Read the Movie

18 Sep

This piece took much longer to complete than I’d imagined, but posting it the morning after the Emmy awards makes sense too…

I recently enjoyed the pleasure of talking to an aspiring screenwriter. He’d heard some of my background from a longtime family friend and wanted to pick my brain. Such that it is. Okay. I admit to knowing quite a bit about the biz and screenwriting in general, but this many years removed from day-to-day involvement, I definitely do not claim to be an expert. On the other hand, I make my living teaching writing, and any teacher worth his or her credentials will always encourage students to “show, not tell.” It’s not always easy to explain that in a way that a student–of any age–can grasp straight away, and, to clarify, this applies not only to screenwriting and essays but also poetry as well. I know because I also co-edit a literary journal.

Of course, one thing students of any genre can do is spend more time engaged with comparable texts. Reading, in other words. For example, poets who want to do well should spend time reading poetry. The goal, to clarify, is not to imitate, per se, but to contemplate why a text works as well as it does–or not–to pick it apart, study the pieces, and learn how to apply its lessons to a new work of one’s own. Can you tell I’m a teacher, by the way?

Back to screenwriting. Anyone, do you hear me, anyone, who wants to write screenplays should consider actually reading screenplays in order to understand the very specific format as well as how the screenplay functions, which, to be clear, is as a blue-print for an actual film. Have you ever seen an actual blueprint for a house, btw, and then seen what the actual house looks like when completed? Often, screenplays that are published in book format look more like transcriptions of finished films. An outfit called Script City has been selling actual movie scripts for years and years. I know because I have read more than my fair share, and it’s all good. I once read a screenplay for a movie that was so awful, and had been through so many delays due to reshoots, that I purchased the script just to see if the original greenlit draft was any better than the resulting production. Btw, I found out about Script City about a gazillion years ago from a screenwriting mentor. He advised me to learn by reading the works of others. As I recall, all ordering was originally done via catalogue in the pre-Internet days.

Of course, books about screenwriting–and some wonderful software programs–exist for beginners. I have read my share, including some by no less than two-time Academy award winner William Goldman  though his books are more about the business in general and less “how to.” Still, he offers plenty of advice as he critiques movies that work–and those that don’t. And why, especially on a structural level, that is: the script.

In the course of my conversation with the young writer, I did mention a book or two, but I forgot one very important book that I think all first-time screenwriters should read; however, it’s not a book about screenwriting.

I’m referring to a mere sliver of a children’s chapter book by E.L. Konigsburg, entitled Father’s Arcane Daughter (additionally sold as Father’s Other Daughter). Maybe you’ve read it, maybe not. Maybe you recall Konigsburg as the author of the Newbury winning From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Let’s back up. Way, way, back. Back all the way to 5th grade. My teacher–should I use her real name? Let’s call her Miss “M”–had the lovely habit of reading a chapter a day from among some of the most popular books for our age group, among them: A Wrinkle in Time (another Newbury winner), Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang, and, of course, From the Mixed Up Files…., a particular favorite. I loved it so much that I read it and reread it myself, many times. Alas, I have never seen the movie adaptation featuring Ingrid Bergman but not for lack of desire, nor, to clarify, have I seen the TV adaptation with Lauren Bacall, but I digress.

In spite of winning top Emmys as one of 1990’s premiere TV movies, and in spite of a scrupulously adapted screenplay by Michael De Guzman, the latter was nowhere near the winner’s podium the night of the awards. Too bad because his adaptation is textbook perfect. (IMAGE: By Source, Fair use, Link)

Imagine the warm flutter of recognition when I discovered that one particular well-reviewed, and award winning, TV movie was based on another Konigsburg book. In the spring of 1990, CBS aired the newly rechristened Caroline? as part of the highly respected Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology series. I didn’t see it straightaway, but my mother did, and she taped it for me. She raved, btw, and so I looked forward to catching up with it. Of course, my mother didn’t know Konigsburg from kingdom come, so the author’s name in the credits didn’t mean much to her, but I recognized the author as soon as her name flashed in the credits. And I settled in for a tantalizing television treat. That’s right, television. Not movies-at-the-movies movies. Indulge me.

Caroline? beckons with ripe possibilities as a Gothic yarn, sometime in the 1950s, a great beginning though a bit of a ruse. After an absence of a dozen-plus years, a woman claiming to be a once scandalous debutante arrives at her father’s mansion, seemingly returned from the dead. That’s right, from the d.e.a.d., dead. Can this be the real Caroline Carmichael? Much has changed in daddy’s household in the interim. For  example, Caroline’s mother  passed away several years ago, grief-stricken over her daughter’s mysterious death. Now, daddy has remarried. Wife number two is noticeably younger than dad, and the two of them have kids of their own, a precocious son, Winston, and a daughter, Hillary, nicknamed Heidi, with noticeable physical and developmental challenges. Over time, Caroline’s relationships with her little brother and sister take center stage. More pressingly, this Caroline’s appearance comes just in time to make a claim on her recently deceased maternal grandmother’s estate–worth a considerable fortune.  Is this mysterious woman the actual Caroline or an impostor? Has she come for the money, or does she have another less obvious motive? Quite a puzzle, but the payoffs are huge.

A few years after I first saw Caroline?, my husband the book sleuth turned up a quite used paperback of Konigsburg’s original, and I eagerly plowed into it, surprised by how similarly it read to a treatment for a completed screenplay. What is a treatment, you might ask.  A treatment, as defined by WikiHow, is “a summary of a script, which is meant to explain the main points of the plot. It also gives good description of the main characters involved in the story. Treatments have no strict page limit, but shorter is usually better. Treatments are a tool of development for the writer, and they act as an extended pitch to a filmmaker.”  Another way to think of a treatment is a more fleshed-out version of an outline. Seasoned screenwriters understand the value of perfecting, so to speak, a treatment before plowing into the throes of a full-fledged screenplay. For the sake of a pitch, a treatment runs anywhere from 2-5 pages with maybe 2-3 paragraphs devoted to each act of the story. The idea is to introduce the characters, describe the conflict, and outline the major plot points, all the while utilizing present tense, describing the action as it unfolds and emphasizing strong verbs; moreover, the language must be streamlined, not fussy and adjective/adverb laden, to engage the reader and to keep the story moving, moving, moving.

A favorable response to the brief, presentation version of a treatment will prompt a writer to expand the draft (perhaps as many as 30-40 pages) to incorporate more specific detail, hammering out, to paraphrase, the action “scene by scene,” often one paragraph per scene, everything except, please note, the dialogue, most of which can be effectively summarized. To clarify, dialogue might be used occasionally in a treatment but only minimally.  The idea is for the writer to fully lock the details in place before embarking on the dialogue process. As it was once explained to me by a local screenwriting guru, if–or once–all the other elements are set, the writer can go back and just drop-in the dialogue as nuggets. That’s right. Use the treatment to nurse the story along so fully, so completely, that the dialogue is almost beside the point. Mr. Preston and aforementioned William Goldman assert that, contrary to popular belief, dialogue is not the fulcrum of successful screenwriting. Sure, audiences relish quotable lines in everything from Casablanca and All About Eve to Pulp Fiction and Juno (Oscar winners, all), among many others, and, yes, dialogue should be scripted in such a way as to reveal something about the character, as in syntax and vocabulary. The more specific the better. A good friend and fellow aspiring screenwriter once shared something he learned, and that is a reader should be able to tell which character is speaking in any given scene even if the names (on the page) are obscured. Think about it. As speakers in real-life, all of us have little idioms and curlicues specific to our personalities. At the same time film is a visual medium, meaning that showing is better than telling, and in that regard people (characters) are more likely to define themselves through their actions rather than their words. What they don’t say can be as telling as what they actually say. To be sure, punchy dialogue beats flat dialogue any ole day, but clever dialogue is no substitute for rock-solid structure.

Back to Konigsburg. Clearly, she had no way of knowing that a book she wrote in the mid 1970s would one day be the basis for a top rated TV movie, yet it’s no wonder that a producer would glom onto it as a project, or that a screenwriter–in this case, Michael De Guzman–would be able to adapt it so perfectly. The way it’s written practically screams “treatment.” No, it’s not written in present tense, but Konigsburg’s scenes read like short sketches with key details woven into elegantly efficient prose–and minimal dialogue. Everything the screenwriter needed was already on the page. There was almost nothing that had to be omitted for time considerations. Instead, the individual passages only needed to be translated  into structured scenes and rounded out just a bit for staging puproses.  Sure, details have been tweaked and specific storytelling elements have been rearranged, condensed, or combined, but almost everything in Konigsburg’s original blueprint appears in the tele-adaptation, and almost everything in the tele-adapation originated in Konigsburg’s original. It’s all there. For example, in the book the current Mrs. Carmichael (Caroline’s stepmother) regularly visits a hairdresser named “Mr. Rick” and drafts young Heidi into accompanying her as a matter of principle. In the movie, the hairdresser’s name has been changed to “Mr. Steve.” Who knows why the change was made, but what wasn’t changed is that Mrs. Carmichael places a great deal of importance on how she presents herself–and, by extension, seems most preoccupied by appearances in general, with special regards to her pampered daughter. Additionally, in the TV version, Caroline and her brother Winston engage in a heart-to-heart discussion while visiting the zoo, but this scene is an amalgamation of 2-3 scenes in the book, one of which, yes, takes place at the zoo. Again, it’s all there. Just not in the most strictly literal sense.

Kudos, btw, to director Joseph Sargent. Though overwhelmingly noted for his work in television rather than big screen features, 1990 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he earn an Emmy for directing Caroline?, but he also had the distinction of directing The Incident, starring Walter Matthau, which actually tied with Caroline? for that year’s Emmy for Best TV movie. Not a bad gig. His other credits, btw, include Miss Rose White, another Hallmark entry, starring Kyra Sedgwick and another Emmy winner for Sargent. Plus, he directed Alfre Woodard’s Emmy winning Miss Evers’ Boys along with Warm Springs, a top Emmy contender starring Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sargent is a master at staging, whether it’s the  first intentionally puzzling shots of Caroline standing in front of the family estate (photographed through an elaborate screen), the reunion scene between father and daughter, a nifty feat in which Zimbalist comes about as close to any human in the history of film (or TV) to evincing a true Mona Lisa smile, or a seemingly routine shot in which Mr. Carmichael expresses doubt or confusion regarding his “own daughter.” Watch carefully, especially on subsequent viewings.

Interestingly, for all the acclaim accorded to Sargent for Caroline?, and its accompanying Emmy awards, no one in the cast earned as much as a nod from the television Academy though Zimbalist at least scored a Golden Globe nod, unsurprisingly losing out to Barbara Hershey–the Emmy victor in the same category–for Killing in a Small Town, a riff on an infamous murder case set in a Dallas suburb. (IMAGE: IMDb)

Caroline? is anchored by a quartet of stunning actresses, first and foremost of which is Stephanie Zimbalist. At the time she made the film, Zimbalist had not-so-recently wrapped her popular TV detective show Remington Steele  and needed to reinvent herself.  Never an especially flashy performer, this production provides an opportunity to portray someone who is never quite herself, never at peace, because she lives with the tacit understanding that her every word and every deed are second guessed by most everyone she meets, the assumption being that she is a fraud, but Zimbalist keeps us guessing. When asked a probing question about her past, does Caroline hesitate because she is truly stumped and simply needs to stall for time, or is she feigning a momentary lapse so as not to appear too quick, too eager, too over rehearsed, lest her infallibility arouse even more suspicion; after all,  Caroline has been away from her hometown, her circle of family, friends, and associates, for over a decade. Plus, by her own admission she has traversed the globe. Naturally, it would be odd for her memory about such mundane details as who dated whom in school and once-coveted family treasures to be razor sharp after such a lengthy and involved absence. Or would it? One particular standout occurs during dinner when the stepmother poses a challenge, what she believes to be her high card, but Zimbalist’s Caroline responds perfectly. Watch closely. It could simply not be improved. Another highlight occurs late in the story when she tries to explain to her brother how tired she is, tired of all the suspicion. The line comes straight from the book, and Zimbalist delivers it as if she really carries the weight of the world.

Pamela Reed leads the remaining trio of formidable actresses. Reed’s role is tricky because the second Mrs. Carmichael sees Caroline as an intruder and seems to plot against her every which way, but to be fair she is only out to protect what’s hers, mainly her husband who has been disappointed enough already, and  her two young children. She has to make sure this charismatic stranger doesn’t lead them astray or wedge herself where she doesn’t belong. Often, Reed shows her gracious civility as barely more than a mask she has developed out of necessity and through years of practice, but when the mask drops, she does not hold back. It’s an intelligent piece of work from Reed, an actress I often associate with comedy more than drama. Next in line is esteemed vet Dorothy McGuire, famous for, among others, her Oscar nominated supporting turn in 1947’s Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. In Caroline? McGuire briefly appears in flashback as the title character’s maternal grandmother, the woman whose vast fortune seeming impacts all the story’s major players. It’s sketchy role, to be sure, but McGuire (now deceased but in her 70s at the time) fills it with light, life, and just a twinge of mystery. Not much dialogue, consistent with the source material, but she adds layers of meaning to the few lines she does speak, providing just enough insight to be relatable to audiences. Last but certainly not least is Oscar winner Patricia Neal as the grand dame of Caroline’s former school, a woman not prone to suffering fools. Of all the people Caroline encounters upon her return, none looms as exactingly as Agatha Trollope. She wants answers, by gawd, and she’s going to get them. Neal and Zimbalist only share two scenes, but their final encounter is a doozy, much like watching two trapped and hungry beasts circle each other in a cage, certain that one will surely surrender to the other. (Or, perhaps more to the point, one will over-power the other.) Of course, Neal almost always appears to have an edge in any face-off with another actor, thanks to that marvelous voice, a kind of patrician Southern drawl laced with good manners, aged  bourbon, and whiff of tobacco smoke. Who will win? I’ve seen this thing dozens of times, and the answer is pretty much a draw, but I know who has the last word.

Of course, Zimbalist, Reed, McGuire, and Neal are not the entirety of the cast, so shout-outs to the rest of the bunch are in order. For example, George Grizzard, a Tony and Emmy winner, aims for subtlety in the role of a business tycoon confronted with the ghosts of his past. He wants to believe he has been given a second chance to be a good father to his long lost daughter, but he grapples with the present, maintaining an uneasy peace with his new wife, and still nursing old wounds. The role of Heidi is played by Jenny Jacobs with Barbara Britt playing the grown-up Hillary in modern day scenes that bookend the film, both fine and well; likewise, Winston is winningly portrayed by Shawn Phelan as a child and an especially well-cast John Evans assumes the adult role in the opening and closing sequences. Phelan is exceptionally good as the inquisitive brother, but, alas, his career was cut woefully short after a 1994 car crash left him in a vegetative state before he actually passed away in 1998 at the age of 28. He was right at 15 years old when he appeared in Caroline?, but he looked more elementary-to-middle school than high school age. May he rest in peace.

Konigsburg’s original tale unfolds in Pittsburgh, but the televised adaptation was filmed in Atlanta though the look is far from bright or sunny. Instead, it’s dark and moody with enormous credit going to the team who found, dressed, and photographed the estate in which much of the action unfolds. It’s dark (again), ominous, and creepy, a character unto itself, and it doesn’t look like a friendly place in which to raise children. (Though, to clarify, Caroline? was indeed filmed in Atlanta, same as 1989’s Best Picture winner, Driving Miss Daisy, the main set in the latter is definitely not the same location as the former, in spite of what misleading p.r. materials might suggest. That much is obvious, even to the untrained eye.) Kudos as well to costumer Peter Mitchell, whose wardrobe designs are stylish and seem mostly period correct (though occasionally more Kennedy-era 60s than Eisenhower 50s) and hairstylist Philip Ivey; the latter’s credits include the aforementioned Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy though at the time of the 1989/90 Oscars, hairstylists were not automatically included among teams nominated for Best Makeup, which Miss Daisy won, btw, though, to clarify, Lynn Barber, credited as the key makeup artist on Caroline? was among Miss Daisy’s Oscar winning makeup team.

Many wonderful movies have been made from books without losing anything in translation; similarly, some page-to-screen adaptations actually improve upon their source material, but Caroline? is special because if one is lucky enough to find a copy of both the book AND the TV film (seemingly impossible to find as anything other than VHS), the pathway to solid screenwriting becomes easier to navigate, less a mystery than the story about the heiress who came for dinner and never left…


Thanks for your consideration…

Hurbis-Cherrier, Mark. “The Key Stages of Script Development.”, powered by Focal Press (2016):

wikiHow to Write a Screen Treatment:


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