(SPOILERS: Robin Hood)
At the beginning of my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) I included a link to the original spec script called Nottingham that was the basis for the movie. Now that I’ve analyzed the movie, I’ll take a look at that script for a moment. Guess what?
It’s completely different.
Nottingham is all about the Sheriff of Nottingham. He’s kind of a medieval Sherlock Holmes trying to solve a series of murders being pinned on Robin Hood in the midst of the legend we’re all familiar with. Robin Hood is not the main character, the Sheriff is. Quite different than the movie where the Sheriff barely appears, eh?
I won’t break down the script – that’s not really the point of this exercise. I will say that it has a much more clear through-line than the final movie. (There is one piece of the original script that does carry through strongly to the final movie – the critical roll of Queen Eleanor to the political outcome of the battle between John and Richard. That’s not seen in most versions of Robin Hood.)
More interesting than comparing the two structures is to ask how and why it changed so much from script to screen. Based on the interview with the writers, it sounds like Ridley Scott wanted to make a different version of the Robin Hood legend than that contained in the script. It’s interesting that Russell Crowe was originally going to play the Sheriff, and then switched to the part of Robin Hood after Ridley Scott came on board and changed the movie’s focus.
Now Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. And Brian Helgeland, the writer who gets the majority of credit for the final script, is a pretty talented writer – his credits include L.A. Confidential, Mystic River and Man on Fire, all great screenplays.
But it seems this is a case of trying to turn a bird into a fish. That’s always a dicey proposition, and one Hollywood seems all too eager to embrace. Whether Helgeland (and any other uncredited writers) fought to get a more coherent story on screen or whether they got undone by the bird to fish challenge I have no idea. Robin Hood should serve as a cautionary tale for other Hollywood producers, directors and writers but it probably won’t.
What can we learn from this in terms of screenwriting technique? The sad fact is writers have limited control over the creative direction of a film project in Hollywood. But it is incumbent on the writer to always find a strong dramatic question and make sure that you know what story you’re telling.
The direction may shift in the development process – it probably will. And you won’t have much chance to stop that and keep your job. But whichever approach you’re asked to take, find that core dramatic question that serves the approach and protect it! Everything else can change as long as that spine stays strong. And if you have to change the spine, make sure the new one is just as strong.
Or maybe what we really learn is simply that it’s hard to make a good movie in Hollywood.