Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Simon Beaufoy secret

Simon Beaufoy is one of the most interesting screenwriters active today.

His work has been both massively succesful, turning uncommercial concepts into award-winning megahits (which, because of the lower budget, turn out to be extremely lucrative), and he's also written very personal scripts which didn't attract a huge audience. And the films made from his scripts are wildly different in tone.

So what's his secret ingredient?

Looking at The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, and comparing them to a recent in-production script, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, we find there is a common ingredient.

Simon Beaufoy manages to turn his underdog lead characters into Heroes.

Heroes in the literal sense of the word: characters who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a commendable goal.

The unemployed men are willing to sacrifice their sense of dignity and power in order to get out of the disastrous situations they find themselves in at the beginning of the story. And they are rewarded by the adoration of an audience of women who appreciate their bravery in displaying themselves as sexual objects. THey rediscover a sense of self-worth and selfrespect by risking all.

In Slumdog Millionaire, a young man without any formal education or social status gambles all by appearing on the quiz show which can make dreams come true. His dream is to escape with the love of his life, Latika, and he is determined not to let anything or anyone stand in his way. From a textbook underdog character, he is transformed into a Hero for the ages. And his goal - true, eternal love - is the highest to which human beings can aspire. Interestingly, the huge love story which drives the narrative is not really present in the original novel (which is more of a collection of short stories rather than one strong plot). And in the screenplay, the mythological nature of the love story is made even more clear than in the movie. In a deleted sequence, Jamal gets to watch an open-air performance of the opera Orfeo e Eurydice at the Taj Mahal, and he finds himself spellbound by the story of the hero who travels to the Underworld to bring back the woman he loves. Which just happens to be the task which Jamal will undertake too.

In Salmon Fishing, another adaptation of a novel, everything turns around the apparently mad desire of a Yemenite sheik to introduce salmon fishing to the Middle East. The lead character is a repressed government scientist trapped in a loveless marriage with a very careerist wife, who is ordered to assist the sheik in developing his scheme. The scientist refuses at first, is forced into complying, and meets with the sheik who turns out not to be a mad tyrant but a visionary who hopes to bring peace to the region. The scientist, who is all about facts and figures, starts to learn the value of faith from the sheik, and also falls in love with the exceptionally beautiful young woman who is the liaison between the sheik's British real estate developers and the government.

Once again, Beaufoy adds the power of Myth to his writing to transcend its origins and give it far greater resonance. The science vs. faith dichotomy is present in the original novel, but more as a philosophical debate - the finale is also far more ironic in its impact, even though the event which takes place in book and film is basically the same. And the romance element also ends on a totally different note: realistically in the novel, and in the script - well, I won't spoil it for you but when you look at Beaufoy's track record it's pretty easy to guess in what direction he takes it.

Now, what is interesting is that Salmon Fishing In The Yemen becomes a note-perfect example of the Hero's Journey structural paradigm - whereas the book is told in a number of letters, e-mails, reports and the like. It's a fractured way of telling the story, forcing the reader to puzzle everything together.

So the secret of Simon Beaufoy's success, apart from his skill at crafting likeable characters and being a very efficient and smart storyteller, is the ability
to imbue his underdog characters and their everyday struggle with a sense of Mythical Grandeur. He manages to inject this larger-than-life quality in stories which are essentially small, intimate and realistic in nature. And even though the sense of reality may be diminished at times, the power of mythological archetypes and fairy tales ensures the scripts (and the resulting movies) resonate very deeply with their often massive audiences.

1 comment:

Sheng-wen said...

I'm a huge fan of Emily Blunt. Ever since I heard she's going to take part in the film, I borrowed the novel by Paul Torday from our local library and finished reading it in no time. The more I read, the more I wondered how it would be made into a film? It's kind of a little sad but lovely small book. I''ve been looking desperately for the script of Salmon Fishing in The Yemen on the net for some time, but still haven't got a chance to find one. Can you tell me where to find the script please?