Steven's Reviews > American Beauty: The Shooting Script

American Beauty by Alan Ball
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's review
May 12, 08

bookshelves: screenplay

First off, this is the script of the actual movie, not the script Ball originally wrote. Both Ball, in his afterward, and director Sam Mendes in his introduction, discuss how the filming and editing process modified the story. Mendes talks about how, reading the screenplay on an airplane he read it back to back, called his agent to say he wanted to make the movie, read it again—and then read it again. I understand how he feels. Although I saw the movie first (when it came out), reading the screenplay now, I know what Mendes means. Even with the choppiness and thinness of the screenplay format—with none of what film fills in regarding character and setting—this screenplay has vibrancy and edge that you can’t shake off. The story demands attention. That said, it’s easy to see what a novel adds that the screenplay lacks: the characters, despite their vivid moments are thin, archetypes, that we don’t know what drives them (except archetypically); and the setting and descriptions are flat. I wonder if this could have been a good novel, or is it a story uniquely adapted for film? Would a novel tell too much? Dispel the mystery?

Anyway, technically, this is just brilliant writing. Great character arcs, great tension, great emotional scenes, and great resolutions. The humor is spare, but comes at the darkest moments. The plot is punctuated with humor and anger. The economy with which scenes are entered and exit is marvelous—late in and early out, the dictum of film. There are a few places where the director’s sense of scene seems evident, but without seeing Ball’s original script it’s hard to say. There are definite flows of action that require a strong sense of the camera—which is discouraged in the writing of screenplays (don’t tell the camera what to do). The advice is to let the director direct the camera; the writer’s job is characters and story. So, while this is the screenplay of the completed film, it doesn’t show what Ball originally wrote. In any event, there is plenty to learn from in this screenplay.

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