Thursday, September 20, 2007

Scriptology


I've discovered a version of the Contact script dated September 8, 1995, credited to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, among others. This script is essentially what appeared on film.

So… I guess I can no longer pin all my dislike on the director/producers. It pains me to say this, but my problem with this movie is Carl Sagan.

Many artists have difficulty translating their work from one medium into another. If you enjoy reading Sagan’s books you know this guy simply could not touch lightly on any subject. It just wasn’t in him. He had to explore everything inside and out and three days from backwards. Of course he had to make certain concessions for the popular media, but he always managed to do so with clarity and effectiveness. In the bookish freedom from practical constraints on length he could be concise in message. In book form Sagan was finite, yet unbounded.

Film, however, is a very different animal. Extraordinary films require extraordinary screenplays. The screenplay format forces you to do one of two things: write a condensed book, or write a movie. A screenplay is its own species, related to a book in DNA only. Where the book is the fossil, the screenplay is its living, animated descendant.

I think the screenplay, as a process, was fundamentally at odds with Carl Sagan. The physical limitation of a hundred and twenty pages must have felt suffocating to him. He couldn’t fit that big brain of his into that small a space. So instead of translating his work into film by penetrating its internal bureaucracy, Sagan simply gutted it.

He touched on the religion v. science conflict too lightly and with no rebuttal. He removed most of the dramatic potential by simplifying Ellie’s family structure. He took out all the good stuff: the wit, the skepticism, the cosmic perspective, and worst of all, the conclusion.

The inescapable irony is that Sagan probably would have been much more comfortable writing Contact as a television mini-series as it was originally conceived by he and Francis Ford Coppola. It could have been ten hours long. It could have been another Cosmos, and me and a hundred million other people would have loved every minute of it. (This in no way condones Coppola’s despicable attempt to halt production on Contact immediately after Sagan’s death.)

Of course Sagan was not a filmmaker. The filmmakers, however, are filmmakers, and they should have known better. They made a film based not upon Sagan’s wonderful book, but on his wholly inadequate screenplay, which in my view amounts to culpable negligence.

I doubt Foster (didn't have to), or Zemeckis (did have to) ever read the book.

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