Monday, 7 February 2011

From Script to Screen: The Book of Eli

I try and read a script every week. That's in addition to the script reading work I do. This is just for leisure. Jews aren't allowed to work from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday - so I like to relax and read a script purely for pleasure (although inevitably learn something too.) During Script Club season I'll mostly follow that - and when that's not running I'll just read whatever I feel like from Simply Scripts or My PDF Scripts etc. And it adds up. That's approximately fifty scripts a year (how many have you read, ever, let alone just last year?) which means that my script collection outweighs my DVD one. And there are no prizes for guessing which one is more beneficial for screenwriters. And as Dave Herman points out, I began to actually enjoying reading scripts of movies I haven't seen - and then catching the film. Certainly from an educational point of view, I'd far rather read a script not knowing what happens next and not seeing any other pictures in my mind except the ones that the words on the page are creating for me, than be influenced by anything pre-watched.

I read The Book of Eli script towards the end of last year and then saw the movie over the holiday season. The script was fantastic. I loved it, and couldn't understand why the movie had not made more of a splash. It seemed to just come and go to mixed reviews, even though it did put up a fight against the mighty Avatar to do some decent business. But then I saw the movie and was shocked to discover that a few small, but very crucial details, had been changed. And it just brought home to me how important seemingly minor tweaks can be and what effect they can have on the overall movie.

Spoilers for The Book of Eli coming up.

You can read about the movie for yourself if you want to, on wiki or IMDB. But here's what you won't read about.

In the script, the blind characters have no pupils. They are therefore very clearly blind. If I remember correctly Eli has dark sunglasses on most of the script, except on rare occasions where he is on his own and the script makes it clear he is shrouded in darkness or asleep. However the character does things - fights, shoots, whatever - in the story that a blind person cannot do. So when Eli takes his dark glasses off at the end of the script to reveal that he is blind, it is the best jaw dropping moment I have ever read in a script. However, in the movie, the blind characters do have pupils and we see Eli without his glasses virtually the whole time. (The movie posters by the way always have him with the glasses on.) So when you have the double reveal at the end that the Bible he is carrying is braille, and the villain therefore won't be able to read it - but that Eli has been able to read it and has the book memorised so he can dictate it, the whole twist is potentially lost. For one thing I imagine there are sighted people in the world that can read braille, so that alone proved nothing. And I even stumbled across an internet forum which was discussing whether or not Eli was blind. It made me scream. From the script there is no way it was intended to be an ambiguous ending and the writer must be pulling his hair out that it was left so unclear. I realise there are possibly filmic issues with shooting an entire movie where your protagonist has his eyes shaded. But it's so crucial here that for me you either do it, or don't bother making the film.

Secondly, the antagonist, Carnegie, was altered - slightly - but it made a big difference. In the script he is demonstrated to be a brilliant orator and his power is derived from that. It has a religious fervour to it and men, much stronger than him, are prepared to follow him because of it. We therefore understand that if he was to get his hands on the one remaining Bible in the world, and be able to harness it and use its language for his own ends, it would make him even more powerful and unstoppable. The stakes are clear and very high. On the other hand, he does not go with the gang when they chase Eli - therefore not getting injured in the process, like he does in the movie. At some point, I am going to guess that someone said we can't have the antagonist just sitting there, we need to make him more active. But in doing so, and seemingly in favour of the critical speech he gives, they totally undermine the threat of the character. He just becomes one of the gang and frankly there is no longer any apparent reason why the head henchman doesn't just shoot him in the face and become the boss himself. And having got injured, the movie makes it clear that he is dying from his infected leg wound. This leads to the third change.

Solara is a young girl who was under the control of Carnegie but escapes to travel with Eli. When they reach their destination Eli dictates the Bible and dies. (And by the way the script makes it transparent that she is shocked when Eli removes his glasses and she discovers he is blind - whereas in the movie she barely batters an eyelid.) Solara buries him (with a rather nice epitaph on his grave stone which is in the script and I loved, but is cut from the movie,) and then she dons Eli's 'uniform,' complete with weapons. Despite being offered a safe haven in the world's last library located on Alcatraz, she declines and says she has some business to finish back home. In the script, with Carnegie unharmed, still ruling over this town, with the Bible that albeit he can't read (but could theoretically find someone who can at some point) the ending is fantastic because Solara picks up the mantle and it adds another layer to Eli's journey. However in the movie, with Carnegie dying and his control over the town already starting to unravel, it completely undermines the final shot of Solara tooled up and ready to go home to defeat her nemesis once and for all. It's a small change but in terms of something delivering an emotionally satisfying ending, it had a big effect.

To be fair, the writer, Gary Whitta, seemed pretty chuffed with how it all turned out. And fair enough. It's still a cool movie and I enjoyed it. But for my money Gary, your script was subtly, but so much the better. It reminded me that the little things can add up and do matter. And whilst I'm not suggesting a writer fights tooth and nail over every line of the script (that would be a very, very bad idea,) be aware that when you're writing stuff and making changes, and then when the thing hopefully gets picked up and you have to make more changes, think about the big picture and the impact those seemingly small differences make to the overall story.

ps. I've left a comment on Gary's blog so I'm hoping he'll come back and comment here. For all I know the changes were his idea and I've just made an arse of myself!

pps. I read the first draft of Toy Story 2 this weekend and man, did that script improve a lot by the time it hit our screens!


Nathanael Merten said...

Thank you for this great posting. When I saw the bonus clips on DVD I wondered about the statement that much of the dialogue was canceled. While searching for the original screenplay I came to your blog. Indeed, just as you're saying, carnegan's lost parts (also eli's) are very worth reading.

Jez Freedman said...

Thanks Nathanael. I haven't seen the bonus clips so that's interesting to know. A good movie, but it could've been an even better one