Fixing “The Problem”: The Happening

My last article had a problem. Something about it just wasn’t working, and to my horror, it went live, made its way across the Twitterverse, and so I did what any professional writer would do: beat myself up over it for a while and then finally let it go.

Now that a week has passed, and I’ve had time to look over it, I actually do know what the problem was, and I should have canned it and started over again. But I’m glad it went out, problem still in tact, because it led us directly to this week’s Tip: How to find "The Problem," and how to fix it.

About 50,000 new screenplays were registered last year with the WGA. Of those, 733 were made. Of those, 10 were nominated for Best Picture, and truthfully, most people probably only liked about 5. “The Problem” shows up everywhere. It’s rare that a film goes through the lines without it. Sometimes it’s a scene that doesn’t work, or a character choice (or lack of, as I talked about last week). Sometimes it’s structural; it has to be fixed in the outline phase. And sometimes it goes back even further, all the way to that “so-called” great idea.

For this week, I wanted to look at a script with more problems than I can count, that I think were, for the most part, pretty easily fixable: The Happening.

The Happening (2008) Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan

Yes, I know everybody loves to dog on M. Night, and unfortunately, he keeps making it pretty easy with his twist ending formulas and heavy-handed dialogue, but remember, this is the guy who gave us The Sixth Sense. In fact, I think it’s because he put out such a solid film so early in his career that everyone holds such high expectations to an M. Night film. I’m sure M. Night himself, along with his producers, keeps hoping and trying to have another Sixth Sense success, but with every film, the problem is always there, and as usual, it seems as if “someone” keeps hoping that “someone else” will fix it.

The Happening actually had a lot going for it before it went out of the gate. A solid, even if a little odd, cast. A fantastic trailer, a few solid scenes, and this exchange, which is tough not to love:

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: We lost contact.

ELLIOT: With who?

Beat.

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Everyone.

This was supposed to be the next great M. Night film. The one that made us forget about The Village. Towns dying off, massive suicides, great dialogue. Walking into the theater was supposed to be an event in of itself. So with audiences reeling, with minds wondering, with imaginations flowing, waiting for a film about a conspiracy, or chemical warfare, or some psychological thriller, how did this become so wrong, so fast? I’ll tell you how: plants.

Plants are problem #1. The BIG problem. The one that goes all the way back to the beginning, to the idea. 

As all writers know, there are a few essential pieces of a story. The main one is a Hero, a protagonist. Someone who wants something. Another is the antagonist. The person or thing that stands in the Hero’s way. In The Happening, Elliot is our Hero. He wants to live, happily with his wife, Alma. And what stands in his way? Plants.

Imagine this scenario: Elliot wants to live. The plants are killing people. A reasonable course of action? Fight the plants. (I know, it sounds stupid, but go with me for a second.)

Elliot and his fellow citizens storm the nearest Home Depot and stock up on every gas mask, plant killer, sharp tool, and flame thrower they can find. They immediately cross through the entire country, sending out the message to kill your plants. Forests are set on fire; houseplants are thrown down garbage disposals. People, enraged, tear up their gardens, drop bombs on city parks, and save humanity from the death grip of greenery. Sure, the plants would always re-grow, but human kind would find a way to kill plants from their source: the root. They’d zap the roots of any and every plant, always, to make sure that the citizens of the world would be safe… always.

As dumb as it sounds, I’d actually watch that film. Why not? People tend to have a fascination with inanimate objects, especially when they’re destroying the earth. The Blob is film history, while Terminator and Terminator 2 are a couple of the highest grossing films ever. Toy Story 1, 2, and 3 all have Oscars standing behind them, and they’re just toys. Films like these are actually the essence of great storytelling: taking the imagination as far as it will go.

It is actually fine if your antagonist is an inanimate object, but that object has to move the character to the end of his journey. That object has to actively stand in the Hero’s way. Think of the T-1000 going after John Connor. Think of Lotso locking up Woody and the Gang in the nursery. Your antagonist has just as much of a goal as your protagonist, sometimes more so. Why do you think villains are so much cooler than the heroes? Because they are dead set on their goal to stop the protagonist’s journey.

How do you do this?  Learning as much as you can about your villain is a good place to start. Asking and answering questions, coming up with a solid backstory, a complete history. Or even taking your hero’s journey, and one-upping it for your villain.

Shyamalan’s plants, however, are passively aggressively standing in the way — in which, I mean, they’re not actively killing people. They’re releasing toxins, which make people commit suicide. The Terminator, they’re not.  And Elliot, sensing that the plants are standing in the way of a long and happy life with his wife, has to make a decision. What will give him success? What will take Elliot to the end of his journey? In the height of terror, Elliot makes the key decision to… run away. Enter problem number 2: the characters make no sense whatsoever.

The hero has to fight for his journey, not flee from it. When it comes to storytelling, film or not, one thing is consistent: the audience loves seeing characters acting bravely. So when something stands in the hero’s way, we love to see him find a way to get around it, over it, through it. Somehow he has to make a decision to get past the blockade, but within the parameters of his character.

So if Elliot is ultimately the type of person who would flee disaster, then where do Elliott and Crew run? Into a building? Into the middle of a major industrial city, void of any plant life? Or how about taking a boat into the middle of the ocean where there are no plants to be found, only water, fresh air, and therefore, safety? No. They run right into the middle of a field, lush and green, and deadly. At which point, the audience can see that not only is the hero against a passive aggressive inanimate object, but he’s also an idiot. Shyamalan writes his main characters into the vast openness of a green valley, and then gives them nothing to do but run, and wait.

Enter problem number 3. The Climax.

McKee calls it “the crowning major reversal, full of meaning.” Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing says it’s “the culminating point. [In which] things will change one way or the other.” It’s such a major plot point, the big moment in every single film. Here’s the one reason we actually go to the movies. And what climax can we expect from The Happening

Page 97:

ALMA: We just have to wait here. Pray it stops.

Writers, take note: If you’re somewhere in the middle of your third act, all of your stories come to a crisis point, and your character makes the decision to wait and “pray it stops”… go ahead and burn that page and start over.

And I have nothing against praying, but it’s not exactly visual. It’s not exactly filmable. It’s not exactly taking your audience along for the ride. It’s personal. It’s something you do inside. And it’s a bad idea for a climax.

Are there exceptions to the rule? Like anything, of course. At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and Karen Allen close their eyes and pray after the Germans open the ark. However, around them, spirits fly through the tomb and melt people’s faces off. It’s visual. It’s memorable. It’s cool.

Six production companies spent $48 million to make The Happening happen. IMDB lists 11 producers. With that much money behind it, and that many people, there shouldn’t have been this many problems. And it goes to show that scripts with major problems do get made. Like last week’s Script Tips, articles with problems do get posted. But in this writer’s opinion, that should be a rarity. It should be the equivalent of seeing the boom mic on the screen.

As an ex-pro script reader, I can tell you that 9 times out of 10, screenplays with major problems are the first to see the trash. If I were to pick up The Happening screenplay off of the pile on my desk, I’d write a pass report the moment that I saw the antagonist was a plant. I’d toss it in the trash the moment I saw that the Hero purposefully made the worst decisions possible. And I’d throw it in the shredder the moment I read that the main climactic action was simply to wait it out. It’s lazy writing. And to get your script finished, to get it out, and get it sold, you can’t be a lazy writer. You have to find your problems, and fix them, fast.

Remember, you’re not M. Night Shayamalan. He’s able to get movies financed and made because of his past success (The Sixth Sense). But you don’t have that luxury; you have to be better than him. Much better. So send your loglines to everyone. Ask them if they’d be interested in the story. Tell your friends your outline over dinner. Stage a reading. Put your script down for a few weeks. Come back to it fresh, and kill your darlings. Edit. Cut. Streamline. And don’t be afraid if your script is a dud. Burn it and start over with a new one. You’re a writer; this is what you do. You tell stories over and over and over again, because you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. “The first draft of anything is shit”, Hemingway said. And who better to learn from than him?