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This is my old blog, which I no longer update. Feel free to browse around old posts and such, but the much more recent version of my ramblings are to be found at MarilynAnneCampbell.com

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The '101 Greatest Screenplays' Redemption

When ‘All-Time Greatest’ film lists are released, I usually ignore the commentary that floods my listserv-catching inbox and refrain from commenting myself. While on the one hand it’s wonderful to spark any discussion of The Greats, I find a lot of film aficionados are on an “intellectual hairtrigger”1 -- so anticipating a need to defend their own opinion that they become overly aggressive the second anyone disagrees. I like to fancy myself a little more laidback than that kind of ‘discussion’ calls for, and have found that there is only one bit of cinematic history that can get me riled up to that level. But since I also like to fancy myself a screenwriter, it was inevitable that yesterday’s ‘101 Greatest Screenplays’ from the WGA would be the list that touched on that affair.

Around the time of the 67th Annual Academy Awards, there was buzz of a showdown between the feel-good ‘Forrest Gump’ and the groundbreaking ‘Pulp Fiction’. Most of my friends were vehemently in favour of ‘Pulp Fiction’ while I was quietly and calmly a ‘Forrest Gump’ fan. I had enjoyed ‘Pulp Fiction’ of course, but it had only entertained me, whereas ‘Forrest Gump’ had both entertained me and moved me. So when the awards came and ‘Gump’ took Best Picture I was outside the outrage of my sixteen year old compatriots. As for screenplays, there was no contest as ‘Pulp Fiction’ won for Best Original and ‘Gump’ took Best Adapted – which at the time seemed fair enough.

It was months later that my parents rented ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and I watched it by myself one weekend afternoon. When it was over I wandered, stunned, through the park with my dog, got home, rewound the movie and watched it again. Since then I’ve always held that ‘Shawshank’ is by the far the better movie of the three and should have taken both ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ over ‘Forrest Gump’.

In one way yesterday’s list provides a bit of satisfaction. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (Screenplay by Frank Darabont. Based on the short story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" by Stephen King) is number twenty-two, well ahead of the eighty-ninth position held by ‘Forrest Gump’ (Screenplay by Eric Roth. Based on the novel by Winston Groom). But now there’s something new for me to disagree with – ‘Pulp Fiction’ has beat out ‘Shawshank’ by six spots, placed in the top twenty at number sixteen. It’s been a long time since I saw ‘Pulp Fiction’, but I just can’t believe it’s that much better, if it’s better at all.

To my mind, Frank Darabont’s script went well-beyond flawless to phenomenal. Obviously every character is developed and every arc is complete. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s tragic and it’s hopeful – often all in the same scene. Voice over can go horribly wrong, but when Red (Morgan Freeman) speaks to us, it’s always an enhancement of the story, not a substitute for storytelling. Darabont even used foreshadowing seamlessly, ranging from the audience-satisfying lines that everyone gets ("Salvation lies within”) to the bits so quick and seemingly careless most people will only catch them on multiple viewings, if ever (“That’s just a shitty pipe dream”).

Of course Tarantino and Avery put together a fantastic screenplay as well, but I always suspect that the charm of ‘Pulp Fiction’ hinges more on its slick style than its story. But the most important distinction for me is the same one that once gave ‘Gump’ the lead in my teenage mind – no matter how engaging the banter is between Jules and Vincent, no matter how complex the timeline jumps, and no matter how much ‘Pulp Fiction’ changed the direction of so many action/gangster/crime films to come, it didn’t leave me feeling anything more than a fleeting rush of cool, whereas for me the steady serenity of Andy Dufresne still hangs in the air.

1 Thanks to Steve for the apt phrase

Quick Links:
The WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays

Upcoming Posts: Tom Hanks’ career as a product placer; a Dogme 95 film that’s spawned a Broadway show.

Updated April 9th to add:

I've just dicovered that back in February of 2004 the American Screenwriters Association released a list of "The 100 Best Feature Film Screenplays" and on that list 'The Shawshank Redemption' came in at number five. Number five. The only things listed above it were 'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Casablanca', 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz'. Illustrious company to be sure, and a place well earned. 'Pulp Fiction' didn't make that list at all.
View the ASA list here.

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