The stories filmmakers tell always start on paper. Scripts are either the product of writers who pen original stories for the screen or adaptations drawn from other sources, typically novels and more recently, comics and children’s literature. In recent years, Hollywood seems to have abandoned original scripts in lieu of a steady stream of franchise reboots, sequels and adaptations from other outside sources. The relative absence of original works for the screen defies a certain creative logic. The movies, now over a century old and arguably the most influential art form of our time, are taught in schools, saturate pop culture and are churned out by the hundreds every year. We know more about film and film making now than we’ve ever known before, but for some reason modern Hollywood gravitates to outside sources for stories to tell. Original screenplays are now the exception rather than the rule in Tinseltown.
The opposite is true of independent and small budget films. They rely heavily on original scripts and original ideas to power their productions – which begs the question; why do small productions with limited resources feel it important to invest in original writing while Hollywood deems the exercise either too involved or too time-consuming? Typically, the big studios opt to search out existing stories, and once found, finance many re-writes by a plethora of script doctors. Big budget movie scripts are developed this way because Hollywood has convinced itself that movie making begins on the first day of shooting. Only after the filmmakers and the production crew arrive on set, does a film begin to incubate or show signs of life. They have severed the link between scriptwriting and film making even in the lexicon of industry language. Scriptwriting is described as a pre-production task, something you do before you begin the main action, akin to stretching before the big race.
The script is the most fragile component in Hollywood film making, vulnerable to the whims of producers, studio executives and those who finance them. The company names that appear before the opening credits roll often have their fingerprints all over the script, influencing and imposing changes to make the lead more sympathetic or pushing for more action and less plot. Once a production begins shooting, it’s hard to stop or change direction without accruing losses, so the script is often savaged well before the cameras roll. This is the real reason original scripts can’t survive the Hollywood system; money corrupts original thought, smoothing it down and rounding off edges, making things more palatable and marketable to the widest possible audience. Writers skilled at making these stories more accessible, the so-called script doctors, typify present day Hollywood writing values. Without the ownership or protection afforded by an influential or powerful figure, an original script will most likely lose most of its originality in their hands. Hollywood fails to protect and value good screen-writing. Rather than investing in original writers, the industry employs an army of readers and editors, trading creativity for flexibility and efficiency.
The 2012 film adaptation of author David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas is a recent example of an adapted script losing much of the integrity of the original work. To be fair, the film isn’t the direct product of one of the big Hollywood studios (it was financed and produced in Germany in partnership with Warner Brothers, who distributed the film in North America), but it is indicative of the problems associated with turning an existing literary work into a blockbuster film. David Mitchell’s novel is a marvel, a collection of six pulpy tales set in wildly different times and places, craftily connected to one another through small details that almost feel like clues, and through larger, overriding themes and ideas.
The directors, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker, decided to abandon the novel’s complex, multifaceted structure and treat it as a single, recurring story that repeats itself across the six segments. Occasionally, this results in some nicely-contrasting moments, but mostly, it strips the original story of its nuance and subtlety. In the novel, the connections between the six stories remains elusive. The plight of one character is not necessarily the same as the next and is in fact often decidedly different. In the film adaptation however, there is a sickening democracy, where every character seems to be an avatar for the next, going through the same challenges, rising to the same occasions in different clothes and new prosthetics. The film expounds a philosophy of reincarnation and of connectedness by casting the same actors for different characters and having Halle Berry look off into the distance and murmur ‘Why do we make the same mistake, again and again…?’. Reading the novel, the connections between the different characters and their stories is only hinted at. The film, on the other hand, is constantly reminding the audience that the tales are almost identical despite the differences in time and setting.
The novel, long considered un-adaptable for the screen, remains so. While the Wachowskis and Twyker should be commended for attempting the tall task of adapting Mitchell’s novel for the big screen, grinding its six unique segments into the same melodramatic paste wasn’t the answer. The magic of the book is contained in the tenuous connections between the various stories. Even the title hints at this tension. There can be no such thing as a cloud atlas; clouds are constantly moving, changing, dissipating, forming and reforming and are therefore impossible to map. Cloud Atlas should never have been adapted for the screen. Everything that makes the book great (its structure, the distinct voice of each story, the clues delicately nested within each segment) are extremely literary and do not translate well to film. A far better film could have resulted from an original script, perhaps loosely inspired by the ideas and feel of the book, but not adapted directly from it. Cloud Atlas remains a flare sent up underscoring the importance of story in film making, warning first that committee-based adaptations of hyper-literary stories is a seriously bad idea, but more importantly that writing for the screen should be more than flashy ideas made marketable.
The stories filmmakers tell always start on paper, but this one should have stayed there.
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