Saturday, June 14, 2008

Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods

I recently had a chance to read Frank Darabont's screenplay for the fourth Indiana Jones film. Let me start off by saying I've long been a fan of Frank Darabont - back to his short film The Woman in the Room, his screenplay to the remake of The Blob, his excellent adaptation of Stephen King's classic "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (Vonna and I were there on opening night - so take that all you Johnny-come-lately Shawshank fans that only discovered the film on television or video), The Green Mile, The Majestic (yes, even The Majestic - we're still waiting for you J-C-L's to catch up with that - Sand Pirates of the Sahara alone is worth the price off admission), and his unrelenting, perfect-pitch adaptation of The Mist.

When word circulated that Frank was writing Indiana Jones, it seemed like fate. He had written several episodes of the under-rated Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and was obviously a fan of the franchise. Who better to usher in Indy to a new generation. There was much speculation about his script - would he reunite Indy and Marion, would Indy face Nazi's driven to jungles of South America, would he use a walker to get around with? Well, it all became a moot point when, despite Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford's endorsements, George Lucas shot it down. The fanboy community was outraged. And they were among the first to savage the (solely credited) David Koepp when IJ & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released. Obviously the Darabont screenplay had to be better, right? I have to admit, I often wondered the same, so when the opportunity presented itself to read Darabont's script, I jumped at the chance.

Cutting right to the chase, and no offense to Frank Darabont, or ANY of the number of screenwriters whose ideas were represented in his version, the film they shot is, in my opinion, a better film. A much better film.

Backing up a bit, it's important to understand that the Indiana Jones films have always been collaborations. It started with George Lucas, who developed the character; Philip Kaufman brought in the maguffin of The Ark of the Covenant; Spielberg brought his unique sensibilities to the table, and through the filter of Larry Kasdan, Raiders of the Lost Ark was born. That film was 10 pounds of action in a five pound bag, so it should come as no surprise that original ideas from the first story conferences were showing up in each of the subsequent sequels. The biggest challenge was always finding a new maguffin - the details of which can be read about in Jonathan Rinzler's indispensable book The Complete Making of Indiana Jones.

The Crystal Skull has been the maguffin George has been hanging onto for the last several years, so it is present in Darabont's screenplay as well. Also present is Doomtown - the atomic test facility from which IJ survives an atomic blast by hiding in a lead lined refrigerator (thank Jeb Stuart - author of IJ & the Saucer Men from Mars for that one). So the nature of this work clear absolves Darabont of assuming responsibility for all concerns with the script. Darabont did reintroduce Marion, in a much larger role. Absent was any offspring to the Jones clan, although father Henry Sr. shows up for what amounts to a cameo appearance.

For those of you who felt there were groaner moments in Crystal Skull, I assure you that none compare to Indy being swallowed by a giant snake, only to cut his way out from the inside, say to the dying snake, "something you ate?" before reaching in and removing his fedora.

The search for the lost city was driven by the opportunity to have your greatest wishes granted. While this results in be careful what you wish for moments for several of the incidental characters, Jones chooses Marion, and is basically let go by the aliens (contrary to the ahh, how romantic moment this must have been designed to inspire, to me it seemed unfitting of our hero to only be able to land his gal through the intervention of an ancient alien race). In what seemed to me to be a particularly out of character moment, at the climax of the film Jones shoots the Crystal Skull, destroying it, and then shoots and kills the alien, in a Will Smith/Independence Day moment of 'that's what I call a Close Encounter' - my words - not Frank's.

Don't take these comments to say that the screenplay had no redeeming qualities. I'm quite sure that had this version gone into production. One line that did elicit a laugh from me when reading came as Marion asked Jones about another woman in his life - that singer. He makes no apologies for Willie Scott, and mentions that he heard she moved to Hollywood and married some hotshot director. If the joke is lost on you, then you definitely need to read up on the behind the scenes history of these films.

In retrospect, I'm pleased to say that I think George made the right decision in continuing the development of Indy IV going rather than stopping with Darabont's draft. I also think that Darabont is better served - had his script gone into production, he would have been the target for slings and arrows.

Have we seen the last of Indiana Jones? If Crystal Skull is the last cinema hurrah for my generations greatest adventurer, you'll get no complaints from me. That said, if Ford dons the fedora once more, you can bet I'll be there on opening night.

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