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Smoke Signals – The Screenplay (Book Review)

One morsel review: snappy and thoughtful like the film, you find in here a few things that were edited from the movie and that makes the story more complete.

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Sherman Alexie



Genre: screenplay


In 1998, Sherman Alexie wrote the script for a film, Smoke Signals. This is that script.



I had never read a script before and I’ll admit it was fascinating. Not just in itself (thought it was. For me, it was discovering a completely new narrative medium), but because it allowed me to see the difference between the writer’s original idea and what ended up on screen. Where a novel is a solitary endeavour, fueled by only the author’s vision, a scrip is a living animal, constantly shifting because of the action of so many different forces, up to the moment it lands in theatres.

The world intrudes into a script

There is a long section of notes at the end of this book where Alexie recounts how the story we watch on screen is different from his original idea and how and why changes came about. Yes, some of the reasons for an edit in the script are the same edits are made to a novel – new, better ideas occur or scenes need editing, for example – but some other time the story changes – sometimes slightly, some other times not so slightly – in response to outside forces and occurrences.

For example, one of the first scenes in the movie where Victor is playing basketball with some friends, were originally written to be filmed outdoors. But the day scheduled for that shooting a pouring rain swept the set and it was impossible to film, so it was finally decided to film indoors, which is what you see in the movie now. A little change that would never occur in a novel for the same reasons. Also, the exchange between Victor and his friends was originally written with Thomas as topic, but in post-production it was decided to focus on Victor’s father instead. So footage was rearranged to suit the new idea… and this is something very similar to what happens when editing a novel, though I think the technique has to be widely different.

Scripts engage themselves with anybody

But the most fascinating of all changes for me were those coming from actors’ improvisation. Alexie relates a few of these occurrences and I think this is the most exciting part for the creator of the story. Yes, it is exciting when the story comes alive and seems to write itself, but when you work at it with many other people and you see it morphing in your hands because other people are as invested with it as you are… that must be a truly unique experience.

Actors especially are part of this process, because they bring new light and new meaning to their characters in ways that event he author has never envisioned.

Smoke Signals - a story in teh screeplay that never reached the screen #films Click To Tweet

Scripts are full of surprises

I enjoyed reading the script even if I know the film very well, because I still discovered new things. Not everything which is in the scripts makes it to the screen. There are little cuts here and there, sometimes just a line, some other times an entire short sequence. These things add depth to the story because most of times they add nuances to the characters, and this is the reason why they got cut: they are not essential, because they’re just nuances, so when you need to cut something to keep the length of the film what it should be, these scenes are the first to go. Shame.

There is one cut I particularly regret, the argument between Victor and Thomas in the car before they have the car accident. It is a short, fast, if intense scene in the film. In the script, it was quite a bit longer and it addresses issues the film eventually never truly addressed, not least the fact that one of the reasons why Victor has so little patience with Thomas is that Victor is jealous of him. While all of Victor’s memories of his father are painful, Thomas’s memories are all positive. In the film it ends at it, but in the script, in this scenes, the dialogue suggests that Victor is – and has always being – jealous of the positive relation Thomas had with Arnold, Victor’s father. This shades a completely new light on the relationship between these two characters, who end up being as good as brothers. This relation makes a lot of sense inside the film and it’s a pity it eventually was just cut off. I’m very sorry it is not in the film, but I’m happy I had the possibility to read it anyway.

It was a very different read. I enjoyed it.

Have you seen the film or read the screenplay? Smoke Signals is one of the best movies I’ve ever watch, not many films have such a layerd storyline.

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