding and smiling.
Sometimes this line of thinking would lead to a discussion along the lines of “the director’s job is more important than the screenwriter’s”. Occasionally someone from another area of film-making would join the class, say sound or art direction. They would take the position that sound or art direction were the most important aspect of film-making, often arguing with actors or aspiring directors. I would patiently let them debate, quietly caressing the metaphorical weapons of mass destruction I held in my mental arsenal.
“What do you think, Gabrielle?” one of them would eventually ask. Then I would take a deep breath and pick them apart one by one. “Ever seen City Lights or The Passion of Joan of Arc?” I would say to the kid who thought sound was the most important. If they had, they would be immediately chastened. “Those films moved me to tears with no sound at all. Sound certainly adds to the film watching experience, but it is not the most important thing.”
To the art direction advocate I would point out some brilliant low budget documentaries, to the supporter of actors I would mention Star Wars IV, a great movie with ridiculous acting. I had an example of a good movie with poor effort in every department, either by accident or by lack of budget. Every department but one. “Can someone name a great movie that had a bad screenplay?” I would ask.
Mostly I would get blank stares. Sometimes someone would suggest, half-heartedly, that Episode IV had silly dialog. “Silly dialog no more makes a bad script than great dialog makes a good one,” I would say. “Witness almost anything written by Edward Burns.” Cruel, perhaps, but necessary. I was preparing them for the thermo-nuclear grade finale of my argument.
“Here’s what it comes down to. The screenplay, the writing, the story is the most important part of any movie. Of course I would say that, I’m a screenwriter right? But the thing is, I have proof. And here it is: Books are better than movies.”
I’d pause to let that sink in.
“I don’t mean a book is better than its movie adaptation, although It almost always is. I mean in general books are better than movies. A good book is more moving, more thought provoking, more enduring than even a great movie. And a great story, if it’s treated with care, will always make a good movie. Have you ever seen a movie adaptation of Hamlet that wasn’t great? It’s freaking Hamlet! A kindergarten class could shoot that on Super-8 and it would be fantastic.”
And so on.
I had them.
After that they behaved.
The question this week was “What movie have you seen that actually (gasp!) improved on the book?”. It’s true that there aren’t many. One I frequently suggest (you’d be surprised how often I get asked this question) is Blade Runner, which was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick. Brilliant movie. Kind of silly book.
Great screenplay though. Great. And that’s the point. The WRITING matters, either way. There isn’t a good film out there where the writing sucks. There are good films and books where the words aren’t as beautiful as some other films and books, but the STORY has to be good. Bad story equals bad movie, bad book. Good story and you’re more than halfway there.
Don’t ever let a room full of pretentious backwards baseball hat wearing Fellini watching wannabes ever tell you otherwise.