An almost-great screenplay can be more frustrating than a really bad one. The potential is strong and the execution is almost there, but something went wrong at the final hurdle.

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Of course, it’s easy to pick out flaws in retrospect or to credit (or blame) the writer for something that wasn’t their idea. So many things can go wrong on a script’s journey to the screen that it can feel like a miracle there are any almost-great films in the first place.

The problem is, as author and screenwriter William Goldman famously said:

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

With all that in mind, and judging from what made it into the finished films, for this list we focus on 10 almost-great screenplays, what flaws each script has and how, with a few tweaks, they could have been great.

 

10 Almost-Great Screenplays by Screenwriters

 

1.PROMETHEUS

Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Elements by Dan O’Bannon Ronald Shusett

The space vessel PROMETHEUS travels to a distant moon on a mysterious mission.

Under the employ of the Weyland Corporation, the crew search for the crucial evidence that will finally explain the origins of life on Earth.

They find more than they bargained for when they stumble across a mysterious ancient biological weapon.

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts was hired based on his pitch for an ALIEN prequel that had long been in development. He met with director Ridley Scott to go over the key themes Scott wanted in the story. They included elements of Greek Mythology, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Judeo-Christian beliefs regarding the creation of man.

Spaihts had a tough time translating some of these themes into a script. After several rewrites, Scott contacted LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof for an additional opinion and draft of the story. Lindelof felt the script draft had too much in common with the ALIEN universe. He thought a more original concept, within the same universe and using these lofty themes, would be more interesting.

Why is it flawed?

The finished film ended up disappointing many in the audience.

The grand themes Scott wanted to incorporate are interesting in theory but difficult to portray on screen.

The original ALIEN’s themes were subtle and came out of the story and characters. PROMETHEUS, which follows a similar story to ALIEN, tries to graft these themes onto the story.

This has mixed results. The philosophical questions raised can never truly be answered and so PROMETHEUS can’t fully deliver on what it promises, making for a dissatisfying ending.

It also misses what helped make ALIEN so memorable – its believable characters. The characters and their motivations in PROMETHEUS seem to change scene to scene depending on what is convenient to the plot.

The characters also are given a great deal of expository dialogue that over-explains the many philosophical and scientific concepts of the film.

How it could have been great?

PROMETHEUS is not without its fans. There are several great sequences, including a modern take on the original “chest-burster” scene.

James Cameron (director of ALIENS) chimed in with his review of the film:

I enjoyed Prometheus. I thought it was great. I thought it was Ridley returning to science fiction with gusto, with great tactical performance, beautiful photography, great native 3D. There might have been a few things that I would have done differently, but that’s not the point—you could say that about any movie.

Cameron points to the strengths of the film and Scott as a director: the visuals. One of ALIEN’s strengths is how sparse the dialogue is, how little it needs to explain what’s going on.

PROMETHEUS prioritises its themes above story, character and even the at times stunning visuals.

The themes Scott was interested in could have been better explored through subtext, allowing the film itself to put consistent and compelling storytelling and characters first.

Maybe ALIEN: COVENANT (released next year) will achieve a better balance.

 

 

2.NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

This complex tale involves a West Texas drug deal gone bad, an aging Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) and the unforgettable hit-man psychopath, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

After recovering $2 million in drug money from the scene, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) decides to keep it for himself.

He discovers this may be harder than he thinks. Chigurgh is on his trail and willing to murder indiscriminately in pursuit of the money.

A cat-and-mouse story develops, Chigurgh, Moss and the Sheriff in pursuit of each other and the money through various hotels, gas stations, and other Texas locations.

Finally, Chigurgh shows up at Moss’s home to confront his wife.

She refuses to bargain for her life or wager on the outcome of a coin toss. Her fate is sealed.

Why is it flawed?

It’s very hard to pick on any aspect of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, especially since it received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2007.

The car crash scene however is worth mentioning. It seems so out of place within this otherwise well-woven story, where every element feels purposeful.

Chigurh gets up after being hit by another vehicle, broken arm bone jutting through his skin, and speaks with two young boys on bicycles. He doesn’t show any of the intense pain he must be feeling.

Not only does this scene have the antagonist get away, but he does so presumably unscathed, with no sense of climax or resolution. It comes as a completely random accident.

Having unleashed such an imposing, terrifying villain on the world, it seems like the Coen brothers just didn’t know how to send him off.

How it could have been great?

The book NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN had a similar outcome to the film, so it’s hard to say what ending could have been chosen instead.

At least in the book there is a lengthy investigation attempting to locate Chigurh which comes up empty. Showing some of this in the film may have offered theatrical audiences a little more of a sense of closure.

It may be considered blasphemy to consider changing the ending of the film. However, there are so many possible versions of an additional scene that would show where Chigurh ended up or how he escaped from the scene.

For example, he could have entered another convenience store at the end to buy a pack of cigarettes, or he could have returned to whatever he does when he is not wandering the Earth in search of his next kill.

Still, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise brilliant film.

 

“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss.”

 

 

3.CHASING AMY

Written by Kevin Smith

In the follow-up to the poorly received MALLRATS, writer/director Kevin Smith focused on relationships as he did the the the love triangle featured in CLERKS. CHASING AMY was the third entry in the View Askewniverse series.

Comic book writer Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and his “tracer” sidekick, Banky Edwards (Jason Lee), are enjoying moderate success with their book, Bluntman and Chronic, when Holden meets Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams).

She turns him down, revealing that she’s attracted to women. However, the two still become friends and enjoy hanging out together.

Holden eventually professes his love for her. She is initially shocked but decides to give a romantic relationship with him a try.

Banky is angry and decides to investigate Alyssa’s past. He reveals to Holden that she was involved in a threesome with two men in college. Holden, who thought he was the first man Alyssa had been with, is upset.

Why is it flawed?

To resolve the conflict between Banky, Alyssa and himself, Holden comes up with a wild suggestion.

Since the three of them have all been involved in a three-way strained relationship together, he devises they should actually have a threesome.

This suggestion doesn’t really make sense, coming from the sexually conservative Holden, and as such hurts the suspension of disbelief. The plot needed a point where the conflicts could all come to a climax, but this way of resolving them is too easy and relies on shock value.

How it could have been great?

Holden, Banky and Alyssa could have met together in their apartment and had it out verbally.

Kevin Smith’s strengths are in writing dialogue, and a three-person sparring match would have allowed him to dig deeper into what makes these characters tick.

The three characters could have struggled to explain how they felt about each other, what the others had done to anger or disappoint them and how to resolve their issues together.

Alyssa has already expressed conflicted feelings about her relationship with Holden when talking with her friends earlier in the film. She doesn’t need Holden’s offer of a threesome for her to express this.

 

“She was… she was looking for me, for the Bob. But, uh, by the time I figure this all out, it was too late, man. She moved on, and all I had to show for it was some foolish pride, which then gave way to regret. She was the girl, I know that now. But I pushed her away. So, I’ve spent every day since then chasing Amy… so to speak.”

 

 

4.EYES WIDE SHUT

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael

Inspired by the novel by Arthur Schnitzler

In true Kubrick fashion, he began developing an adaptation of Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) years before the film became a reality.

The story intrigued Kubrick, who had always wanted to make a film about sexual tension and relationships.

EYES WIDE SHUT centres around Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his marriage to Alice (Nicole Kidman). Both part of the New York socialite scene, the film opens with them attending an extravagant party.

Sexual temptation is presented to both of them individually after they get separated from each other. When they arrive home later, they argue about having wanted to act on those thoughts and other possible infidelities.

Why is it flawed?

Bill’s subsequent adventure through the night-time streets and luxury mansion is filled with strange individuals. This is where the story becomes overly drawn out.

He goes to a costume shop where he finds the owner’s daughter in some sort of sexual role play with two Japanese businessmen. In an unrelated scene, he almost has a one-night-stand with a prostitute before he finds out she has HIV.

The film recovers from these digressions with the pool table scene near the end when Bill meets up with Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). The slow burn tension mounts as Bill finds out how deep he has really gotten and who has been watching him.

 

How it could have been great?

At 159 minutes, the main flaw of EYES WIDE SHUT is its length. The film doesn’t necessarily need to have whole scenes removed, but it could tell the same story and explore the same themes more succinctly.

There are several scenes that are longer than they need to be, distracting from the main story.

  • The scene between Alice and her Hungarian dance partner.
  • The scene where Bill meets Thomas Gibson after the death of his patient. Figure out a different way to get Bill on the streets at night.
  • Both the first and second costume shop sequence seem out-of-place. As a subplot they could be reduced in favour of the main mystery.
  • Bill’s visit to the prostitute’s apartment also could have been sharpened.

 

Director Martin Scorsese, though, thinks opinions might change over time, writing:

“When Eyes Wide Shut came out a few months after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, it was severely misunderstood, which came as no surprise. If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood.”

 

 

5.STRIPES

Written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg and Harold Ramis

After losing pretty much everything in life, John Winger (Bill Murray) decides to drag his best friend, Russell Ziskey (the late, great Harold Ramis), with him and to the U.S. Army.

Hilarity ensues when the two men meet their unit and their superior officer, Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates). The men frequently get into trouble as they try to draw the attention of some female Military Police officers.

Why is it flawed?

The first act quickly sets up the lead characters and their troubles when they arrive at the base. They’re there to have a good time, creating conflict and comedy as they rebel against the strict discipline and regimen of the army.

Once the recruits have graduated however, they are given a special assignment which brings them to Italy. The graduates eventually have to rescue John and Russell when they inadvertently stray into Czechoslovakia.

This is where the film loses its way. The third act has a different premise to the rest of the film.

The plot instantly goes from loose and improvisational to one with high, serious and real-world stakes, which weakens the comedy.

It turns the sardonic slobs of the first half of the film into bumbling but ultimately successful war heroes. John and Russell win the approval of their superiors when this has all along been the exact opposite of their goal.

How it could have been great?

STRIPES should have been all about boot camp.

John and Russell could have arrived along with the rest of the recruits and the story would follow their misadventures during training.

They would have had the inevitable training exercise mishaps and embarrassing run-ins with superior officers.

The oversleeping and rush to graduation scene, already a highlight of the film, would have served as a suitable climax. The stakes would have been low but this is common to the genre and the rest of the film.

This would have elevated the film to the level other slacker comedies of the time, like CADDYSHACK. Their first deployment could have waited for the sequel, as with POLICE ACADEMY 2: THEIR FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

 

“No, we’re not homosexual, but we are *willing to learn*.”

 

 

6. FALLEN

Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan

This high-concept supernatural crime drama stars Denzel Washington as police detective John Hobbes who has not seen the last of serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) even though he has seen him put to death.

Hobbes befriends Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the daughter of a former policeman, who reveals Reese is actually a “fallen” demon spirit who can live inside a human host and can be transferred to another person simply by touch.

The demon also happens to really enjoy the song, Time Is on My Side, by The Rolling Stones.

Eventually, Detective Hobbes, suspected of murder and on the run, must figure out how to confront and dispel the demon.

Why is it flawed?

The first half of the script is interesting, presenting the audience with a plot device they have not seen before. Unfortunately, the third act of the film fails to live up to this potential.

A key detail revealed by Milano is that the demon can only exist for one breath after the “host” is killed, limiting the range of his next possession.

This may have worked if not for the ending.

Hobbs journeys to a remote cabin where he hopes to kill the demon forever. His partner, Jonesy (John Goodman), and his lieutenant (Donald Sutherland) arrive to apprehend Hobbs.

Jonesy is now the one possessed.

The lieutenant and Jonesy are killed. The demon spirit has nowhere to go except into Hobbs, who has already taken poison so he will die, killing the demon in the process.

The plan is ruined when a cat comes out from behind. The demon has a new host after all.

How it could have been great?

The story, script and film would have been much better if the screenwriter had thought about the answers to some rudimentary questions beforehand.

This is one of those ideas that becomes more inconsistent as it goes on.

  • If it’s not the ghost of this serial killer, why the particular affection for Detective John Hobbes?
  • Once executed, why does the demon not just torment someone else?
  • If the demon can move into animals, why has he not used this before to escape?

Answering some of these questions, keeping the demon’s abilities and motivations more consistent, would have made for a much more interesting ending. It would have forced the characters to use their ingenuity more, working within known limitations to vanquish the demon.

 

“I can’t get inside you b touch, but even when I can, when I’m spirit, I won’t. No. Better I get you for real. I’ll fuck you up, down, left, right, coming, going. I’ll get so close to you, so close it breaks you. And if that doesn’t work, I have other ways. I have so many, many ways.”

 

 

7.Punch-Drunk Love

Written by Paul Thomas Anderson

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is an unusual tale of small-time toilet plunger salesman, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who is constantly berated by his seven annoying sisters. He is rather low-key, but has occasional outbursts when he can’t take the verbal abuse any longer.

He has an interesting week. He witnesses a car accident, is trying to win a ton of frequent-flyer miles by purchasing a large amount of pudding, and attempts to cure his loneliness by contacting a phone sex line.

He also meets a woman named Lena (Emily Watson) and falls in love.

Why is it flawed?

It might be blasphemy to criticize a film by Paul Thomas Anderson; however, the sequence of events just seems a little too random and exaggerated to be believable for the world he’s created.

If you are an Anderson fan, you will undoubtedly notice this film is lighter fare than the intense drama of BOOGIE NIGHTS or MAGNOLIA.

The main characters of Barry and Lena are wonderfully written. They are deeply flawed characters and their relationship is the highlight of the film. It is because this relationship is so grounded and believable that the events that happen around them seem too broad and far-fetched.

The telephone dialogue exchange between the enraged Barry and the flippant phone sex line supervisor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hilarious. Rather than rely on outside circumstances, the comedy stems from the clash between two characters.

 

How it could have been great?

There is something to be said for a film that never lets the audience get comfortable, as you don’t know where it going to go next. However, this script seems like it has too many explosive, extreme characters and dramatic coincidences within its pages.

Removing just one of the various simultaneous plot elements would have allowed the ones remaining to be fleshed out and justified a little more.

Focusing on the love story, which is the heart of the film, and less on the environment surrounding them would have taken the script from an almost-great screenplay to another Anderson classic.

 

 

8.REAL GENIUS

Screenplay and story by Neal Israel, Pat Proft and Pj Torokvei

Wunderkind science whiz kid, Mitch (Gabe Jarret), gets the opportunity to show off his unusually large intellect and attend Pacific Technical University at a young age.

He arrives and meets his new roommate fellow whiz, Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), who gives him a few obscure life lessons.

The two get to know each other and begin working on an important project involving laser beam technology.

A few unusual sidekicks are introduced including a former student turned recluse who now lives in the boys’ closet. They also meet Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) who has smarts of her own and thinks Mitch is kinda cute.

Why is it flawed?

Like many other comedies, REAL GENIUS falls down in the third act.

When the boys figure out their laser project is being put to military use, they must infiltrate the military base where the project is being tested. They now have to use their brilliant minds to thwart their own success.

This entire sequence seems out-of-place, too serious for what has so far been a light-hearted screwball comedy.

The eventual resolution, where they use popcorn to rock their professor’s house off its foundation, is also out of keeping with the sequences’ tone.

How it could have been great?

Rewriting the last third of the script could have maintained the comedy highs of the earlier scenes.

There has to be a way for Chris, Mitch and their professor, Dr. Hathoway (William Atherton) to get some sort of resolution in a way that would more strongly connect with their conflict earlier in the film.

They could have entered some sort of science contest and competed against other brainiacs for a prize. They could have then used their large brains for something more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.

“You get even with Kent. It’s a moral imperative.”

 

 

9.PANIC ROOM

Written by David Koepp

A mother and daughter (Jodie Foster and a young Kristin Stewart) move in to a large home in New York City.

They soon discover their home has a secret PANIC ROOM which had been installed by the previous reclusive, paranoid owner. The room itself is impenetrable from the outside and has its own closed-circuit television cameras inside.

As luck would have it, three men show up on their first night in their new home in order to steal millions of dollars in bonds from within the panic room.

After the two women make it into the safety of the room, the men become increasingly desperate to get inside.

Why is it flawed?

The problem with a concept like this is that sustaining the story and keeping it interesting means there are an increasing number of coincidences:

  • Unfortunately, the phone line within the room was never hooked up, so the women can’t call for help. This would have ended the movie rather quickly.
  • They try signalling a neighbour, but this is unsuccessful.
  • The bonds the burglars are there for just happen to be within the panic room.
  • The timing of the situation is also escalated due to the girl’s diabetic condition. She needs to receive an injection quickly after suffering a seizure.

All of these in combination, happening on the same night, becomes just a little too coincidental. Several of the devices used to draw them out of the room are clever, but again when this needs to happen repeatedly they can become forced and repetitive.

How it could have been great?

With a premise like PANIC ROOM, there really isn’t an easy solution.

The writer has to figure out plausible ways the villains try to get the heroes out of the room. The heroes have to be confined without means of escape or the ability to just wait them out.

There could have been some passage of time after they moved in before the robbers appear, allowing some of these factors to be established ahead of time and less coincidences that are introduced when they need to be.

The girl’s medical condition could have been replaced with another device which would cause the situation to be time sensitive.

Koepp did produce a thorough, detailed script which definitely fits in the “almost-great screenplay” status.

 

 

10.COLLATERAL

Written by Stuart Beattie

L.A. cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), picks up a “businessman” named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who asks if he can rent Max’s chauffeur services foe the evening. The payday is good.

Vincent lets Max in on a secret. Vincent is a hit-man with several “stops” to make before the night is complete.

Max has no choice but to escort Vincent to his various killspots.

Max is eventually forced into helping him, posing as Vincent before a drug dealer (Javier Bardem).

The L.A. police eventually make a connection to what is going on and intervene. Max discovers Vincent’s final target is Justice Department prosecutor Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith) whom Max had driven earlier in the day.

Annie hides within her office, but Vincent discovers her. Once Annie is rescued by Max, the two flee on a train, only to again be caught by Vincent.

Why is it flawed?

The final chase through various offices seems like a concession to Hollywood formula rather than drawing from the rounded characters screenwriter Beattie has given the audience up to this point.

The script goes to great lengths to establish Vincent as a mastermind assassin. Although he’s a hyper-intelligent, almost larger-than-life character, he ends up getting outgunned by a cab driver.

The characters were previously shown to have wits as well as brawn, but neither use them to escape their situation.

How it could have been great?

The cat-and-mouse chase finale could have been changed to give the characters a more intellectual resolution. Both men could have tried to use their wits to outmanoeuvre each other rather than allowing it to become a shootout.

The police also could have gotten involved and become part of the mix as well.

The finale did not live up to the stylized back-and-forth dialogue the two men had built within their cab conversations throughout their time together.

This small critique does not take away from an otherwise highly accomplished script.

Beattie was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Original Screenplay in 2004.

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One Response

  1. Jack

    Couldn’t agree less with “No Country for Old Men” being on the list. The whole point of Anton Chigurh is for him to show people how flawed their own codes of morality are. “If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use is the rule?” He sees himself as an arbiter of fate, beholden only to chance, hence the coin toss with the arbitrary calling of heads or tails. The choice IS meaningless, since there are greater forces at work totally beyond our control.

    Having him get into the car accident, you see he is just a man, and is at the whims of chance like everyone. It’s far more subtle, complex, and brilliant way to send him off then to have him say some catchphrase like “call it” as he enters another gas station, another cinematic incarnation of the devil. It might be narratively “unsatisfying”, but it’s crucial in showing he’s a part of the universe, and not somehow outside it, and I think it elevates the film from great to masterful.

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