Screenplays are hard. So much so that “scriptreader” is a real job, one that involves separating written wheat from so much poorly-written chaff. So much so that one particular scriptreader compiled a giant list of everything wrong with a year’s worth of screenplays, and converted it into one convenient (and massive) infographic.
Check it out below, thanks to i09, but be warned: it is not small.
Amongst other tidbits, like common screenplay settings, the gender of screenplay writers, and how many of the year’s screenplays were actually worth reading, this infographic also has a long and detailed list about the common problems facing your average movie script. These flaws are universal ‐ common enough to pop up on a regular basis for an entire year, and even common enough to plague the films everyone likes. Films that are successful. Films that are, for lack of a better word, good.
So naturally, here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest problems this particular scriptreader had to wade through, and the universally beloved films that suffer from the very same flaws. Not to nitpick and not to convince anyone that his or her favorite movie is actually a steaming pile of refuse, but to show how even the toppest of top scripts can still fall prey to simple mistakes. And to demonstrate how a truly masterful film overcomes its accidental missteps.
Script Problem: “The Story Begins Too Late in the Script”
Cinematic Offender: Jurassic Park
It’s hard not to love Jurassic Park. After twenty years of advancements in technology and paleontology, you’d think it would have grown at least a little obsolete, yet it remains the unchallenged king of the dinosaur movie. But so much of Jurassic Park’s success hangs on its special effects, and once you’ve seen that T-Rex head explode through the men’s room door for the umpteenth time, a problem presents itself. The one primary conflict in Jurassic Park is man vs. nature- dinos want to munch humans, while humans would prefer very much to remain un-munched. And in Jurassic Park, it takes a full hour of the two hour running time before the dinosaurs actually escape and the opportunity for munching presents itself. So for that first hour, Jurassic Park is content to stand around and repeatedly proclaim, “Yes, that’s correct ‐ these are dinosaurs.”
Why don’t we care? Because the dinosaurs are so pretty to look at. The first time seeing Jurassic Park is time spent gawking at all the cool dinosaurs brought to life. Even today, when the occasional CGI brachiosaurus hasn’t aged quite right, the average park denizen still looks tremendous. And by the time you’ve seen Jurassic Park enough times for the magic to fade, the film’s become habit. Sitting through an hour of exposition isn’t such a big deal when the exposition in question is already well-worn and well-loved.
Script Problem: “The Scenes Are Void of Meaningful Conflict”
Cinematic Offender: The Godfather Part II
The keyword here is “meaningful.” The Godfather Part II overflows with various conflicts. People want to kill Michael, Michael wants to kill people, Kay loses the baby, etc. But so little of it carries the weight that one normally associates with The Godfather. The Corleones’ lives are stories of fate, of characters being pulled from point A to point B no matter what the circumstances. Michael was destined to follow the family business no matter how much he doth protest; Kay was destined to be shut out; Vito was destined to die from an orange-related mishap, etc. In the second Godfather, the distance between A and B is made very, very short. Part I saw Michael transition from straight-laced military man to cold, heartless mobster. Part II begins with a cold, distant Michael, and ends with a colder, slightly more distant Michael. And on the way, he’ll make pit stops in Havana and Senate Committee hearings to pass the time.
Why don’t we care? Plenty of reasons. Partly, because even as the script starts to sag, The Godfather Part II is still as well-acted as a film will ever be. Partly because Robert De Niro’s side story as a young Vito is everything the main story isn’t: a character hurtling inevitably towards a very different future, going from underdog immigrant boy to mumbly and terrifying Marlon Brando. And partly because it’s The Godfather. So long as Michael Corleone doesn’t buddy up with the future Pope, no one’s going to complain that much.
Script Problem: “The Script Has a By-the-Numbers Execution”
Cinematic Offender: Avatar
Avatar might not be a darling on the level of The Godfather, but it did make several billion dollars at the box office, so somewhere, someone had to like it. And so did a hundred million of that person’s friends. But that success doesn’t make Avatar safe from giant, glaring errors; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Avatar is as by-the-numbers as by-the-numbers can be. Anyone who saw the trailer could guess every major story beat in the story of Jake Sully: Jungle Hero, and the film never tries to divert from that easily-guessable path Avatar lays out. There’s a reason the film was compared unfavorably to Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, and it’s because Avatar stays forever glued to the same “noble savage” concept that so many other works have already used.
Why don’t we care? Because Avatar is by-the-numbers as by-the-numbers can be. Like “Romeo and Juliet,” the play where the opening monologue spoils every aspect of the story, sometimes you just want to see a simple, lovey-dovey star-crossed romance. Avatar is a simple movie, but more importantly, it’s a simple movie where every single aspect of its simpleness ‐ the villains lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever, the noble aliens have big goo-goo Disney eyes and the end credits blast a “My Heart Will Go On” rip-off ‐ has been intricately crafted to appeal to the widest audience possible. Infographic-compiling script readers might break out the red ink, but they were never the target audience anyway.
Script Problem: “The Villains Are Cartoonish, Evil-for-the-Sake-of-Evil”
Cinematic Offender: The Avengers
Was there actually a reason why Loki wanted to take over the Earth? A reason that was plainly stated in the film, and not just “power is great, I think I’d like some more of it?” Loki just sort of popped into SHIELD headquarters and began brainwashing, subjugating and causing general mayhem.
As our intrepid script reader so elegantly puts it, “the best villains are those who think they’re the hero of their own story.” Loki has no delusions of grandeur. He just likes causing mischief 00 yes, he may literally be the god of mischief, but Loki has relationships and real feelings hidden under those giant horns. A prank that balloons up to “hey, let’s kickstart an alien invasion of Earth” needs at least a little bit of motive behind it.
Why don’t we care? Two words: Tom Hiddleston. There’s a reason entire Comic-Cons of people leap to their feet and start screaming as soon as Hiddleston shows up. As Loki, he’s so charming and so convincingly, condescendingly menacing that his performance can prop up Loki all on its own. It also doesn’t hurt that The Avengers pushed Loki aside while it was making sure all six of its lead superheroes got a fair shake. In a film called The Avengers, the Avengers probably deserve the most attention.
Script Problem: “The Female Part Is Underwritten”
Cinematic Offender: Oldboy
One of Oldboy’s defining features (and this will be a spoiler, so if you don’t already know the giganto-huge twist at the end of Oldboy, start scrolling and don’t stop until you see the man in the bat costume) is the relationship between Oh Dae-su and the love interest who turns out to be his daughter. Every single conflict in the film stems from a perceived slight against an incestual relationship. Woo-jin’s entire bonkers plan revolves around a deep and unbreakable love forming between Oh Dae-su and the woman he doesn’t realize is his daughter. For such a key character, Mi-do is given almost zero room to maneuver. She’s lonely, and she’s frightened of the giant, sentient ants that occasionally ride the subway. Then, for the rest of the movie she’s a bargaining chip to be pushed around by the male hero and male villain. She’s rescued from dangerous thugs. She’s threatened in order to give Oh Dae-su motivation:
“Hey, Oh Dae-su, do x or I’ll kill Mi-do.”
“Hey, Oh Dae-su, do x or I’ll tell Mi-do she’s been having sex with her father.”
And so forth.
Why don’t we care? Mostly, because the presence of incest and Mi-do’s extreme importance to the story only become apparent in the last few minutes of Oldboy. For the bulk of the film, she’s an underwritten female character in a film that appears to focus almost exclusively on a male-male relationship. Not the hugest crime in the world. Only after the big reveal and a little introspection does it become clear just how badly Mi-do has been undersold. And by then, Oldboy’s particular brand of crazy has created more than it’s share of goodwill- it’s a little harder to retroactively criticize a film when it’s just spent two hours dazzling you with live octopus consumption and coldly polite giant ants.
Script Problem: “The Narrative Falls Into a Repetitive Pattern”
Cinematic Offender: The Dark Knight
Everybody loves Heath Ledger’s Joker. If possible, I’m certain many of those Ledger fans would pay top dollar for a film that never left the Joker’s side, watching him studiously apply his creepy clown makeup, act as project manager for unbelievably intricate and well-organized acts of anarchy, and scream words not normally associated with screaming. That’s actually what we got, more or less, with The Dark Knight, which is a perfect time to regurgitate the old adage, “too much of a good thing.”
There’s practically more Joker in The Dark Knight than there is The Dark Knight. Batman’s allotted screen time is just enough to react to the Joker’s nefarious schemes and do little else. He has three settings in the film: “Stop Joker,” “Mourn Love Interest Joker Has Killed,” and “Bear the Burden of Two-Face’s Crimes (Which Was Joker’s Plan Anyway).” Joker, similarly, has no real character arc, and spends The Dark Knight enacting increasingly ridiculous schemes meant to kill people more and more people. And so the film settles into a repetitive pattern, wherein Joker sets a plan in motion and Batman fights against whatever plan is currently underway. When one ends, the next one begins, and so continues The Dark Knight as long as Two-Face isn’t on screen.
Why don’t we care? Probably for the same reason no one cared in The Avengers. A performance as career-defining as Ledger’s can go a long, long way, and in The Dark Knight’s case, we were all so captivated by Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime that no one minded watching the same handful of scenes play out again and again and again. Ledger was a rare breed- don’t expect an actor in a superhero movie to ever win (or even be nominated for) an Oscar again. Not even if Daniel Day-Lewis plays The Penny Pilferer in the next standalone Batman outing.
Script Problem: “The Characters Are Indistinguishable from Each Other”
Cinematic Offender: Alien
Can you name any of the supporting characters in Alien who aren’t Ripley? Maybe Dallas, Tom Skerrit’s ship captain. Maybe. Other than that, there are no characters in Alien. The little baby monstrosity doesn’t burst out of Kane’s chest; it bursts out of John Hurt’s. Parker isn’t one of the rare black characters to die last in a 70s horror film- who the hell is Parker? That was Yaphet Kotto. And so forth. The human crew of the Nostromo have very little in the way of distinguishing characteristics. Maybe one likes a cat where another dislikes the same cat and maybe one is revealed to be an evil robot right before he’s killed off and it becomes a moot point anyway. They’re all space truckers in one form or another, and there’s not much in Alien that tries to develop them in any meaningful way.
Why don’t we care? Because of another common script problem: “The Supernatural Element is Left Undefined.” Alien answers precisely zero of the questions about its signature slimy space creature, and in embracing a common flaw it pushes the boundaries of horror movie monsters. Until later sequels foolishly tried to explain the Xenomorph’s backstory, we didn’t know a thing about what this is, why it’s killing off the crew, or what’s going on with that elephant man sitting in a weird spaceship chair. Even the creature’s extremely complex life cycle is a mystery until you’ve seen the film. It’s a perfect summation of the word “alien;” a thing that makes no sense, exists outside the laws of nature and really, really wants to hurt you. Alien’s alien has interest enough to hold your attention, even while Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton discuss the merits of space dinner.
[Photo credit for header image]
Related Topics: Screenwriting