Friday 11 October 2013

Book review: "Shakespeare for Screenwriters"

Shakespeare for Screenwriters: Timeless Writing Tips from the Master of Drama was written by Jennie (J.M.) Evenson. It is part of the growing stable of books about filmmaking from Michael Wiese Productions.

Jennie Evenson received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. At UCLA, she was awarded top honors at the UCLA Showcase Screenwriting Contest.

As a writer in L.A., she has worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. An award-winning teacher of Shakespeare, composition, and film, Evenson currently teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Hollywood has long been fascinated by Shakespeare. Wikipedia mention well over 400 movies have been made from the famous plays, the earliest being Macbeth in 1898. The MIT Open Course, Shakespeare, Film and Media, says that:

Filmed Shakespeare began in 1899, with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree performing the death scene from King John for the camera. Sarah Bernhardt, who had played Hamlet a number of times in her long career, filmed the duel scene for the Paris Exposition of 1900. In the era of silent film (1895-1929) several hundred Shakespeare films were made in England, France, Germany and the United States, Even without the spoken word, Shakespeare was popular in the new medium. The first half-century of sound included many of the most highly regarded Shakespeare films, among them -- Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V, Orson Welles' Othello and Chimes at Midnight, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Polanski's Macbeth and Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.
IMDb list almost 1,000 films on which Shakespeare has been granted a writer credit. Such is the respect in which Shakespeare is held, Mel Gibson turned down a chance to play James Bond in order to play Hamlet (1990) for Franco Zeffirelli.

Quotes from, and references to, Shakespeare appear in endless movies:

Richard Dreyfus:  Now is the winter of our discontent...  The Goodbye Girl (1977)

Michael Caine:  ... made glorious summer by this son of York...  The Actors (2003)

Geoffrey Rush:  ... And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house...  The King's Speech (2010)

Rafe Spall:  ... In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.  Anonymous (2011)
Alan Rickman:  I played Richard the Third... There were five curtain calls.  Galaxy Quest (1999)

Rick Morannis:  The great Blunderman... 
Steve Martin:  I knew him... 
Victoria Tennant:  A fellow of infinite jest...   L.A. Story (1991)

Cary Elwes:  A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!  Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt:  I burn, I pine, I perish!  10 Things I Hate About You (1999)


I first heard of Shakespeare for Screenwriters on Twitter and immediately thought, What a great title!

Other people must have had the same reaction, as it appears to have been rushed into print. I've never seen so many typos in such a small book. (A bit over 100 pages, after padding out with 'Exercises' and 'Key Points to Remember'). Or maybe that's the way the publishing industry is going these days.

The book doesn't have an index (which I consider an epic fail, given modern word processing capacities), just a list of the films referenced, and a summary of the "great" plays of Shakespeare.

The book consists of brief examinations of fourteen of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, each with a mention of three or four movies which contain some common element. So King Lear is linked to Ordinary People, Titanic, Life is Beautiful, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Much Ado About Nothing is linked to Annie Hall, There's Something About Mary, and Elf.
And so on. 

There are curious absences from the book. For instance, A Midsummer's Night Dream is linked to Being There, When Harry Met Sally, and Wedding Crashers, but not to L.A. Story, which was based on A Midsummer's Night Dream.

[Digression: Screen Crush have a Now-and-then photo spread about the stars of L.A. Story, here.]

The book is about Shakespeare, but it ignores two thirds of Shakespeare's plays. The fourteen plays referenced are labelled 'The Great Plays.' Presumably Shakespeare had nothing to say to screenwriters in the other twenty-four.

There's no Save-The-Cat-style formula-ising, no structural theory. I found that strange, given Shakespeare's habit of writing plays with five-act structures, a pattern that is decidedly out-of-fashion amongst the modern screenwriting gurus.

It would be easy to write this book off as a lost opportunity, but... I just can't do that. I will be rereading it in the near future. The book is thin, but snappy. I can't get the following line out of my head:

  • Want to make a classic drama? Destroy a family.
Wow! What a solid piece of advice. Ruthless. Very Hollywood. And all true.

Here are a few more quotable lines from the book.
  • Audiences love to watch characters make unexpected choices.
  • Sometimes it's better not to limit your characters to one motivation that remains stable through the course of the story.
  • Give your characters an important decision and then make the arguments for and against it equally.
  • Climaxes should be inevitable (but not predictable).
  • Shakespeare weaves foreshadowing into every act of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Obsessed characters must show that they are different from everyone around them.
  • The perfect balance of... romance and loss is what makes us cry at the end.
  • A good comedy requires at least one accident, coincidence, or ironic twist.
  • A coincidence can do something remarkable—remind the audience that life is unpredictable—in both wonderful and terrible ways
  • Every good comedy has an ironic twist.
  • Nobody wants to watch a happy couple.
  • Watching the characters play together is essential to building a romance.
  • Flawed heroes are the only ones worth caring about.
  • Every character has to want something.
  • If the character is going to change, the audience needs to see exactly how and why it happens.
  • In order to make character arcs work, the changes need to be big.
  • It's the situation, not the dialogue, that generates the big laughs.
  • The more your characters suffer, the better.
  • The true secret to a good hero is a good villain.
  • The villain we don't see coming is far more frightening than than the one we do.
  • Watching the lovers enjoy pure bliss is a necessary part of building a compelling romance.
  • The key to the love story in Romeo and Juliet is that it ends.
  • Only two of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays have no known source. The rest were stolen.
  • Don't be afraid to cannabalize other people's work, but always make sure you offer your own spin on the story.

Here's an interview with Connie Martinson. As usual, Martinson makes it more about herself than about the person she's interviewing, but you might get something from it.


A.M. said...

Hmm, maybe you should also check your own typos in your article: the author’s name is not Julie M. Evenson, it is Jennie M. Evenson.
How many other authors can handle a book about Shakespeare for more than one hundred pages? Also, may be the author has plans to introduce a sequel with the rest of Shakespeare’s remaining twenty plus plays, who knows? Another comment on no formulas, no theories critique: I think this book is great, simply because it does not have any so called formulas. Screenwriting is an artistic expression, not a chemistry problem to solve!
Needless to say I do not agree with most of your comments, which were obviously “rushed into print”. May be that’s the way book critiques are going these days!

Henry Sheppard said...

Fair comment.
Errors now corrected.
The rest were my honest thoughts and I stand by them.

Thanks for your contribution.