Charlie Kaufman and the Art of Adaptation

Adapting a novel into a film is a sensitive and hazardous process, especially if the novel already has garnered a following of avid readers. When adapting an already existing work the screenwriter may have the leisure of not having to come up with everything from scratch, but must also endure the added stress of wanting to do the source material justice and not fail the expectations of possibly millions of fans. In this article I will not be looking at adaptation through the lenses directed at massive international best-sellers such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but will instead focus on a movie which more than any other facilitates a discussion around adaptation: Charlie Kaufman’s aptly titled Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and Chris Cooper.

The screenplay for Adaptation is based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The Orchid Thief was commissioned due to an article Susan Orlean wrote for The New Yorker about the orchid thief John Laroche, on trial for stealing rare and endangered orchids from the Floridian swamplands. Random House approached Orlean with the query of whether she would want to turn her article into a novel and Orlean was up to the challenge. Once she started to ponder how best to capture the inspiration she derived from the avid orchid collecting she came in contact with while researching her article, however, she realized it was going to be much more difficult than she had anticipated. The result is a novel lacking a red thread and a clear narrative in the traditional sense.

In part The Orchid Thief tells the story of a meeting between two people, in part it is a meditation on life and, for long passages, it becomes a factual text on the history of the orchid and on how the adoration of this plant, over the past two centuries, has been cultivated into an obsession within a community of devoted collectors. As the basis for a film this tangle of perspectives, with the addition of an absolute explosion of orchid centered information, would seem nigh on impossible to comb out into anything that resembles a functioning plot.

Kaufman makes the rather ingenious choice to write a movie about how one attempts to adapt a book that appears to be impossible to adapt, at least if said adaptation is to stay faithful to the source material. He makes himself into the main character, and mixes reality with fiction in a way that might have proven dizzying in its eccentricity, if not carried off with such a set plot core that is never allowed to spin out of control.

The main character Charlie offers the viewer a front row seat to a writer’s neurotic self-doubt, and in a refined way Kaufman finds a parallel between humans and the flowers, so vital to the novel, which his main character so desperately wants to honour in his screenplay. This lovely bit of insight into the process of adaptation, not to mention the screenwriting process itself, in combination with the storytelling perspective used makes this film into something truly out of the ordinary.


Book and Film: The Similarities

The Orchid Thief is a novel that is mainly concerned with the subject of orchids and the community of enthusiasts whose lives are entirely dedicated to the fascinating flower. The novel offers up an excess of information and history, which becomes a reflection on human behaviour and the lengths we go to in order to obtain what we desire.

The novel is written from a first person perspective as the journalist Susan Orlean based it on her own experience of researching her article for The New Yorker, and the impact it had on her life. Her relationship – or lack thereof – with the enigmatic John Laroche is designated to the backseat of the novel, but if one was to take stock of anything in the narrative when trying to turn book into film, this somewhat tentative friendship would be it. There is a tension between them as they are from completely different worlds and appear at first glance to be each others’ opposite, but Laroche is the reason Orlean uncovers or own joy of discovering, which makes her aware of something missing from her life that is hard for her to define. Kaufman picks up on this in the novel and makes it a neatly planted aspect of their subplot throughout Adaptation, the undercurrent of it being there in their first meeting at Laroche’s trial, in his quirky – but insightful – character and how it is becoming ever more apparent that Orlean is dissatisfied with her life.

The krux of the importance of the orchid as a major focus of the novel, and how the rather plotless weight of this will be handled in the film, is also established early on when Charlie, in the opening sequence, states to his producer that the book is about flowers and that is what he wants his screenplay to be about. Thus the flower is immediately made integral to the progression of the plot as it is part of the main character’s main goal.


Charlie and Donald: Indie versus Blockbuster

Charlie is quickly established as a man tormented by low self-esteem, self-loathing and an overbearing insecurity when it comes to women. He is also a dedicated artist who, because of his lack of confidence, has gotten stuck in the writing process and somewhere along the way has lost his voice. He knows what he wants his screenplay to say – but he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it say it. His lack of confidence, in this regard, can be traced to his strong opinions on what the writing process should be, which is organic and without relying on doctrine such as those suggested by screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

Charlie stresses that there are no guidelines and rules one should follow when one is striving to create something original, which is exactly what he feels under pressure to put out after his first screenplay Being John Malkovich has received acclaim by the audience and critics alike.

Charlie’s twin brother Donald, on the other hand, decides to become a screenwriter mostly on a whim. Spiritually and mentally he is Charlie’s opposite in every regard and, naturally, devours McKee’s screenwriting opus Story and sets to following McKee’s listed “principals” to the letter. His screenplay is therefore a commercial beast enslaved by the conventions of its genre. Charlie is abhorred, but gives sarcastic and tired advice whenever Donald seeks it – advice that show how Charlie, in spite of his averse, has an understanding of how a more commercially viable screenplay is structured. When Donald later sells his finished product one wonders if it might not even be thanks to Charlie’s unwilling guidance that he does so.

Charlie’s and Donald’s contrasting points of view can be interpreted as a representation of the discussion that has been held in relation to literature versus film ever since the movie first saw the light of day. Adaptation is, in and of itself, a reflection on adaptation as a process and highlights the difficulty a screenwriter is faced with when taking on the task of transforming a literary work into a visual one.

In his essay Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest, film theorist and critic André Bazin writes:

“[…] faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence of meaning of the forms.”

Bazin wishes to underline that what matters in the discussion around adaptation is not whether the contents is exactly the same: the words on the page precisely translated into an image on the screen; but rather that the meaning of the content is aptly interpreted: the girl feels lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home.

What the screenwriter and filmmaker strives for is to take the thoughts and emotions of the character, described through paragraphs in a book, and effectively promote the same emotion and evoke the same reaction with the viewer as was established in the reader by using well-chosen and edited together images. Where the differences of the medium come into play is the distilling of paragraphs into one strong image. The girl in the film might not “feel lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home”, but may instead be shown sitting in a park, alone on a bench, watching two children her own age playing and laughing together. This does not change the meaning of the content, but the content takes a new form since its message – the girl is lonely – needs a stronger visual image to be properly represented to the audience.

Charlie and Donald are a representation of the artistic versus the commercial, the original versus the conformed; but Adaptation doesn’t take sides, instead the progression of the plot becomes a pointed finger at the established core of critics saying that the commercial cannot also be artistic and that conformity cannot be the basis of originality.

Creating the Narrative Thread

In his quest to infuse his screenplay with the essence of The Orchid Thief, Charlie’s adaptation (and ultimately Kaufman’s own) becomes an original work, its own interpretation of the book where he manages to hit at the heart of the story – Orlean and Laroche – and take their relationship to a level it never reached in real life. Could it have? Was there attraction hidden beneath Orlean’s fascination with Laroche? Most probably not, but in the book it is the possibility of it that makes the passages dedicated to them into such an interesting read.

As already mentioned, Charlie begins his journey completely determined to keep his focus on the flowers. A film about flowers has never been done before, he insists, and it is something he is passionate about. In the opening dialogue with his producer he states:

“Okay. But, I’m saying, it’s like, I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know? I mean… The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, you know, it just isn’t. And… I feel very strongly about this.”

But the more it dawns on him that he can’t seem to find the right way into the screenplay he so desperately wants to write, he slowly, but surely, begins to pay attention to Donald’s repetitive praise of McKee and his “principals”.

When Donald actually sells his script, Charlie gives in and goes to a screenwriting seminar hosted by McKee. When McKee says that one’s protagonist must have an expressed goal in order to exist, Charlie poses the question of how one, as a screenwriter, should approach ones idea if it is based on the main character not evolving, not learning any major lessons or going through any changes whatsoever – more like how it is in the real world. As a reply he gets this outburst from McKee:

“Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!”

This lecture shakes Charlie to his very core and he grabs McKee at the end of the seminar, asking to speak with him, stating that McKee’s words hit home with him probably a little harder than was intended as they weren’t simply attacking his choices as a storyteller, but his choices in life where he is stuck longing for a relationship, but cursed with a terrible sense of timing, causing him to miss or misinterpret every chance he gets.

Furthermore, McKee’s agitated outburst at Charlie’s question can also be seen as Kaufman’s way of expressing what he finds to be the most important part of a filmic narrative: a strong protagonist who faces a row of obstacles and are put through tough choices to reach a fixed goal. Charlie’s fixed goal is to write his screenplay. Through meeting McKee he gets the much needed answer to how he can reach this goal, but, of course, it is far from everything he is set to learn during his journey. And he has had a rather subtle helper right there with him every step of the way.

Donald as Doppelgänger

A doppelgänger is, in the more classic and folkloric use of the word, usually an evil creature who comes to turn its counterpart’s life upside down. However, in literature it can also act as a mirror image of what the main character needs to evolve into in order to become a whole person.

Donald is outgoing, optimistic and open to new experiences. He takes the day as it comes with the attitude that everything will work itself out for the best. He writes his screenplay, he gets himself a girlfriend and in doing all this he is an example of the mentality Charlie needs to possess if he wants to solve all of the problems he’s facing, the internal as well as the external.

After meeting McKee – where McKee tells Charlie ”Your characters must go through a change, and the change must come from them” – the plot takes a new turn as Charlie now actually starts to evolve toward a change.

Charlie’s involvement with Orlean, a person whom he has up until now been too intimidated to even speak to, also moves forward, much thanks to Donald, who is convinced there is something more to her relationship with Laroche than she is willing to admit. Donald’s conviction leads to the brothers following Orlean to Florida where they discover she is visiting Laroche. To Charlie’s horror, and Donald’s triumph, they discover that Laroche has been making a powerful drug by exploiting the flowers he claims to love, as well as being involved in an affair with Orlean, who knows about the drug scheme.

Charlie’s protestations to his producer in the quote from the opening sequence now becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everything he didn’t want as a part of his screenplay and has been avoiding like the plague is introduced into the plot of his own story: drugs, sex, car chases and characters going through life-altering experiences in order to grow and change. Of course, the character growing and changing is him.

As the brothers escape a murderous Orlean and an equally dangerous Laroche, Charlie and Donald end up in an accident where Donald dies – another part of the conventions around the use of a doppelgänger as they are typically and symbolically sacrificed once they have served their purpose and helped their counterpart to awareness of their weaknesses and how to counterweight them.


Book and Film: The Differences

Charlie’s story obviously is not the same as the story of Susan Orlean. Charlie’s evolution as main character cannot be traced back to Orlean’s novel since there is no Charlie Kaufman present in those pages, but the theme of self-discovery is very much there. It is evident that the process of writing the book changed how Orlean perceived herself and she found herself wanting, more than anything, to be someone who passionately wants to care about something passionately, the way the collectors care about their orchids. In reality she doesn’t even know where to start. Charlie goes through a similar journey because even though he feels he knows what he wants, he cannot make it a reality without learning the lessons of finishing the screenplay to Adaptation.

The orchids, which Charlie so decidedly want to be a part of his story, are visually planted in his story through a sequence where Charlie brings the girl he’s secretly in love with – Amelia – to an orchid show. In voice over we hear Charlie name the flowers in Latin, a commentary which then flows into his longing observations of the women around him, who all seem so rare and precious and out of his reach. The film shows the external conflict for Charlie being the pressure to finish his script, while his internal conflict is his failure in love. The flowers, which in the novel express Orlean’s thirst for a true passion, in the film become symbolic of Charlie’s hidden feelings for Amelia.

My point with these examples is that, even though the screenplay diverts from the novel on almost every detail, it still captures the spirit of what Orlean wishes to communicate. The themes of the book are reflected throughout the script, and though Kaufman was more or less forced to invent his own red thread, the screenplay still shows respect for the source material, especially through Charlie’s unwillingness to allow the orchids to be forgotten or hidden away. The necessity for Kaufman to build his own story in order to capture the story of The Orchid Thief should not make his adaptation worth less, but instead his work should be judged on its own merits, rather than by comparing it to the original.

Film theorist Dudley Andrew writes in his article Adaptation:

“Adaptations claiming fidelity bear the original as a signified, when those inspired by or derived from an earlier text stand in a relation of referring to the original.”

The film Adaptation is, when looked at from Andrew’s point of view, a work of fiction inspired by an original. But is an adaptation not an original in and of itself when transferred from one medium to another?


In Conclusion

Regarding the critical discussion surrounding adaption I find it interesting that it hardly ever seems to be mentioned how practically every movie starts out as text on paper. A screenplay may not be prose, but it resembles poetry with its short, to-the-point sentences designed to hold the interest and create strong images in the mind of the reader. Why is this fact never considered in these debates? That all film is essentially an adaptation of a text.

As far as a great adaptation goes, I can only surmise that my personal experience when feeling let down by an adaptation of a written work I’ve loved has had to do with the parts they chose to skip or change for, to my mind, no good reason. They have taken away from, or completely changed, the feeling I was left with after being touched by the novel, and when that happens it usually won’t help watching the film a second time.

The debate of what is acceptable, appropriate or agreeable when it comes to adaptation will continue, though I am rather of the opinion that it’s hopeless. I choose to side with Bazin, who proclaims that literature and film are two separate mediums, in spite of their similarities, and they will always use different means to impart their stories. As such there is no point in trying to prove which medium tells a story in the most convincing way, what matters is that the story ”wows them in the end”.

This post is featured on, edited by James Curnow.

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The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Character

What is your most interesting quality? What is your deepest fear? When are you the happiest and what always makes you cry? What makes you angry, gets you annoyed, or brings you peace?

When you answer these questions you reveal character.

Obviously you can’t base every character you write on your own character traits, but you can use them as a template. If your deepest fear is being trapped in a room filled with spiders then:

  1. You would not willingly enter into a situation where spiders are involved (let alone a tight, closed space crawling with them)
  2. You would do everything in your power to stay clear of such a space
  3. You would probably freak if circumstances beyond your control forced you into such a space

But consider this scenario: in order to save the life of someone you care deeply about you have to brave the spider-filled room.

How do you react? Do you try to find a different way to save the life of your loved one due to your unwillingness to enter into this heart-attack-defying situation? When you realize there is no other way – do you try to find an excuse and give the task to someone else, or simply turn and run for the hills? Or do you finally accept the challenge and venture into the space to conquer your fears?

Your reaction to facing danger is anchored in your character traits: if you’re more prone to selfish choices you will ignore the challenge and pawn it off on someone else, or worse, leave your friend to die; if you’re constantly in a battle with yourself over wanting to be more courageous and up until now always having failed to, then your friend’s peril might be the push you need to finally prove to yourself that there’s more to you than what you deep down believe yourself to be.

You see what I’m doing here, right? Groovy! Because by deciding whether your protagonist is a diamond in the rough or already a full-fledged leader on the hunt for a mission you will have the advantage from the get-go. You see, your character and your plot are like a pair of Siamese twins – ultimately they are sewn at the hip and there is no use trying to separate them because they share one heart – and this beating heart is what will touch the audience and make them want more, or even better, make them come back for a second, third and fourth viewing!

You could fill your movie with stereotypical characters, sure, but then you will have to force them into a plot that really has nothing to do with them, because it hasn’t sprung from their goals and growth. At the same time, if you work too hard on filling your movie with quirky characters and forget to put them through the trials and tribulations of a well-structured plot, then their goals and growth will be unclear, leaving the audience with the feeling of what, really, was the point of all that?

How to avoid such dire straits?

Sit down with your protagonist, have a cuppa and just chat. Doesn’t have to be long. But once you have the answers to the questions I opened this post with they will undoubtedly present you with at least a handful of situations that these characters really should be placed in during the progression of your plot. Your protagonist’s answer to what their deepest, darkest fear is will be one of the more crucial ones as this will give you an immediate idea of a fitting antagonist.

Ah, the antagonist. The most important thing to remember when it comes to the antagonist is to ask them the same questions you asked your protagonist. The Lazy Writer creates an antagonist that is evil for the sake of being evil, kicking puppies and dicing up children for the fun of it. You don’t want to be a Lazy Writer.

So when you have quizzed your characters (all of them) and learned their character traits it’s time to ask why they have given you these particular answers. This is something you might do once you’ve gone through the blaze of glory that is finishing your first draft, but the sooner you make the word Why your screenwriting mantra, the better.

The reason is simple: you should strive to find situations that pit your protagonist against their own view of themselves and flips that view clear on its head. Head-flipping is very effective. If you haven’t done the quiz then it’s much harder to pinpoint the needed situation because you can’t ask why the character needs to go through it in the first place.

So, here’s some food for thought when striving to reveal character:

  1. The Quiz – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Write your own quiz! Write down ten or twenty or one hundred things you’d like to know about each character in your story and see what you come up with. Perhaps you realize that sideshow Marjorie shouldn’t be happily married with kids because that does absolutely nothing to create tension with your protagonist. Perhaps instead sideshow Marjorie lives in a loft and likes to play with knives. And perhaps your protagonist will desperately need to borrow said knives by the end of the second act. Just saying.
  2. The Siamese Twins – your plot should grow from the needs of your characters and your characters’ actions should service the momentum of the plot. If you really think about it, every movie does this in some way. Okay, every good movie does. Your idea is: an alien invasion threatens the survival of every person on the planet. You could make a bombastic blockbuster out of this, but unless you people it with relatable characters that the audience can root for your blockbuster ain’t gonna be bustin’ no blocks.
  3. The Situation – you people your movie with relatable characters by placing them in situations where they get a chance to interact with each other, with the world, with the threat of that world/their lives. These situations are what make up your scenes, that then build into sequences, that then – with sweat and toil and through rewrites – pearl themselves into a string of plot that is cohesive and engaging. And that leads us to…
  4. The Why – truly one of the most important tools you can carry with you always when it comes to every aspect of writing anything ever is the ability to question everything. Why is this important? What does this say about my character, the character relationships, the plot, the world? If my character is eating a burrito, is it because she loves it or is she trying it for the first time? Why has she never tried it before? Why is she trying it now? Why, why, why is this important? But then, of course, eventually you must stop questioning. And be satisfied. Or you’ll never be done.

Remember: find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this!

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Game of Thrones: The Responsibilities of Female Representation

This spring I read a fiery debate on the Swedish website Moviezine regarding how women are represented in the TV-series Game of Thrones. The debate was mainly between two members of the website and touched on topics of gender equality, something which also served to lay bare how the concept is often perceived. It was mostly this latter part of the debate that got me riled up and feeling the need to partake, but I refrained from diving straight in in order to reflect on my own true reasons for being so tired of naked female bodies in conjunction with completely dressed male counterparts on the screen (and in media in general) today. So I asked myself a few questions.

Firstly: Do I believe that Game of Thrones would be, or would be perceived, as more equal if there were as many male parts as female parts on screen (be they prosthetic or no)?

I personally am not opposed to nudity on television or in film, if there is a reason for it being there. If nudity adds something to the scene by way of character development or as a tool that is used to show the true nature of the relationship between two characters (it may be loving, or engaged in a power struggle, or both) then nudity can be very effective and definitively motivated. I begin to shift in my seat when nudity becomes nothing more than a showcase of undressed women. My annoyance comes from these undressed women usually not having any bearing on the plot or characters involved whatsoever.

However, my answer to the question above is “no”, Game of Thrones would not be, nor would I perceive it to be, more equal if there were as many male sex organs as female sex organs. Equality does not come from measuring the nudity of either sex and comparing the screen-time of each. Rather it comes from using nudity as a storytelling tool instead of a gimmick.

Secondly: Does the fact that the show uses nudity largely in situations where the female characters are prostitutes ease the inequality issue – that is to say, is it not a storytelling technique that is used intentionally to underline visually how the women of the Seven Kingdoms are exposed to male dominance?

One of the participants in the aforementioned discussion remarked that a lot of the nudity in Game of Thrones has to do with prostituted women in situations where it could be deemed natural that they are taking their clothes off or appear without a thread of clothing throughout the scene or, for that matter, appear in the nude and then slip something on towards the end of it. This is absolutely true, but the prostitution which is a part of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin – upon which the TV-series is based, for those of you who were unaware – is not more at the forefront than any other theme that is woven into its pages.

To be perfectly honest I would even go so far as to say that the prostitution, when it comes to being described in greater detail, is somewhere in the periphery of things that are of weight to the narrative. It is most prominent in the relationship between Shae and Tyrion, where her low status as a prostitute is not merely the focal point due to the fact that she has found her way into the bed of a member of one of the most powerful families in the land, but also due to the fact that said man truly loves her with complete disregard for her past and knowing how it would affect him and his relationship with his already distanced father if they were to be discovered.

Aside from this, one could comment that there is prostitution and rape that occur in all corners of the Seven Kingdoms, and that these elements are an interwoven part of a tale that deals with situations of war, destitution and many other realistic scenarios. Either way, prostitution, rape and nudity are given a much less dominant role in the books than the series.

The woman’s subordination in relation to the man’s dominance is a strong theme throughout the books and is brought into the TV-series in the same convincing and telling way: the female subjugation is shown through strong, smart, driven female individuals of whom none have the same freedom, power or multitude of choice as the men surrounding them, simply because they were born women.

But there are layers added even to this most basic of realities as the women who are held back and forced into submission in a social context are highborn women locked in political games and intrigue (Cersei, Margaery, Sansa, Catelyn, Melisandre), while the women who are a part of the lower classes – or who can easily be taken for being a part of them – are allowed a broader playing field and wider freedom of conduct (Osha, Ygritte, Arya, Brienne). On top of which there are highborn women who will not be cowed into a destiny they have not chosen for themselves and refuse to be second to any man, such as Daenerys (who, among other things, takes control and secures herself an equal position next to the husband she is forced to marry), Asha (Theon’s sister) and the Dorne princess Arienne (who has yet to make her entrance into the TV-series).

My point is that the books tell female life stories that consist of depth, insight and a definitive respect for what women are capable of. The female characters are allowed to show courage, strength and intelligence (attributes that are classically thought of as “masculine”). The creators of the TV-series – David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – adopt this approach without pause and the characters that have an actual name all have an emotional anchor in the books they stem from.

I circle back to the comment in the discussion thread, which proposed the use of prostitution as a so called viable reason to show naked women. It begs the question: why has it become the norm to show completely naked women in some form of subjugated position in a room with fully clothed men? My problem with this is not that the woman is naked or even that the man is dressed – my problem is that these scenes take place when there is not even the least bit of narrative reason for them to do so, and these become the instances where the problematic representation of womankind as a gender is perpetuated and restated again and again.

Do we need a naked woman for the scene to work? Nah, but isn’t it always nicer with a naked woman?

I am agog at those who would argue that this is not a problem to be given any real weight because ”the majority of the viewers want naked women in the show”. It would be spectacularly interesting to start a very serious campaign to investigate exactly by how much the ratings would fall if one were to ask all those viewers who are bothered by the unwarranted nudity– and yet love the show – to forego having a seat in front of the television on Sunday night. I suspect this would reveal that viewers do not watch the show because one expects naked women, but because the show has a fantastic level of production that never lets the viewer down.

And so, to answer the question above: no, it in no way eases the inequality issue that nudity is used in situations where the female characters are prostitutes, especially since these prostituted women are nameless, substance free stereotypes who in the series seem to take nothing but pleasure from their work. If all these naked women were to be taken out of the series, and only the female characters that bear actual names were to be shown in moments when they choose to undress, this would help somewhat with what now bothers me as a viewer. Although this would naturally act as a foundation for a whole new debate when it comes to how women are viewed, as well as prompting discussions of gender inequality in representations of sexuality within the series.

Thirdly: Are there never any moments in Game of Thrones when female nudity is used in a way that empowers the woman, rather than the man?

Of course there are! And it’s something that does the show credit. Ygritte and Melisandre are two female characters that use their sexuality in a way that puts them in a position of power. Their sexuality comes from a character driven motivation that not only shows who they are as individuals, but also affects their character development and the part they have to play in the progression of the plot. Ygritte uses her sexuality to seduce Jon, and once they are lovers it’s on equal ground as they have fallen for each other, while Melisandre places herself in a position of power with Stannis, even when – or possibly even more so in those instances where – she is undressed.

What always should be sharpened into a point in any discussion or debate concerning female representation, is the question of who holds the position of power in a scene, an image, or a message. In the Moviezine thread someone frustratingly remarked that these things need not be taken so seriously – that a simple TV-series perhaps doesn’t warrant such close inspection. Of course, HBO and the creators of Game of Thrones have not set out to diminish womankind by contrasting naked women with clothed men. The show is not a political statement and the scenes containing naked women are not plotted to be anti-feminist in tone.

However, what I feel is important to be conscious of (especially for the creators of images that will reach millions), is the deeper meaning these images still inherently hold. Not to say that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are not perfectly aware of this already, I simply believe that they choose to see it as norm and until more creators choose to see things differently, nothing will ever change. The series as a whole can lean on its portrayal of a whole gallery of strong female individuals, but due to the scenes, that are in practically every episode, consisting of nameless women undressing, the show is still bogged down by the meaning behind these images. The naked woman becomes a representative, whether they want her to be one or not, of the fixation, which quite plainly exists in this patriarchal society, of the woman being subjugated to the man.

And we are fed this fixation daily. And from it we hear these never-ending arguments to the tune of “the majority wants to see naked women”. It has become such an integrated part of modern society, and we have such free and constant access to material furthering it that it is even considered nagging, annoying and deviant to oppose this view of women. But it is this view of women that leads to rape: the female subjugation; the woman is willing even if she says no; every woman is a whore if you can only get her on her back.

I’ll admit it’s possible that I am painting it a shade too black, and that I may be drawing the line too sharply. As a creator I do however believe in the creative responsibility to represent the world in a truthful way, but also in a way that could contribute to positive change. The Seven Kingdoms may be an entirely separate universe, but it is ultimately a reflection of our own.

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Grief, pain and despair: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

If you haven’t watched the movie in question I urge you to see it before reading the following as it does contain major plot spoilers.

Lars von Trier is, beyond a doubt, one of the boldest directors of our time; he never balks at digging a hole in the soil of the human emotion with only the intent of getting himself well and dirty in it. His film Melancholia (2011) is a meditation on self-destruction, on one’s inner life being untamable, overbearing and suffocating. Antichrist is no different, treading the border between insanity and depression in its female protagonist as she struggles with her guilt over her son’s death and what his death might say about her as a mother, woman and human being.

I didn’t enjoy Antichrist at first glance. Though sometimes beautiful to look at and with two actors delivering astounding performances, I still found the first half of it lacking in momentum, while the second half bordered on the ludicrous with its sudden and extreme bloodiness. Putting these first impressions of its use of plot, characters and horror tropes aside, I watched the movie a second time. Antichrist may be a tough pill to swallow, but its jagged edges are there for a reason. My second impression was the opposite of my first.

Visually Antichrist has moments that are truly breathtaking, with the black and white extreme slow motion Prologue being the stand out moment in the film. The sex between lead characters He and She is, in this opening sequence, both passionate and mechanical in its depiction, while the wider and more open shots of their two-year old son Nic underline his innocence: he is small and alone in a big world, separated from his parents as they are lost in each other.

I experience a chilling terror as I watch the little boy climb onto the sill of an open window; as he falls I can almost see the immeasurable repercussions of his death, even before they begin to play out before me: the grief, the pain, the despair.

There is a clear thematic question to be posed of the gender representation used in Antichrist and how He could easily be the symbol for the patriarch while She is the psychologically bullied matriarch. She would then be the “hysterical woman” in her despair, while he is the rational and pragmatic man, keeping calm and distancing himself from the overhaul of emotion she exhibits. However, leaving the possible social perceptions that the characters may represent, I would like to focus on the actual characters themselves.


There is a prevailing theme throughout Antichrist which is merciless to its male and female protagonists – the theme of fear. Fear haunts She in a way that is deeply internal and manifests through tremors and sleep-depravation in the beginning of the film, and it is this fear that is the driving force behind He’s attempts at analyzing her, as He has the notion that if She only faces what she’s afraid of she will be healed. Of course, nothing is ever that simple and what He comes to understand is that this fear is She’s fear of herself. The explanation of this – for the audience – comes in the reveal that She watched Nic climb the chair, watched him fall, and chose to do nothing. However, her fear is not rooted in the act of doing nothing, but rather in her capability of doing nothing.

A year ago She went by herself to the family’s summer cottage Eden to write her thesis, bringing Nic with her. She immersed herself in the subject of female prosecution and witch hunts and, as she tells He when confronted with her thoughts on human nature, she came to the conclusion that women are inherently evil. Women do not control their own bodies, She states – nature does. Her cold view of this fact signals postnatal depression, underscoring the fact that her pregnancy, delivery and the very task of motherhood has been an explicitly traumatic experience for her. Her research into the history of female prosecution began to feed an already fevered mind with information that somehow made sense of what was already hounding her: the fact that she wanted to harm her child.

Her new belief system told her that she is by nature evil, which in turn gave her an excuse for her emotions, even going so far as to grant her a perfectly good reason to harbor them. Her fear grew for this evil streak inside her and what repercussions it might carry with it. The moment she allowed Nic to die was sweet, as it confirmed what she had suspected all along, but it was also a moment of sheer horror as she discovered a side to her she had never before guessed was there.

Halfway through the film the couple discuss the autopsy of Nic, and He confronts her with the Polaroids of Nic wearing the wrong shoe on the wrong foot – signalling that he understands her neglect of their son existed even though he hasn’t witnessed it for himself first hand. This confrontation causes her to suffer a meltdown at the prospect of being left by He, but her attacks on him seem to be attacks on herself, stemming from the knowledge that He has every right to leave her. She wants to push him to punish her because there are two sides to her: the one of acceptance and the one of despair. She dresses herself in the role of the witch because that is the female figure bound to be judged and murdered by the male figure and, as she states early on in the film: she wants to die.

Her journey throughout the film is deeply psychological as she tries desperately to cope with her guilt and ultimately fails: she accepts the excuse she has created for herself as she becomes one of the “sisters” and places the blame on the nature of her sex rather than her feeling a lack of love for her own child and letting him die in order to free herself of him.


The character of He is the mirror opposite of She. Ungoverned by emotion he takes the position of observer as his wife unravels; cementing himself as therapist first, husband and father a distant second. Even with the Three Beggars, He is the observer, distanced from them as they manifest outside of him, while She grapples with them from deep within.

He arrogantly assumes that he is equipped to heal She. This arrogance is his downfall as he ensures that She comes face to face with herself in the place that she fears the most – Eden. The reason She fears it the most: it is where she first discovered what she views as the truth about herself.

When He first brings her to Eden She has yet to acknowledge this truth as absolute, but thanks to him she not only acknowledges, but even embraces it. Not only does this truth mean that her weighted mind can find some sort of repose from the guilt, but also that the final outcome will be death. She waits for the Three Beggars and ultimately sees her own end, either of the body or of her spirit – the side to her now in despair over what she has done.

He’s journey is that of leaving behind his old belief system – that of rationality – and instead facing the reality of the situation he’s in. He must realize that the solution he has fixed to the problem will not suffice, he can’t talk She out of the state of mind she’s entered. His comment of how anxiety cannot make you do something that you would not normally do seems poetic in this context. Out of self-preservation he ultimately strangles She, and in doing so he gives free reign to the more primal parts of himself, the primal parts which he has tried to suppress in her and which he has, up until that moment, not recognized in himself.


The sex throughout the film is unapologetic and graphic. He believes she uses it to distract herself, but the flashback, revealing that she saw Nic climb to his death, comes while she’s in the middle of a sexual act with He. Sex is closely linked with the moment of their son’s death and, on an even deeper level, with She’s choice to do nothing to stop it. As such it’s not pleasure She seeks when more or less assaulting He throughout the film, but rather self-punishment. To feel the pain of that moment, whether conscious or subconscious, is the underlying motivation for her actions. Her crippling He with a blow to the crotch toward the end of the film feels reflective of how his penis might be viewed as the cause of all of her despair.

The way her darker side – shown through the flashes of close-ups of her face, neck, restless fingers – brings out the same side in He – as the close-ups are echoed of him just before he strangles her – is telling of how the evil She speaks of exists in both male and female nature. It is the nature of human beings to be capable of previously unthinkable acts when put into a corner. For her that corner was motherhood. For him that corner is the threat of death.

The ending feels inevitable and is the result of her fear of herself and what is inside her: she is wicked and the wicked burn. As He lights the pyre he has built for her she becomes yet another female body consumed by flames, tying in strongly with the witch theme. The difference is that while the witches who burned four hundred years ago were innocent of any wrongdoing, She actually committed a crime against nature itself in murdering her own child through her carelessness.

In Conclusion

Antichrist emerges as a provoking comment on the violence that lives in all of us. It has its theological implications and the Three Beggars make for powerful symbols of the cruelty of nature and what the most hollowing of human emotion might do to anyone that must live through them. What stands out is its complex character portraits where light and dark battle for dominion. The title’s Antichrist is the opposite of goodness; it is the absence of God; it is the evil in humanity that prevails – for some meaning life, for others death.

This post is featured on, edited by James Curnow.

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The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell.

This is a reoccurring part of any discussion regarding screenwriting. Well, at least a discussion concerning the more concrete building blocks of a screenplay’s structure. But what the hell does this statement actually mean?

Here’s the first thing you need to know: you don’t have to keep Show Don’t Tell at the back of your head for your first attempt at writing a movie. It helps you, in the long run, if you can, but it’s not a prerequisite to write your first screenplay. Once you’ve mastered the more basic formatting tools, and know how a script should appear on the page, you can pound out your story to your hearts delight and feel the triumph of putting the last punctuation mark on the final page. Now raise your fist to the ceiling with glee. You deserve it!

Here’s the second thing you need to know: your first draft will – without fail – be horrible. Sincerely bad. And I mean bad in a “You will look back at it in five years and hide your head in your hands and make snorting noises of derision” kind of way. No sweat. No, really, throw on another layer of deodorant and buckle down because this is where things get seriously fun.

Since thirdly: you’ve laid the foundation and put up the walls and hopefully the roof. So what’s left? The interiors, of course! The floors, the wall paper, the fixtures, the furniture and every last tiny little detail that will make your structure feel inviting, like a place a stranger would come into and go Hey, I think I’ll stick around for a while. This is what the second, the third, the fourth and so on drafts are for. See, if you only lay the foundation and put up some walls you miss out on making your creation into a home. And it must feel homey. Why? Because even if you can imagine what it will look like when fully decorated, the majority of people walking through the door into an empty shell of a house will not share that ability. In fact, they will most probably leave quickly. And, chances are, they will do so unimpressed.

Okay, ending this simile before it grows into an actual mini-essay on the pitfalls of interior decorating, I would like it to underline the importance of patience.

Because fourthly: It is pivotal that you allow yourself time to explore your story, to screw-up, to take wrong turns, to change your mind. The editing process is lined with nuggets of gold, but if you rush, or – God forbid – think that you don’t need to look for them because your script is donedonedone, then you’ll miss them. And your script will be all the poorer for it. And, believe it or not, this ties directly in with the statement that opened this post.

Show, don’t tell.

To show, and not tell, as a screenwriter, you must have patience. You cannot rush through your writing the way you might in that first glowing burst of inspiration that hopefully accompanies writing your first draft. Show Don’t Tell may come naturally to you, in which case I lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Or you may have to work at it. Fiercely. In which case I also lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Because if you’re working at it, it means that you’re being patient, and if you’ve reached the point of being patient with your writing that, to me, signals that you’re taking it seriously, which is all kinds of awesome.

So how, precisely, do you show and not tell?

I’m sure you know, but to be perfectly clear: a scene free of dialogue is showing the audience your story – its plot, character interaction, setting et al. while five pages of nothing but exposition heavy dialogue is telling the audience what would be much more interesting if shown.

However, quite possibly, the third option is preferable: neither show nor tell. You might be burdening your script with pages of unnecessary information. Perhaps you’ll serve the characters and plot by moving the information around, scratching the pages that are superfluous, but keeping what you find important in them by adding the information to a different scene altogether.

So, here’s some food for thought when you’re striving to Show and Not Tell:

  1. Too much dialogue? Scratch all dialogue (yes, all of it, you know you secretly want to) and look at your scene without it. Does the scene still work? What does it say about the characters, the character relationships, the plot and/or the world the story takes place in?
  2. Right perspective? Is the information you want to convey through your scene (regarding characters, relationships, plot, world) presented to the audience in the most effective way? Perhaps it shouldn’t come from the hero, but be more interesting if given by the villain?
  3. It’s all about the little details. No question-mark on this one because it really is all about the little details. The essence of the “show” is you, as a writer, making the right choices for the big and small revelations occurring throughout your script. Revelations dealing with – say it with me: characters, relationships, plot and world. And learning this skill takes practice. And practice takes patience.
  4. Read any scripts lately? The most failsafe way of learning how to show and not tell is to read scripts. Read and read and read. Find your favorites and read them ten times. Dissect them. Take note (seriously) of how they use show and how they use tell. The visual language versus the dialogue. See how the masters of the craft implement these tools and learn from them. They are the best teachers any budding screenwriter could ever ask for. And you can find them for free at!

Remember: be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this! Find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be patient, always.

And keep an eye peeled for those inspiring nuggets of gold!

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