Do We Put Too Much Stock in Original Dialogue?

By  · Published on April 1st, 2014


We all love to quote our favorite movies. Even my one-year-old son just started uttering “I’ve got it!” all the time, having picked up the phrase from his most-watched movie, Dumbo. I don’t know that it’s the most original or noteworthy piece of dialogue, but he hasn’t seen much yet. Usually the lines we remember and recite are those that stick out for a reason. They don’t always have to be something never heard before, as the quote’s notability could be all about the way it’s delivered by the actor saying it, though most of the time it’s a line specific and exclusive to a certain movie. Even if a hundred scripts since have borrowed “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” we all know it comes from The Wizard of Oz.

Aside from the fact that it gives us something with which to represent our fandom or appreciation of a movie, though, original dialogue isn’t that important. A lot of the time it’s really clever and stylized and therefore wouldn’t likely be found in a film with characters intended to sound natural. Imagine a serious realist drama where someone suddenly said something like “Fasten your seat belts… It’s going to be a bumpy night” or “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” or “I feel the need – the need for speed.” Sometimes original, quotable dialogue is so unnatural that it makes some people cringe, as in the cases of Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. Other times it might be something really memorable and weirdly awesome even if it’s partly because it stands out for being odd for its movie, such as “I drink your milkshake.”

Meanwhile, there are those very common lines, some of them even considered cliches, that are heard in numerous movies, including the great ones. compiled the biggest culprits last fall (thanks to for pointing to it this morning), and the worst offender – “Is that all you’ve got?” – makes appearances in such acclaimed scripts as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Rango and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Then there’s “It’s/She’s gonna blow,” which you’ll find in Apocalypse Now, Batman Begins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, American Graffiti and Return of the Jedi (okay, so George Lucas is just a fan). Surprisingly, my favorite overused phrase, often heard in trailers, “It’s happening,” is not represented on the list.

A few of those overused lines seem common because they are the likely thing to be said in the situation in which they’re spoken. Many, though, are now thought of as fairly cheesy, yet not bad enough to ruin those movies mentioned above. Mainly because those films are otherwise well-written, dialogue-wise and especially in terms of their storytelling. Would you rather have a movie that’s got a bad plot but winning dialogue or a movie with a great plot but bad dialogue? I can be forgiving of the latter at times, just recently with Sabotage, which I dig for its unconventional storytelling but kept wincing through when anyone talked. And of course there are plenty of cult favorites that have caught our ironical affection in spite of how bad they are overall because they have ridiculously original dialogue. Like Troll 2. And Hard Ticket to Hawaii, which is a gold nugget turd I was just introduced to.

But I’ve always had a thing for original dialogue, maybe because I came of age in the ’90s, when that was such a big deal. Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith were all the rage with their allusion-heavy witticisms. And I became obsessed with Hal Hartley’s movies in part because the characters speak in such an unnatural manner that is still perfect for what he’s going for in his work. Heathers, which is non-stop implausible in terms of its cleverly crude dialogue, was the first screenplay I ever bought. I also cared more about comedy in my youth than drama, and the thing about comedy particularly of my generation is that it’s dependent on distinctly funny lines. We got Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, the Coen Brothers, Zucker/Abrams/Zucker and others. They’re no Groucho Marx, but quantity over quality, they’ve collectively done more.

Standout dialogue is more memorable so it makes their scenes more memorable and therefore their movies more memorable. Great films without notable lines are remembered for being great films but are they revisited as much? Here’s a little survey for you: make a list of your top ten favorite movies – that’s favorite, not necessarily those you consider the best. Now put a check mark next to each that you’d consider to have especially memorable dialogue, that which is original, clever, witty, lyrical, insightful, powerful and/or brilliantly worded. Bonus if you can write one of those quotes down next to the movie. Those checked are a majority on your list, aren’t they? Would you love them as much if, say, they weren’t as well-directed or shot?

My results, using the list I submitted to FSR two years ago, reveal that two are silent films so there’s a couple exceptions immediately. Of the other eight, I can think of favorite lines from all of them, though two others are documentaries and therefore maybe not qualified because they don’t involve scripted dialogue. Of the final six, four are definitely movie quote fodder, which I could very easily write something down from. And the other two are probably more quotable because I’ve seen them enough times to recite along a bit – well, maybe not with 8 ½, because it’s in Italian and I also haven’t memorized enough of the subtitles.

Do I love them more for the dialogue than the visuals, is the key question. This is cinema, after all, so why aren’t we as interested in shots as lines? Never mind the fact that the latter can be easily carried out and communicated to others. Cinematography isn’t able to be quoted in the same way, but we don’t only love great original dialogue because we can speak it ourselves. For many of us, words stick in our heads better than images. It’s the case for me, why I’m a writer and not a filmmaker or painter, I suppose (both were early career choices I’d pursued). I wonder how many of you movie fans are the same way, more verbally minded than visual, even if it would seem to make sense to be latter with such a devotion.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.