Sometimes, the one thing a great film needs in order to be generally accepted as such is… time. Reviewers are certainly not infallible, and more often than not they fail at fully grasping the quality of a story that perhaps was a bit too experimental, controversial or simply ahead of its time.
Few will doubt now that Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s finest, but its reception was mixed back then, with one reviewer stating that the director had “never before indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. The legendary Roger Ebert was far from impressed after his first view of Once Upon a Time in the West, and John Carpenter admitted that his confidence never recovered after the release of The Thing, today universally regarded as a horror cult classic.
While the reasons on why some films are so widely misunderstood are difficult to ascertain, the lessons to be learned are more reassuring: though the critics hold a great degree of influence over the popular opinion, it’s the audience who truly determines the legacy of a movie, and as filmmakers we have a responsibility of staying true to the story, and not to a trend or a convention.
Here’s a selection of 10 great film scripts that were poorly received back in their day:
(1955) The Night of the Hunter
(1967) Bonnie and Clyde
(1980) The Shining
(1982) The Thing
(1998) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(1999) Fight Club
A popular trend in contemporary cinema, these films don’t focus on the events that lead humanity to its destruction, as On the Beach and Dr.Strangelove did. Instead, they talk about the aftermath, our (often futile) attempts to rebuild, and how desperate situations can strip people of all their humanity.
Post-Apocalyptic stories are often marked by a grimy atmosphere and plenty of gut-wrenching dilemmas – the scattered survivors find themselves in a context where morality is always subject to survival.
Screenplays of this genre usually place value on tense, touching interactions between the few characters that remain among the ruins of civilization.
Films like Mad Max or 28 Days Later have wonderfully captured the desolation of the post-apocalyptic scenery, turning the landscape into a key element of the story. In these stories, the setting becomes a powerful presence; almost another character. Watching our own world in ruins seems to be the cinematic culmination of a global fear: losing everything we have and starting from scratch.
Apparently, such setting has also become an irresistible mixing pot for filmmakers. We have seen destruction coming in multiple forms, from zombies to infertility (Children of Men), without discounting man-made viruses (12 Monkeys) and unexplainable plagues (Blindness). Of course, we’ve had our share of comedic post-apocalypse too (Zombieland).
These are 10 of the best films set in the Post-Apocalypse:
(1971) The Omega Man
(1975) A Boy and His Dog
(1979) Mad Max
(1981) Mad Max 2: Road Warrior
(1985) Day of the Dead
(1995) Twelve Monkeys
(2006) Children of Men
(2009) The Road
(2010) The Book of Eli
One of the most impressive empires that have ruled our world, the story of the Roman civilization -the story of a colossus that crumbles by its own weight -has been retold thousands of times. Cinema has captured both the antagonistic side of its influence, and the vibrant, dramatic epics of its most notorious figures.
It is not a coincidence that Shakespeare and so many other English stage authors felt strongly attracted to this setting. Conquest, revenge, power struggles, religious conflicts: the Roman Empire shaped our history in countless ways, and has likewise left countless stories for future artists to tell.
The Italian movie industry even lived a period where Roman and Biblical epics (Peplum or sword-and-sandal films, as they were called) went through a golden age. And though the 50’s and the 60’s exploited the trend perhaps to the point of exhaustion, modern titles like Gladiator and The Eagle have confirmed that there’s still a place for the Roman era in the industry.
These are some of the most important film scripts set in the Roman Empire era:
(1951) Quo Vadis
(1979) Life of Brian
(1988) The Last Temptation of Christ
Sometimes less is more. Screenwriters have proven that a story can be equally appealing and successful with plentiful characters and locations or with just a few of them.
Films set in closed spaces require a different development as the interactions between characters, or perhaps their thoughts and reflections, become practically the only thing that moves the plot forward. Some filmmakers have actually made a habit of turning space scarcity into an advantage.
Claustrophobia is another factor to consider in these stories. Many films have explored the effects of confinement on the human mind in different environments, and used the resulting tension as a device for character progression. Das Boot brilliantly captured the nerve-racking ride of the crew aboard a war submarine. The Mist reinforced the idea that we too can become monsters when pushed to the limit, and Buñuel added a surrealistic flavor to that same idea in The Exterminating Angel.
It is a big risk for the screenwriter to venture into a story with such limitations. Making the most out of minimal resources is probably one of the biggest challenges in filmmaking. But the reward can also be huge: authors like Kevin Smith, Vincenzo Natali or Rodrigo Cortés earned immediate prestige by taking on that task and proving that the talent goes further than the budget.
These are some of the best scripts that are set in a single closed location (or almost):
(1957) 12 Angry Men
(1975) Dog Day Afternoon
(1981) Das Boot
(1995) Crimson Tide
(2002) Phone Booth
(2006) United 93
(2007) The Mist
We owe medieval fantasy to JRR Tolkien, who certainly didn’t create it, but established good part of the foundations of the genre as we know it today. New generations of artists have endlessly reused many of Tolkien’s elements in their own worlds, but a few of them have, especially in recent times, found a way to twist them.
There is much appeal in stories set in the Middle Ages. The feudal system that ruled Western civilization for centuries is certainly an ideal scenario for artistic epics, and the contrasts between nobility and peasantry, loyalty and treason, or honor and blood still leave a strong impact in modern audiences.
Fantasy films bring many of these elements into a new reign where there are no limits other that those allowed by the author’s imagination. They guide us through numerous locations, impossible landscapes, and colourful characters, and the recent impact of adaptations like Game of Thrones is proving that fantasy works well as a mental escape for young and adult audiences alike.
It’s also worth mentioning that technological advances have provided a big boost for the genre. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was considered an impossible adaptation for decades, and the combination of computer effects and exotic landscapes has delivered brilliant cinema moments in recent years.
These are some of the best film scripts set in a fantasy medieval era:
(1982) Conan the Barbarian
(1982) The Dark Crystal
(1987) The Princess Bride
(1992) Army of Darkness
(2001) The Fellowship of the Ring
(2005) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(2013) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Films set in the organized crime world seem to be really popular among audiences and critics alike, and perhaps even more so in the USA. No other country has produced so many successful movies about the subject, and arguably the explanation for this is found in the very nature of such films and the obscure reality they illustrate.
Good scripts of the crime genre aim to accomplish much more than just showing violence, bribery, corruption and other acts inherent in hoodlum operations. They try to portray a society through characters that went on to create their own code –out of necessity, greed, or both- , and how their paths inevitably collide with those of us who never, ever thought about living in a way that involves breaking the law. Or did we?
Undeniably, there’s an enticing quality in these tales about real individuals who built their own empire through illicit means. Morality is often a concept under debate in screenplays like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or Casino: they don’t condemn nor idolize mobsters, but rather act as impartial observers, and remind us sometimes that our good, lawful side has its share of hidden dark spots as well.
This week’s list is specifically focused in screenplays related to the Cosa Nostra –the original Italian mafia developed in the 19th Century in Sicily- and the families that followed these operations in American territory during the Prohibition Era and afterwards:
(1967) The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
(1972) The Godfather
(1974) The Godfater: Part II
(1984) Once Upon a Time in America
(1987) The Untouchables
(1990) Miller’s Crossing
(1993) A Bronx Tale
(1994) Bullets Over Broadway
(1997) Donnie Brasco
(2002) Road to Perdition
(2009) Public Enemies
It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, which is why cinema owes a lot of its greatest accomplishments to reality. Biographical films are a special breed among movies based in true events, because they try to portray the evolution of real life characters through the most important events of their lives.
It’s a daunting task for the screenwriter, sometimes hard-pressed to fit decades of life into roughly 100-120 pages. That is probably why biopics often become monumental projects that bring the audience to a fast paced journey across a bunch of dissimilar environments.
But they are often the stories of those who shaped the world- for better or worse. And well written biopics seem to generally succeed in fulfilling the demands of reviewers and audiences alike. They are a challenge for the performer as well, compelled to carry most of the narrative weight through the whole shooting process. However, those efforts are often rewarded with wide recognition, and the Academy seems to have a certain weakness for biographical dramas.
A lot of moviegoers feel an inherent curiosity about watching the tale of a notorious figure in the big screen, and the list of famous –or infamous- individuals whose life has been adapted into a film keeps growing.
Here are some of the most acclaimed biopic film scripts of all time:
(1962) Lawrence of Arabia
(1967) Bonnie and Clyde
(1972) Lady Sings the Blues
(1980) Raging Bull
(1980) The Elephant Man
(1987) The Last Emperor
(1992) Malcolm X
(1994) Ed Wood
(2001) A Beautiful Mind
(2002) Catch me if you Can
(2005) Walk the Line
(2010) The Social Network
(2014) The Theory of Everything
The myth of the vampire has been carving its tooth marks on our nightmares since way before Bram Stoker popularized it, and seems to have permeated into nearly every single culture.
In spite of plagiarism lawsuits that could’ve destroyed it forever, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu unknowingly started a whole subgenre and became as immortal as Stoker’s creation. The vampire smoothly transitioned to the sound era, and such illustrious names as Béla Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Christopher Lee kept the myth out of the coffin.
And just like good art does, the vampire didn’t keep his original shape but split itself in many different forms. It couldn’t have survived otherwise. Through the perspective of many different artists we have seen the human and the inhuman vampire, the powerful and the tormented, the modern (Only Lovers Left Alive) and the vintage, the dark teenager (The Lost Boys), the western-flavored (Near Dark), the satirized and even the meta-vampire (Shadow of the Vampire).
It’s a global superstition art has been feeding off for centuries. And each generation of filmmakers seems to find new a way to process that inspiring blood and nurture our imagination with it. The vampire has truly crossed oceans of time to find us.
These are notable film scripts about Vampires:
(1958) Horror of Dracula
(1987) Near Dark
(1992) Bram Stoker’s Dracula
(1994) Interview with the Vampire
(1996) From Dusk Till Dawn
(2000) Shadow of the Vampire
(2007) 30 Days of Night
(2008) Let the Right One In
A truly gifted author who has achieved success on TV, film and stage, Tom Stoppard had to survive a tragic background before even having the chance of developing an interest in writing. After fleeing from the Nazi invasion in Czechoslovakia, he grew up in India and Singapore, where he lost his father. He would later become a journalist in England and began writing radio and television plays. Eventually he would become an acclaimed playwright with numerous Broadway performances and several Tony awards.
His first works for the big screen came in the mid-70s, with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil granting him his first Academy Award nomination. A highly intellectual writer with extensive knowledge in classic literature, he has proven his mastery outside drama in titles such as The Russia House and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for which he rewrote the final draft.
Stoppard has been commended for his methodical research when writing historical scripts and his witty command of language, which results in a certain ideological playfulness that often shapes his characters and dialogues. He was knighted in 1997 and currently lives in London.
List of Tom Stoppard Scripts:
(1987) Empire of the Sun
(1989) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Final Rewrite)
(1990) The Russia House
(1991) Billy Bathgate
(1998) Shakespeare in Love
(2012) Anna Karenina
Nothing like a sudden turn of the wheel that leaves the audience in disbelief. But what happens when the audience actually disbelieves? Screenwriters are aware of the double edged sword quality of plot twists: they can make a story successful almost by themselves, but can also turn against it if they come off as predictable or implausible.
In some genres (horror, thriller) they have become an expected, almost mandatory device. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) set the foundations for the use of narrative unreliability in films. And it’s already a great example of a twist that didn’t only aim for shock- it also tried to provide a solid justification for the visual and narrative styles of the film.
Night Shyamalan’s irregular career illustrates both the rewards and the risks of subjecting the story to a plot twist. The recent success of Split may have brought him to a second youth, but for many years, the ‘Shyamalan twists” served more as a burden than a perk, becoming the smoking gun that proves and defines the film’s failure.
So what makes a good plot twist? If Aristotle stated that good art should be both unexpected and inevitable, contemporary screenwriters like William Goldman have pinpointed a reality that Hollywood has exploited well: that a controversial ending may still work effectively if it’s at least satisfying.
Some examples of films with memorable plot twists are:
(1941) The Maltese Falcon
(1968) Planet of the Apes
(1973) The Sting
(1973) Soylent Green
(1973) The Wicker Man
(1980) The Empire Strikes Back
(1987) Angel Heart
(1992) The Crying Game
(1995) The Usual Suspects
(1995) 12 Monkeys
(1996) Primal Fear
(1999) The Sixth Sense
(1999) Fight Club
(2006) The Prestige