Welcome to Good Reads, where we look into what makes the screenplay winners Oscar worthy – every detail the writer leaves feeds into the drama. The 2010s are done and dusted, find them here under the tag. Now we’re onto two surprises from 2009. Next week, Slumdog Millionaire – adapted winner based on a fictional story – and Milk – original winner based on a true story, that tends to be the other way around.
“The Hurt Locker”
written by Mark Boal
In March 2010, the man who walked away with the most Oscars was Mark Boal with both hands full for producing and scribing our last 2000s Best Picture winner. Though not much of a controversial film at the time with its biggest problem seeming to do with piracy and campaign tactics, now anyone who’s been deployed will tell you the fiction of The Hurt Locker. Nobody dares remove their gear, let alone go solo to a bomb. But still – the script is full of vivid detail (read: jargon) and an expert use of tension and patience.
Really, it’s kind of weird how the film is able to lift itself from the eye-rolling tropes of the ‘maverick’ hero. There’s sincere heart here. We have James’ softness for the kid he befriends and the bond that eventually forms from the seemingly impenetrable friction with Sanborn and Eldridge. When these characters bend, they break. It feels organic, never in-your-face, and void of any cheap tricks or quips. It gets away with the heroic trope by having the final expedition with the characters be a complete failure.
Nail-biting every viewing, Boal pushes the character’s limits and leaves them in the dust at the last hurdle before hometime. It brings a real sense of mortality, and as evidenced by the final passage where James returns to war, they genuinely lose something inside they can’t get back. Every scene runs long and bleeds into each other in The Hurt Locker taking quite a while to set up, so I’ll give you a touch of James as the hero with the context of him trying to disarm an involuntary suicide bomb then right into where it all crumbles (from page 109):
Another notable scene where I like Boal’s restraint and patience is the sniper scene when they have to keep a constant eye on their target. Very nuanced bonding and character development there.
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
written by Geoffrey Fletcher
A left-field but welcome historic win, Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African-American to win an Oscar for writing. We all expected Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner to win for Up In The Air as the Golden Globe winner for Best Screenplay rarely misses the Oscar, but petty squabbles between the pair seemed to evaporate that dream. So instead of zeitgeist wit, Precious is tragi-comic account of an impossible dream, one that the film industry felt compelled to fulfil.
It breaks screenwriting rules with an abundance of voice-over, fantasy sequences, overcooked montages, but it works because it expresses the inner workings of a deeply troubled character. We can all relate to Precious’ fantasy of public adoration and respect, if not necessarily as fabulous as her vision. It’s not born out of arrogance, but escape. That’s how we can sympathize with a character that’s constantly insulting people, mostly because she is a very pale shade of her cruel mother.
Whenever pressure is put on Precious, the style of writing (and Lee Daniel’s unrestrained direction) reflects it with an assault of the senses. It wouldn’t work if life depicted here wasn’t so hard. You really feel the hardships as it appears to give a voice to the voiceless – and in Precious, fortunately exposition is drenched with emotion. The strength comes from its use of juxtaposition, everytime Precious takes a hit, they cue up one of its heightened fantasy sequences. By the by, in the script Tom Cruise is pretty much in most of the fantasy scenes. I guess they couldn’t afford him (from page 9):
There’s a lot of sharp texture to Fletcher’s writing, and as you can also tell, he illustrates the language with all the slang required. This is not a film that holds anything back. The over-the-top montages are quite fun to read.
Too many to count for 2009: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mary and Max, The Messenger, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon, Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Up In The Air, A Serious Man, (500) Days of Summer. My favourite is easily Inglourious Basterds. I do want to throw an honourable mention to The Messenger, which is a film that was immediately forgotten but really hit me. Oren Moverman gives the right amount of freedom, conflict and tension for his actors to play.
Your thoughts on the screenplays of The Hurt Locker and Precious?
What were your favourite scripts, scenes, or characters of 2009? Post in the comments below!