Tonight, I finally got a chance to see a film that I’ve been excited about since I saw the first trailer. With images beautifully shot, costumes stunningly designed, sets built with perfection, and Charlize Theron throwing herself completely into a role that she was born to play, Snow White and the Huntsman should have been a knock it out of the ballpark success. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
I knew before going to see it that I wasn’t going to be blown away thanks the 48% that the film received on Rottentomatoes.com and a less than stellar recommendation given to me by a friend who works with fairy tales for a living. But the trailers were so engaging and stunning that I was more than happy to pay my $10 to see it.
So if it had a top-notch cast (no anti-Kristen Stewart jokes will be posted here despite my desire to do so), stunning cinematography and design elements, a solid directing job from a relatively unproven novice, and some pretty sweet sound, what didn’t work? What could have made this surefire success fall flat?
It was the screenplay.
There were so many elementary errors made in the script that I was amazed that the script was purchased at all. Thank God for the brilliant technical contributions made to the film that helped pull this potential train wreck out of the ashes. Because it wasn’t a bad film. It was a fantastic idea, underdeveloped and rushed into production before the script was ready.
With the screenwriter already slated to write a number of upcoming films, I feel like it might be a good idea to give him (and anyone else) a quick lesson in some basic screenwriting principles that may help his next films resonate more with audiences.
Warning, this lesson on screenwriting contains spoilers!
Screenwriting 101 Lessons
1. Keep Your Protagonist Consistent
When writing a screenplay, it’s important for the audience to have someone guide them through the world of the film. This is especially true when the film is a fantasy in which the audience needs to learn how this universe works in order for the story to make sense. Either a good character, such as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or a bad character, such as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, can guide us. Good or evil, we need to know whose story it is that we are being exposed to. Once we know whose story we are following, we can see something happen to them that sets them after a goal. The film will consist of that person fighting for this goal and having to overcome obstacles. At the end of the film, we will experience a cathartic release from watching them win or lose their goal. Because we have been with them so long, their win is our win. Their loss is our loss.
Once we know who is guiding us, this needs to stay consistent so that we can experience that cathartic release. In Snow White and the Huntsman, the film starts off with the Wicked Queen as the protagonist, but then it changes twice. For the middle of the film, it feels like it is the Huntsman’s story, and then it becomes Snow White’s story. While all three characters exist in this same world and are all instrumental in telling the overall story, the audience isn’t taken on a journey through the eyes of one character, and so we don’t get to experience any kind of emotional identification with anyone.
2. Give Us A Reason To Root For the Good Guy
I once attended a screening of A League of Their Own at the Arclight Theater in Los Angeles where director Penny Marshall explained how they made Gena Davis look like a great baseball player. In the film, Davis’s character was supposed to be the best baseball that ever played for the all female baseball league, but in reality, the actress couldn’t play ball to save her life. Marshall said that the way to make her look so good was to have every character in the film SAY that she was good. Because the audience believed it, we would too.
Sadly, this same approached didn’t work with Snow White’s character. Everyone in the film said that she was the most beautiful and pure person in the land, but the actions that she performed didn’t support this idea. Snow White had no qualms about having a creepy blonde dude touch her breasts before slamming him in the head with a rusty nail (which she somehow didn’t realize was right outside her window for ten years). She was a strong fighter, and purity didn’t really fit into the mold that the rest of the script was trying to squeeze her into. Yes, she saved a bird with a broken wing and could stop a bridge troll by looking at him, but did this make her pure of heart?
True, casting was a part of the problem here, but the script could have given more to help Stewart make this role work. We needed a more defined Snow White who did more than look longingly at characters in order to get what she wanted. We, the audience, needed to fall in love with her, but the script didn’t give us a reason to do that. Saving a bird wasn’t enough to give us a sense of her personality.
3. Use Voice-Overs Consistently
There have been many successful uses of voice-overs throughout the years, whether it was on film (American Beauty) or on television (How I Met Your Mother). By introducing an omniscient narrator, the writer can give the audience insights into the world of the narrative in a much more straightforward and interesting way than by adding a couple exposition heavy scenes. A voice-over can also help create tone or provide a sense of irony that might not otherwise appear to the viewer.
Usually, the voice-overs are a storyteller who has somehow survived the world of the narrative, whether by fighting to stop mankind from annihilating itself (T2: Judgment Day) or by finding a nice man to take home to bed (Bridget Jones’ Diary). The voice-over is introduced in the beginning of the story, and it carries the audience the entire length of the journey until the end, allowing for a consistency that helps to unite all parts of the story.
In Snow White, the Huntsman opens the film with a nice “Once upon a time” voice-over that immediately sets the tone and genre of the film, alerting the audience to the fact that they are watching a fairy tale. But then, just as the audience is starting to get pulled into the world, the Huntsman’s voice-over abandons us. We are left with no narrator to help us continue through the journey. It seems to vanish because it was no longer convenient to the writer, and not because it no longer had a place in this world. This made the film feel unbalanced and uneven, like the film that I started watching wasn’t the same film at the end of the two-hour running time.
4. Make Sure That Everything In Your Head Makes Its Way Onto the Page
In films throughout the years, amazing universes have been created and enjoyed by audiences. As I wrote in a previous blog, world building is one of those important skills that I feel is underappreciated by screenwriters today. Those screenwriters who do take the time to build new universes are usually rewarded with audiences who disappear into that world, wishing it was their own. From Avatar to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, fans have loudly voiced their love of diving deep into new and unique worlds.
But screenwriters who endeavor to make this leap into world building need to ensure that all of the time and energy that they put into creating their universe makes it way onto the page. Audiences need a bit of a roadmap to how this new and exciting world works. Where are the lands located in relation to each other? How does magic work? How can the hero kill the villain? What are the dangerous creatures? What is the culture of the people? And why do the answers to all of these questions matter to the protagonist?
In Snow White, there is no question that the screenwriter is brilliant in terms of how he created his world. He knew how his universe operated, and his attention to detail was fantastic. But there were many moments when I was scratching my head because he didn’t make sure to answer some elementary questions that I had about how the world worked. And, unlike in Prometheus where a little mystery created depth, I needed to know the answers to these questions in order to fully comprehend the story.
A few of my questions are as follows: Why did it take William almost no time to get from his father’s castle back to the main castle in order to join up with the Wicked Queen’s brother but then it took them days or possibly even weeks to get back to his father’s castle afterwards? If the Wicked Queen could magically find Snow White and give her a poison apple at any time, why didn’t she do it sooner? She claims to hire the Huntsman because she has no power in the Dark Forest, but then her brother and three guards are able to escort him in his pursuit of the young princess. Why didn’t they just go in after her themselves when they first followed her there? How exactly did Snow White suddenly know how to kill the Wicked Queen? She says that she had some kind of vision, but she just kills the Queen in the same way that the Huntsman taught her how to fight earlier in the film, so what was more important? The vision or the fighting lesson? The big buck in the forest was supposed to be some kind of all-powerful being, so how was it destroyed with an arrow? Wouldn’t the fairies have known the bad guys were there? How could they call the fairy glen sanctuary if they weren’t really safe? What were the ramifications of the buck getting killed?
I could continue to go on, but you get the idea…
5. Maintain a Consistent Point of View
Just like in traditional literature, a story can be told through limited or omniscient points of view. If the writer chooses to limit the point of view, then everything that the audience is exposed to will come through the eyes of one or two characters (think The King’s Speech and Silence of the Lambs). If the story’s point of view is omniscient, then the audience will be allowed to experience the world through the eyes of multiple characters (think Love Actually or The Avengers).
In Snow White and the Huntsman, the point of view was constantly shifting and uneven. Sometimes, we saw the world through Snow White’s eyes; sometimes we saw it through the Wicked Queen’s eyes. At one point, we even get to see a flashback into the Wicked Queen’s memory, providing us with a point of view that we don’t see anywhere else in the film. The changing point of view made it hard for the film to feel like I was watching a consistent and well thought out narrative. I think that the writer wanted to have an omniscient point of view, but he was not consciously thinking about point of view while he wrote, and this made his choices uneven.
6. Make Your Monologues Count
Many a great film moment comes down to a monologue that stirs the hearts and souls of the characters in the film and the audience alike. Think of the majority of Sean Astin’s most famous roles including Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings (“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo” or “There’s some good left in this world, and it’s worth fighting for”) and Mikey in The Goonies (“It’s our time, it’s OUR time down here!”). These are moments where the character is fighting so hard for the goal that he/she feels compelled to stand on a soapbox and cry out desperately to win that goal. It is because we have experienced their struggle that their words matter to us. We have seen their highs and their lows. We have mourned their losses. And we want them to win. This is why monologues work.
In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White awakens from her deep sleep of death and walks out into a courtyard and stands up on her soapbox. And the truth is that, regardless of what she said, we wouldn’t really care. Up until this point in the film, all Snow White has wanted to do was run away and hide from the Wicked Queen. Her goal has been to survive. And winning this goal has been relatively easy for her to win. People were willing to dive in front of arrows and horses were willing to plummet into bogs for her. She didn’t have to do anything but let other people defend her.
So, when it comes time for her to inspire the masses to take up arms and fight alongside her, it’s hard to get behind her battle call. When Aragorn urged his fighters into battle, I felt inspired because I believed in him (“Sons of Gondor, of Rohan. My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me!”). With Snow White, however, up until that point in the film, she hadn’t done anything to make us believe in her as a leader. I know I wouldn’t want to follow her into battle, and I wasn’t going to cheer on the starving underequipped men in the film either.
It also didn’t help that, when she opened her mouth, she made very little sense. She begins by saying something along the lines of how iron will melt, but nothing about iron had been mentioned anywhere in the film up to that point. Not to mention the fact that the Huntsman, who was drunk and convinced she was dead five minutes earlier, was suddenly sober and listening to her with very little surprise about the woman he loved being alive. This information was confusing, and I could honestly see why Kristen Stewart was reported to have had a very difficult time delivering this speech.
7. Don’t Write For the Sequel; Write for the Story That You Are Currently Writing
When I was a script reader in Los Angeles, one of the biggest turn offs for me in a screenplay was seeing a story that didn’t have a proper conclusion. So often, a writer would be so proud of their own writing that they would end the script on a cliffhanger, sure that there would be a sequel. This almost always equated a pass for me except if the rest of the script was really good. The truth is that, for me, it’s so hard to get one screenplay produced in Hollywood that automatically expecting a sequel borders on arrogance.
Sometimes, a producer or director with a lot of pull may ask a writer to end a script this way, but even then, there are no guarantees. Take, for instance, I Am Number Four, the 2011 flop based on a popular series of young adult books. This DreamWorks film knew that more films needed to follow in order to tell the full story because it was an adaption. However, the film tanked at the box office, and a sequence has not, to date, been ordered. Now, because this film ends on a cliffhanger, it’s potential for a long life on basic cable or ABC Family is non-existent.
On the flip side, look at The Pirates of the Caribbean, a film that was almost guaranteed sequel potential before the first film even opened. Although Johnny Depp wasn’t the hot sensation that he is now, he was still a well-known and loved actor. Plus, producer Jerry Bruckheimer already had a solid career of producing hits. If any film had an excuse to leave the conclusion on a cliffhanger, it was this one. But it didn’t. The first film ended with a solid conclusion that left the audience feeling satisfied and wanting to experience it again and again. And it’s already had three sequels to date.
Snow White and the Huntsman wants a sequel, and according to IMDB, it’s going to get it. But I personally don’t think that it’s a deserved sequel. Once the Wicked Queen is destroyed, the story is over. The trite attempt at setting up a love triangle between William, the Huntsman and Snow White had too many echoes of Twilight and not enough emotional resonance. If Huntsman 2 is all about her having to choose between the two men while some distant relative of the Wicked Queen is trying to avenge her death, I know one person who won’t be buying a ticket. Me.
8. A Great Idea Isn’t Enough
Whether they are my students or my script doctor clients, I try to convince all of the writers that I work with one very important lesson: A great idea isn’t enough to have a solid screenplay. If this weren’t true, then a lot more solid films would be made. Sadly, each year we see subpar film after subpar film because the screenplays don’t quite live up to the potential of the idea.
Studying the craft of screenwriting is the only way that a great idea can translate into a great film. A screenwriter must make sure to master the basics and then challenge him or her self to make the most watertight story possible. After all, not every writer will be fortunate enough to be surrounded with the technical experts that helped to save Snow White and the Huntsman.