Friday, November 11, 2005

The End Is Near!

So when you read a book, you know that the end of the story is coming soon, because there's only so many pages left. You can feel the diminishing thickness of the remaining pages in your right hand as you progress. This can be offset by having some extra pages at the end: The Wheel of Time books all have a lengthy glossary at the end, which is usually 30-40 pages, so it's a little less obvious that you're about to hit the end of the main narrative.

With a movie, things are different. You can't see how much film is left on the platter; the only clues to how close to the end you are, are whether the story has reached its final climax. (Assuming it follows standard story structure.) If you happen to know how long it is, you can look at your watch; but assuming you don't do that, it's hard to know when a movie will end.

The "traditional" story structure has a final climax followed by a cool-down period, giving the audience a chance to catch their breath before leaving the theater and extracting themselves from the shared moviegoing experience. People have an intuitive feel for when a movie should be ending; a lot of the complaints against The Return of the King had to do with its several "false" endings, although I think that was due more to Peter Jackson's choice to fade to black each time.

What about screenplays? They're paper documents, like a novel, so someone reading a screenplay has the same experience of knowing how far they are from the end. And unlike a novel, you can't pad a screenplay. Physically, you can; you could add a dozen blank pages to the end, just to throw off the reader. However most of the time someone reads a screenplay, the first thing they check is how many pages it is, and so the extra paper would be obviated. (And it would probably confuse and anger readers.)

It's odd how large the disconnect is between screenplays and movies, considering one is the foundation for the other. Screenplays don't have more than rudimentary indications of the visual or sound design; the only thing they describe in detail is what happens, and even then, only to a point: A scene that has two characters talking isn't going to lay out the exact physical mannerisms of each actor, but they're in the movie.

This means a screenplay is the basis for a movie, but there are thousands of decisions that go into the movie that are not in the screenplay. In a mathematical sense, it means there are more possible movies than screenplays, since a given screenplay can be made into multiple movies, but a given movie can only really have one screenplay culled from it (if you did the process in reverse). I'm sure this has been done, though I've never come across it myself, but it would be fascinating to see the same screenplay made into multiple films by different crews.