Of the past 50 movies you’ve seen, (1) how many did you love, (2) how many did you hate, (3) how many did you stop watching because you got bored?
This month’s lesson plans are all about applying what you see by watching existing films to your own screenwriting projects.
Let’s say you're an aspiring movie critic or you're assigned to write an essay for a film appreciation class. Understanding the elements inherent in this medium is as important as being able to articulate what you liked and didn’t like about a movie or television show’s content. In addition to examining the merits of the work itself, a movie evaluation essay often compares and contrasts the film to others with similar themes and to prior works by the same director and/or actors.
• Identify the genre of the film. Comedy, drama, horror, western, fantasy, science fiction, and coming of age are a few of the many types of film genres. Although movies often borrow elements from multiple genres (i.e., a romance set in the Old West), there is always a primary genre that prevails. Genre is what dictates how the movie will be categorized at a video store or in a catalogue.
• Identify the central theme. Movie themes can generally be distilled to a single sentence or proverb. For example, “Love conquers all,” “Blood is thicker than water,” “All that glitters isn't gold.”
• Describe the inciting incident that puts the core conflict in motion. An inciting incident is an event that upsets the status quo and forces the characters to take a series of actions and risks predicated on reward, revenge and/or escape in order to resolve the conflict. For example, inciting incidents may be a murder, an alien invasion, a misunderstanding, a tsunami, a romantic break-up.
• Identify the film's protagonist and antagonist. What are the respective strengths and weaknesses that make them compelling characters?
• Analyze the actors and the characters they portray. Are they well suited for these roles or is it a stretch for them to be plausible? For example, is the role a big departure from characters the actor typically portrays or is this role pretty interchangeable with past characters in his/her repertoire?
• Who are the supporting players and do they support the protagonist’s quest or encumber it?
• Would you have cast this film differently? Why or why not?
• Were there scenes and lines of dialogue that shocked you or moved you to laughter or tears?
• Examine the director’s role in the production. How does this film compare/contrast to the director’s prior productions? What would a director of the opposite sex have done differently to deliver the story?
• What are your impressions of the cinematography, lighting, costumes, makeup and music?
• If the movie utilized special effects and computer-generated imagery, do you feel these elements enhanced your enjoyment of the film or were a distraction to mask an otherwise weak plot? Take into account the visual nature of the film and whether the storyline and character relationships could still have been followed if you watched it with the sound turned off.
• How does the movie compare to previous films on the same topic? For example, multiple films have been made about the tragedy of the Titanic. While advances in cinematography have improved the realism of the ocean liner’s sinking, the film may have suffered if less attention was given to character development and the crafting of memorable dialogue.
• If the film you evaluate is an adaptation of a novel or stage play, how was the plot modified to accommodate the film’s compressed timeframe or budget requirements? For instance, were certain characters dropped or new characters written in?
• Setting is often described as a non-speaking character in a movie plot. In what ways did the physical setting of the story contribute to the overall mood, pacing and interaction of the characters?
• Weather elements help set the stage for a plot to unfold and, in many cases, can even introduce foreshadowing (i.e., it was a dark and stormy night!). What role did weather play in the film(s) you watched and, accordingly, what were your expectations of the storyline?
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 31 books, 157 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.