Original Screenplays Written Directly for the Screen: What to Watch in November and December 2019

The Academy has separate award categories for writing: Screenplay adapted from another source and screenplays written directly for the screen. My last post is a list of movie adaptations coming out this fall/winter. In this post is a list of some highly anticipated features based on an original screenplay, all poised for the Awards Season, eyeing the 2020 Oscars race.




Director Sam Mendes takes a fragment of a story his grandfather Alfred Mendes had told him and wrote this original screenplay. During WWI, two young privates (one apparently represents his grandfather) race against time to deliver a message deep into enemy territory to save 1,600 British soldiers from heading into a death trap. In real life, Alfred Mendes was given a Military Medal for his bravery in taking up the mission voluntarily. So, the movie has a particular personal meaning for the younger Mendes. The Oscar winning director (for American Beauty) has an exceptional track record of top features including Bond movies Skyfall, Spectre, and the adaptation of Richard Ford’s Revolutionary Road. In 1917, Mendes has a stellar cast to work with, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Mark Strong. Roger Deakins just might get another Oscar nom for cinematography.


A Hidden Life 

A Hidden Life

Here’s another hero’s story but of a very different nature. This time in WWII during Nazi occupation of Austria. Franz Jägerstätter is a farmer in a small village, leading a simple and idyllic family life. Everything changes when he’s conscripted to serve in the German army. Jägerstätter refuses to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler as he considers Hitler’s war unjust and evil. Not a pacifist, but a conscientious objector due to his Christian faith. The consequence of refusing to take the oath is death. Director Terrence Malick after The Tree of Life offers us a poignant and beautiful meditation on this hidden hero, bravery no one would have noticed, on the contrary, bravery that is met with spite and hatred even by his own village folks. I watched this at TIFF and can attest that these could well be the most meaningful 3 hours in this holiday season.



Yet another hero’s story. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and became an abolitionist and leading ‘conductor’, helping many slave families to freedom. During the American Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army in various capacities. Director Kasi Lemmons researched and wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. This is the kind of movies where historical facts and dramatization would usually come under scrutiny. In an interview with IndieWire, Lemmons has made this statement: “Of course I embellished, I’m a screenwriter… I added to the story because anybody that’s a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish.” Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet, Leslie Odom Jr. and Joe Alwyn co-star.


The Aeronauts

British duo Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for another scientific venture after their Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of EverythingThe Aeronauts has these two stuck in a hot air ballon 40,000 ft. above ground. The movie is loosely based on the real-life feats achieved by James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell, who, in 1862, flew higher into the atmosphere than anyone had ever done before. For story appeal, Coxwell is replaced by the female balloonist Amelia Rennes. Looks like the dramatization of historical discoveries and scientific breakthroughs has developed into a genre of their own, such as The Current War, The Imitation Game, and Hidden Figures. Directed and co-written by Tom Harper. In N. American theatres Dec. 6 then on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 20. But looks like this one should be watched on the big screen.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story.jpeg
Back on the ground, a very realistic depiction. Noah Baumbach has written an insightful script on the dissolution of a marriage. I watched this at TIFF. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver a superb performance as a couple going through a divorce. You’d think the process involves the husband, the wife, and the child only. But no. It looks like the lawyers are the major players in our adversarial legal system. Things get much more complicated and pricier than the couple have first thought and uglier than they’d wanted to go. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda are the lawyers, solid casting. A strong Oscar hopeful. After a limited release in theatres, this will go straight to Netflix.

The Two Popes

The Two PopesFor originality of a screenplay this probably is a good example. Imagine the conservative Pope Benedict XVI meeting the relatively more progressive Pope Francis I as they hang out with each other, a few years before Francis became Pontiff. Maybe a get-to-know-you, pre-screening interview for the Pope-in-waiting. Anthony Hopkins plays the conservative and Jonathan Pryce, the liberal. Helmed by acclaimed Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles whose past works include the Oscar nominated City of God and The Constant Gardener where Rachel Weisz won her Oscar. Screenplay by Anthony McCarten, 3-time Oscar nominee for Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, and The Theory of Everything. Again, Netflix will have it after a limited theatrical run in December. 







Related Posts:

Movies Based on Books in Nov. and Dec. 2019

David Copperfield: From Book to Film

Downton Abbey the movie not just for fans

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Tribute to Rootlessness

On April 3, one day before Roger Ebert died, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away from illness at the age of 85. Her death seemed to have been overshadowed in the next few days by Ebert’s. I feel here’s a life that ought to be noted as well, but maybe for a special reason.


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was best known for her Oscar winning adaptations of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View and Howards End. Her other screenplays include Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and The Bostonians, among a total of twenty-six.

But for Ruth (to discard formality and to focus on the person, allow me to call her Ruth), adapting screenplays was only a hobby. Her main calling was to be a writer of her own stories. She had heeded that call with fervour since childhood. Guardian’s obituary mentions Ruth once said about her writing time as “the only three hours in the day I’m really alive.”

There are thirty titles by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on Goodreads, including novels, short story collections, and her works in anthologies. Among her accolades, most well known is the 1975 Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust, about the meeting of East and West in India. Her short stories had been published in The New Yorker since 1957, thirty-nine of them. Her latest appeared just one month before her death. She is the only person who had ever won both the Booker and the Oscar. Two Oscars, to be exact.

Reading her obituaries from several sources, I’m more intrigued by this matter of laying down roots, or rather, of rootlessness in the landscape of our life.


Ruth was born in Cologne in 1927 to a Polish father and a German mother. Her family was assimilated Jews in Nazi Germany. Her grandfather was the cantor in Cologne’s biggest synagogue. Her father Marcus was a lawyer. Assimilated or not, Ruth and her brother had to flee with her parents in the nick of time in 1939 to England. She was 12.

For the next twelve years, she grew up in London, learned a new language, adopted a new identity, and later graduated in English literature from Queen Mary College, London University. In 1948, upon finding out all members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, more than forty of them, Ruth’s father took his own life.

In 1951, when she was 24, Ruth married the architect Cyrus Jhabvala in London and followed him back to his native country India. Another uproot and transplant, this time, to a whole new continent. They settled in Delhi. For the next 25 years, Ruth immersed herself in her adopted country as a wife, mother, and writer. Colonial and post-colonial Indian life, East-West relationship and caste conflicts became her subject. Despite her effort in total immersion, she had not taken roots in India.

Finally, In 1976, a third continent, as Ruth and her husband moved to New York City. There, she found a place closest to a notion of home, paradoxically, because of “many people like herself: refugees, outsiders, interesting American discontents,” wrote the remaining Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborators, director James Ivory, in Time magazine’s tribute.


While still in India, Ruth had already collaborated with Merchant and Ivory on several movies. Now in New York, she lived in an apartment on the same block as they. The proximity of actual geographical location fostered a prolific period of their lives. Together, they had joined hands in more than twenty productions. Their forty years of collaboration remains the longest in movie history.

Ivory Jhabvala Merchant
Ivory, Jhabvala, Merchant

How did rootlessness affect her perspective? In Guardian’s obituary, I found this inspiring excerpt:

I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel—till I am—nothing.” And yet, she said, this was one of her strengths. Many of her stories are about a kind of inner travel: feeling rootless, her protagonists find new ways to feel at home in the worlds they happen to inhabit.

Perhaps, in the vast landscape of literature, such rootlessness is essential for the imagination to take flight. Rootlessness allows flexibility and fluidity of navigation, the freedom to roam. Rootlessness can more readily unlock the wayfaring spirit within, and embrace change.

One result of being rootless could well be the hybrid identity. Amusingly the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team itself is a good example. Producer Ishmael Merchant was a Muslim from Bombay who had settled in America; director James Ivory is the son of a French-Irish American; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a Polish-German-Jew from Cologne, Delhi, London, and New York City.

Perhaps as Nick Carraways, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, observes, only by being “within and without” can we see “the inexhaustible variety of life.”


Related posts and links:

Obituaries and tributes from The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Paris Review, Time Magazine, The New York Times.

Since 1957, The New Yorker had been publishing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories, a total of 39, her last appeared only one month before her death. Thanks to The New Yorker, we can now read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories online.

My book review of Howards End, my post on the Merchant Ivory production of Howards End, my review of A Room With A View (TV, 2007)


Photo Sources:

First photo from The Paris Review; Second photo from The Telegraph

The King’s Speech: Fact and Fiction

The line “Based On a True Story” at the bottom of the movie poster apparently is not enough as a disclaimer. Some point out the twisted historicity in the movie “The King’s Speech”. In particular, it has altered the fact that Churchill had adamantly supported the reign of Edward VIII even after he had stated his intention to marry Wallis Simpson, and evaded the early appeasement of Hitler by the British monarchy.

My view is this: The King’s Speech is not a documentary, nor even a biopic. It is a film based on a true struggle in the life of King George VI before he became King to shortly afterwards.  It spans from the closing of the Wembley Empire Exhibition in 1925 to the beginning of WWII in 1939. The focus is on a personal angle. It has taken some steps to dramatize the sequences which I must say are effective. While I agree the Churchill character in the movie could well be inconsistent with historical facts, I don’t see the production is making a political statement at all nor its intention to rewrite history. The climatic Speech at the end is a historical fact. By every measure, it is an exploration of one man’s internal conflicts and struggles, and how a trusting friendship between therapist and patient, and the support of a loving wife had helped him overcome insurmountable odds. Towards these ends, I think screenwriter David Seidler has done a marvellous job.

Further, as an ‘ex-colonial’, I don’t see the film as unfurling the Empire flag to flaunt past glory. If that was the intention, the Queen Mother would not have guarded her husband’s impediment as a painful secret all her life.

After watching the film, I came across the book. Yes, there’s a book called The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved The British Monarchy, written by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi. Mark Logue is the son of Lionel’s youngest child, Anthony. He is custodian of the Logue Archive. Conradi is an author and journalist.

The book is based on a treasure trove of family papers and diaries, letters between the King and Logue, and Lionel’s own notes on the therapy sessions, as well as photos, an invaluable source of background information for the film and a bridge of events therein. Mark Logue acted as the Logue Family Consultant for the production.

Overall, the film follows closely the facts found in Logue’s book when depicting the relationship of Logue and Bertie. Here are some facts:

It was to prepare for his Australian tour in 1927 that Bertie first went to Logue for help. The high point of the six-month world tour would be to open the new Commonwealth Parliament House in Canberra. Bertie diligently went to every appointment and practiced everyday the exercises assigned by Logue. Just between October 1926 to December 1927, the two had had eighty-two sessions.  Many more would follow in the years ahead.

Here are some quotes from several who had contact with the pre-therapy Bertie. As a navel cadet, Bertie, or Johnson to secure secrecy as mentioned in the film, was ‘plagued by shyness’. Here’s an account:

One, Lieutenant F. J. Lambert, described the Prince as a ‘small’ red-faced youth with a stutter’, and adding ‘when he reported his boat to me he gave a sort of stutter and an explosion. I had no idea who he was and very nearly cursed him for spluttering at me.’ Another, Sub Lieutenant Hamilton, wrote of his charge: ‘Johnson is very well full of young life and gladness, but I can’t get a word out of him.’ (p. 55)

And the Duchess of York had her share of distress. Helena Bonham Carter had portrayed vividly scenes such as this:

According to one contemporary account, whenever he rose from the table to respond to a toast, she would grip the edge of the table until her knuckles were white for fear he would stutter and be unable to get a word out.  This also further contributed to his nervousness which, in turn, led to outbursts of temper that only his wife was able to still. (p. 60)

And the disastrous Wembley speech at the beginning of the movie is a painful fact, an event witnessed by Logue and his son Laurie, who were among the spectators coincidentally. The closing ceremony of the Empire Exhibition in May 1925 was a live broadcast around the world. Before the event, Bertie wrote to the King his father apologetically:

I do hope I shall do it well. But I shall be very frightened as you have never heard me speak & the loudspeakers are apt to put one off as well. So I hope you will understand that I am bound to be more nervous than I usually am (p. 61)

The humiliation after that we can all see from Colin Firth’s realistic enactment. Here’s how the father put it, more generously than his usual harsher dealing with his son, nonetheless still biting:

Bertie got through his speech all right, but there were some long pauses. (p. 61)

Further, Bertie’s ill health and an operation on his ulcer had contributed to his physical and psychological torments for years to come. Logue knew it was a complex case and not merely simple speech impediment.

Bertie had problems pronouncing words beginning with ‘k’, ‘g’ or with repeated consonants. Logue’s system was to go through every one of the King’s speeches and if possible, replacing those with some other words.  He would then:

mark up the text with suggested breathing points, and the King would start practising, again and again, until he got it right — often becoming extremely frustrated in the process.

By the time of his Coronation in May 1937, King George VI had greatly improved. All the war time speeches were evidence of the benefits of Logue’s therapy. I mention this just to quench the query of some who might think that the film had grossly exaggerated the speech impediment.

Actually, the King had delivered many speeches, and for everyone of them except those overseas, Logue was beside him, giving valuable support and pointers. To the credit of screenwriter Seidler, only three occasions are highlighted: The Wembley Empire Exhibition, the coronation preparation and the call to war, from which the film title aptly derived. Here I can see the choice of a writer skillful at his craft. As always, there is much more information out there that the sheer volume could clog, drag or smother. Seidler has wisely sifted and chosen the pivotal moments and built his script around them. As a result, we have fluency and the economy of words, or word pictures in this case.

Here’s a must-see BBC news clipof an interview with David Seidler, in which we can get a glimpse of an actual recording of KGVI pausing during his speech.

Lionel George Logue was born on February 26, 1880, in Adelaide, South Australia. His grandfather came to settle in Adelaide from Dublin, Ireland, in 1850, and opened up Logue’s Brewery. Since childhood, Lionel had been a prize-winner in elocution and excelled in ‘recitals’, the recitations of literary passages, a “popular form of entertainment in an era before television, radio or the cinema.”

Lionel, his wife Mertyle and their three boys Laurie, Valentine, and Anthony moved to England in February, 1924 after forty-one days at sea. First settled in modest lodgings, Lionel soon leased a place to begin his speech therapy consultation in 146 Harley Street, an address synonymous with medicine. However, it was still a major social and class barrier to overcome for the Duke of York to personally go over there for his treatment sessions:

Gernerally speaking, the lower the number and further south towads Cavendish Square, the more prestigious the address. Logue’s building was right up towards its northern end… (p.39)

Lionel’s wife, Mertyl Gruenert, had an ‘imposing’ physique and was several inches taller than Lionel. She was German. As the children grew up in England, they had all involved in the war effort, Laurie and Tony having served in the British army over in Africa. Now to those who challenge that German music is used in the climatic call to war speech and its subsequent scene, they could just as well say the Logue children fought against their mother’s countrymen. Nationalities diminish when the overall picture is one of atrocity and aggression.

And lastly, a fact that can be turned into fiction: Logue’s method remains a mystery.  He had left no notes as to what exactly went on during his therapy sessions with Bertie. Such missing data have proven to be advantageous to Seidler, who has taken the liberty to create some lively montage in the film. Thanks to the lack of fact, we are entertained.

And, here’s one of the possible secrets: Logue’s tongue twisters. The next time you prepare for a public speaking engagement, warm up with this one:

“She sifted seven thick-stalked thistles through a strong thick sieve.”


The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved The British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, published by Penguin Canada, 2010, 242 pages.

To read my review of the movie The King’s Speech, CLICK HERE.

To read my post Oscar Winners 2011 CLICK HERE.

CLICK HERE to view CBS 60 Minutes Overtime’s The Hidden Letters Behind “The King’s Speech”: Interview with Mark Logue and Colin Firth on the Logue Archive: the actual King’s Speech on Buckingham Palace letterhead, with Logue’s markings, handwritten letters between the King and Logue, and other personal papers and photos.

CLICK HERE to view CBS 60 Minutes’ The Story Behind “The King’s Speech”: Interview with Colin Firth, including his hometown in Hampshire, his career, his portrayal of KGVI, Geoffrey Rush, and the possible Oscar.

Somewhere (2010)… or Nowhere

I collected a few thoughts on screenwriting, or fiction writing in general, from watching Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010).

The film was winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival last year in the ‘Emerging Film’ category.  As daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola must have breathed films from birth.  She is also an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay with “Lost In Translation” (2003), which also brought her an Oscar nom in the Best Director and Best Picture categories.

While I had enjoyed her “Lost In Translation”, a sensitive, existential rendering framed in the context of cultural cacophonies, I sat through “Somewhere” feeling detached and unmoved. But I did make some mental notes on how to write better… especially when I compared it with another film depicting a similar theme, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year“.

I’ve appreciated the overriding intent of “Somewhere”, the portrayal of a pointless life in the midst of Hollywood stardom. Behind the façade of glamour is a sad man, failed in his marriage, aimless, smothered with ennui. The setting of the film is significant too. From the movie poster we see the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, a historic landmark that’s synonymous with fame and celebrity. That is where our protagonist, actor Johnny Marco lives, at the moment.


So here are some mental notes I made on writing while watching “Somewhere”:

1.  We all know it: Show, not tell. But too much showing can be force feeding.

Case in point: The film starts off with the sound of a car engine revving, then we see a black Ferrari come on screen from the left, circling round and go off screen.  We wait for it to come back, then go round and offscreen again. This goes on for, I forgot to count, maybe four times. Then it stops, and a man gets out.  We later find out he is the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff).  Got it… his life is going in circles, heading nowhere.

But just to confirm that we are on the right track, we’re shown some more.  We see Johnny Marco so drunk he falls down the stairs and breaks his arm.  We see him lying in bed watching exotic dancers performing in front of him, only to fall asleep before they finish their routine. We are shown again another time, another pair of exotic dancers in his room, this time he gives a bored little clap. We see him womanizing, partying, driving his Ferrari aimlessly on the road. We see him being ushered to promo sessions and photo shoots, in unfeeling mode, and answer questions from the press.  And as if not enough pounding, we hear a reporter asking the explicit question, which by now has become so contrived: ‘Who is Johnny Marco?’

This is not just the first 30 minutes to set up the mood and character, this is throughout the film.  So I noted: once you’ve got your point across, move on.

2.  Stir up empathy, not inflict vicarious suffering.  You don’t have to drag your audience to the level of boredom to depict boredom. Like, we don’t have to be turned into stutterers before we can appreciate the struggles of a stammering king.  There is a scene where Johnny has to sit down and have his face plastered with goo to make a mold of an old man. We see him plastered bit by bit until his head is covered with goo.  The static camera then stays on this plastered head, as we wait with him for the goo to dry.  Lucky we are spared after a minute and a half.  I appreciate the long take if it conveys meaning in an aesthetically pleasing way, but here it is almost didactic in its expression of tedium and ennui.

3. Bring up a contrast. Yes, in this case, Johnny Marco’s 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is a perfect foil.  Staying with her father for a short while before going to summer camp, Cleo’s life is nothing short of wholesome. She is angelic in her innocence and beauty; in contrast to her Dad, she is happy and purposeful. She figure skates, plays tennis, swims, cooks, does Sudoku, plays Guitar Hero and Wii with youthful vitality.  Johnny is mesmerized. Despite a failed marriage, Cleo is the best thing that happens in his life… and in the film as well.

4. Put the character in the context of a story, even though it is just a character study or that it is static. For the viewers to appreciate the character on a deeper level, they must see the person in various predicaments, which are missing here.  Without a story as vehicle, we only see a two dimensional character.  I thought of Mary (Lesley Manville) in “Another Year”.  Very similar to Johnny here, Mary is a sad and utterly despondent character.  Also, like Johnny, she is going nowhere even at the end, where she is spiralling further down the hole of loneliness.  Not unlike Johnny here.  Yet I found “Another Year” appealing because the other significant characters continue to show us their life story. The foil there is Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Through the four seasons, we see how they treat each other and deal with life, and relationships are being depicted. It is still a character study with no major dramatic climax, yet the film can hold my interest because I am watching Mary through the frame of Tom and Gerri’s story.

5.  Throw in a dash of humor, even though especially when your character is in utter sadness.  Unlike “Lost In Translation”, “Somewhere” is almost devoid of humor. A laugh or two is probably the fastest way to dissolve the audience’s aloofness. Back to “Another Year”, Mary is not a lovable character. She is delusional, dependent, aimless and weak.  As audience, we are impatient with her unhappiness, because we feel she is solely responsible for her plight. But humor disarms our critical stance and gently prods us to sympathize her.  Her character does not change and become loveable at the end, but we learn to be more gracious and give her some allowance.  We find that it is not so static after all, for we the audience, unknowingly, have been changed.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my review of Another Year.

CLICK HERE to read my review of The King’s Speech.