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Screenwriting Help E-Mail (Previous)

Updated every Monday, one selected e-mail will be posted and answered here each week. With many years of experience in the film and television business, I look forward to providing answers to your questions about screenwriting or the entertainment industry in general.  Please send your e-mailed questions to: Script Advisor.  You may also wish to visit our Screenwriting Help E-Mails - The Archives.

This week's question: 

I've been bothered quite some time by how I really didn't like the movie, "Runaway Jury," while so many others raved about it.  Do you have an opinion?

Sydney Jones from Pittsburgh 


This week's Answer: 

Don't "Runaway" From A Complex Plot

My opinion, Sydney, or "take," as so many are wont to say these days, of Runaway Jury is that it should have just kept running.  The aforementioned was a mean quip that a sarcastic critic might throw out as a lead while writing about the mentioned film ("aforely").  But, since I normally really don't do critiques of films -- mean or otherwise, I'll limit my thoughts to the screenwriting aspect of the Runaway Jury  -- which I believe was fraught with problems (but not so many as to not make it to the screen -- possibly because John Grisham was the author of the novel that the screenplay was based on.  Do ya think?)

I did not read the novel so I don't know how close the adaptation was to its progenitor.  In my humble opinion, the storyline, notwithstanding its final twist, was far too superficial and repetitive.  Character development was minimal (Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman -- and even John Cusack, who played the lead -- had very little to work with when it came to personality transitions).  If you think of it, not all that much happened, and we sat and watched over two hours to notice that.  

Courtroom screenplays often fall prey to tedium, lethargy, and redundancy (sort of like these e-mails).  I think some screenwriters believe that all you need is some legal proceedings and you've got an automatically dramatic and gripping story.  Not so.  Definitely not so.  If you can pen (or type) another Inherit The Wind or Anatomy of a Murder, be my guest.  But it can be a daunting task to keep a viewer involved once a script announces:  "INT. COURTROOM - DAY"  All I can say is get ready for a lot of "objection!"'s and "overruled"'s, not to mention "Sit down or I'll cite you for contempt of court!"'s.  

I guess we were supposed to be continually awed by all the high-tech equipment and overworked geeks in this big office where Gene Hackman's character had his fits over things not going his way (which they never did, which was just another signpost that the story was lacking variety and transitional properties).  We've seen these offices and warehouse of cutting-edge eavesdropping devices  (and in more impressive ways such as in Enemy of the State).

Without giving anything away (although, if you haven't seen the film by now, then you might as well not have ever seen Gone With The Wind -- which I haven't), yes, there is the proverbial twist (if that's what you want to call it.  I don't.  It's actually just a revelation that explains why), but by the time it arrives, we're so thirsty for something -- anything! -- to happen that will wake up our brain cells and get us to pay attention like we were doing in the beginning,  And even this "twist" is not integrated into the rest of the story so it comes across as a forced "ahhh!" kind of moment.  It's an "Ohh, that's why they did it!" moment.  After that reveal, which is a highly-charged and current sympathy card played, we're supposed to somehow forgive the connivers, the young man and the young woman, because of their Robin Hood explanation (an explanation that is tacked on at the end of the story and is not adequately woven into it).  The trouble is the characters have not been written as very likeable people up to that point -- the point being only a few minutes before the film ends.  And we haven't really been exposed enough to the villain, Gene Hackman's character, the scheming jury consultant, to really despise him adequately to the point where we really are invested in him going down.

If you look closely (or not even all that closely), Runaway Jury is one long "A" story, containing no substantial (or, possibly, any, for that matter) subplots, which can often point to a shallow story, which this definitely is.

Another reason the screenplay fails as a masterpiece (or even a good script)  is that the verdict of the lawsuit of the lady who lost her husband, who was shot by  a man, who used a gun sold by the firearms company, who is the defendant (notice how long it took me to get to the end of this chain of people and events?  Another indicator that the script suffers with a case of Dire Diffusion)  is not personalized adequately.  Generally, we probably (and there is a "probably" here) take the lady's side, but, because most of the story is taken up with clichéd moralizing and posturing, and "bad guys keep trying to outwit the good guy (or guy and girl)," we never get a chance to feel the heart of the case and, so when the guilty verdict arrives, we've pretty much already left the courtroom, wanting some fresh air and very likely heading for Blockbuster for a DVD of a film that will actually "hit the spot."

DcH 

 

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