The great British filmmaker David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”) said once, “I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters.” For the story is the motor that drives the screenplay, and so on the film itself. There’s a huge difference between the story and the screenplay; a screenplay is a set of written events that meant to be shot and visualized on the screen, while the story is one of the components of a screenplay. To put it in a simple way, a story is WHAT it is to be said, but a screenplay is HOW these things are going to be said visually.
So it comes to the screenwriter to find the best way to tell his story in a convincing and comprehending way, for a story can be so many things – novel, film, short story, a series, or even a song. But a screenplay’s sole purpose is to be shot and realized, and this realization comes from using all the concepts of the story and choosing the set of events “the plot” of how this story moves from point A to Z. There are a lot of examples of very simple and sometimes “naive” stories that are expressed in a magnificent screenplay; that is because a screenplay is the spine of a film, which can hold the film and hide its flaws and deepen its characters and fix the story. But on the same concept, there are a lot of films that had a great story within, yet are poorly and superficially written.
Here’s a list of 10 recent films with great stories that the screenplay didn’t benefit from, ending up mediocrely written; wherein another world, these stories would make great cinematic masterpieces with a proper screenplay. As William Wyler said, “‘Making movies is 80% script and 20% getting great actors.”
1. The Purge (2013)
First and foremost, “The Purge” is not a bad film; its story makes it solid enough despite all its clichés, yet it feels like it has something better hidden within. If on one night every year, you could commit any crime without facing consequences, what would you do? This kind of dystopian allegorical film is rare, and the story supports it to be one of those movies that questions the basis of human nature and the themes of good and evil. It’s one of those stories that deal with anarchy and political tension, and it had the chance to explore the roots of evil within human nature in a philosophical and complicated way.
“The Purge” is realized as a horror film, and as far as horror goes, it’s a proper film, delivering what it promised. It was clear that the purpose of “The Purge” was to make a franchise centered around the genre of action and horror, and it didn’t aim for more than this. And this doesn’t make it a bad franchise, but more of a waste of a great concept into a limited and narrow approach, where it could have been a great series of films questioning anarchy and chaos, and the depth of human nature.
In another world, “The Purge” is one of the greatest dystopian films dealing with bold ideas and raises so many questions to what is human nature and what it would be without rules and regulation; a speculative alternative-reality thriller like “Blade Runner,” the Dark Knight trilogy, and the works of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick.
2. Hotel Artemis (2018)
A secret hotel for criminals in a futuristic Los Angeles where criminals come to hide and get medical care anonymously – who would refuse to watch such a story? This kind of story is always an audience favorite, but “Hotel Artemis” feels incomplete; it feels like a sequel rather than a standalone film. The scale of the idea of a hotel for criminals is huge and original; its originality is full of potential, with a background of cyberpunk-ish Los Angeles that comes with all its futuristic elements and violence.
“Hotel Artemis” is still an entertaining film with a bold, original idea, but it only delivers the action sequences and probably nothing else. The film has a great setup but naive characters and a poorly written plot, with a mediocre performance from all, except Jodie Foster, who holds the film together. “Hotel Artemis” should have been an action-packed cyberpunk film with gory violence and believable characters, yet it only delivers unexcusable yet stunning action sequences, giving the film only a small part of the charm it should have had achieved.
3. High Rise (2015)
“High Rise” is composed of so many elements that can transform the film into a masterpiece; it’s a film about playing god, power, creativity, paranoia, madness with elements of Orwellianism, dystopia, and socioeconomic ideas. The film is beautifully acted and thought-provoking, but it feels hollow, with so many voids that are covered up with beautiful magical scenery and general madness. The story is set in an alternative 1970s in a building that covers all the people’s needs and desires, making them disconnected from the outside world, until the infrastructure begins to fail and tensions between residents grow into chaos and madness. The story sounds thrilling and powerful, with all of its utopian themes and the ideas of social classes.
“High Rise” is not a bad film; it delivers the proper amount of madness and visuals that make it a solid picture with really bold ideas, as well as its skillful cast giving amazing performances, and the general aesthetics achieved by Ben Wheatley. But “High Rise” promises from the very beginning a bold anarchy sci-fi, raising its potential and presenting mesmerizing visuals. Yet, it fails to deliver any narrative significance – only two hours of mesmerizing scenes, style, music, and wonderful acting without a solid narrative core.
4. Death Note (2017)
It’s very likely that the makers of the 2017 remake of “Death Note” did not understand the significance of the highly popular animation – the story that revolves around a boy meeting a mystical death god who gives him a book where if a name was written, the person of this name dies.
The story – which contains bold and powerful themes such as playing god, free will and the concept of good and evil – was entirely given up its significance in this American remake, stripping the story away from all the philosophical ideas and even stripping it from the entertainment element found the original story, making it solely superficial and very perplexing to try to understand what the writer wanted from the story. Even if it was meant to be solely a fantasy film with no deeper purpose than entertainment and the telling of this mesmerizing story, the film failed even to deliver this element.
The simplest and most basic element of making an action-fantasy film is to make it entertaining and fill its possible cliches, yet “Death Note” is nonsensical, poorly written, stripping away everything from the original story and presenting it as an annoying depthless film that doesn’t even cover its flaws with technical achievement. It’s badly realized, with poor use of music and mediocre performances. “Death Note” was made with the only aim of financial profit from one of the most popular stories, but this story deserves better than this – better than stripping it of its essence and delivering it in a mold of an American remake that shouldn’t have happened.
5. The Counselor (2013)
Ridley Scott’s project with the great American author Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men” and “The Road”) is loaded with first-line actors in Hollywood. The film follows Michael Fassbender as a lawyer who finds himself amid a drug war. Despite the suspense in reading the film’s synopsis, the film doesn’t benefit from its skillful international cast or its high budget, not to mention the story that has elements of corruption, dirty hands, drug cartels, law manipulation, political mafia, eroticism, and Machiavellianism. Yet the film does not give depth or show any of these suspenseful elements; the film even lacks the proper plot that should drive the characters and its motive, and keeps steering away from its course, which makes the viewer disconnect and lose interest in whatever’s happening.
“The Counselor” is a film that looks good, with its visuals and its mood, but it’s poorly written, full of unnecessary dialogues and a clumsy plot. This film gives the feeling that the story is told from the incorrect angle, because there’s a good story in here, filled with so many thrilling elements, yet it’s not there. The clumsiness of the film is a result of the clash between Scott’s cinematic approach and McCarthy’s literary approach, which ended up with a very confusing and perplexing film. “The Counselor” could have been a great suspenseful thriller with its talented cast and its great mood and beautiful cinematography, yet the only problem is that it’s not.