Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writers Find Inspiration in History

When I launched this blog, I focused upon writing from idea to execution, from inception to completion. Writing Challenges have been thrown down, like gloves before a duel, in order to inspire and tease notions from the minds of others. Reading challenges are also standard because, as I’ve written many times, writers are readers. In fact, reading inspired two writers to tell a story and later transform it through film.

The first is Framed, a book written for children by Frank Cottrell Boyce and translated on film by Danny Boyle. Boyce invents characters who are complex, dynamic, and painted with brushes of verisimilitude. Boyle brings them to life.

The main character, a young boy, belongs to a family in jeopardy. The income stream for the family’s business has slowed to a trickle during his village’s economic struggles. The boy’s father flees, apparently unable to endure want with them, leaving his wife and children vulnerable, but this boy, afflicted with eternal optimism, as most children are, endures and triumphs by giving life to his curiosity and daring-do. Along the way, he makes a friend in need of friends, and he makes opportunity for his family.

Boyce adapted his story from actual World War II events involving Winston Churchill, paintings administered by the National Gallery, and caves in North Wales. Determined not to let Nazi Germany claim or destroy English art treasures, Churchill dispatched them to Wales, but monthly, a single painting was sent back and displayed in Trafalgar Square where, Boyce remembers, people stood in line to see the works of art. One painting, Tintoretto's Noli Me Tangere, drew 45,000 viewers.

Noli Me Tangere

From this gem in history, Boyce polishes a fine tale of curmudgeons, worried adults, lonesome kids, and great giving hearts that beat within us all. A film with the same name as the novel, Framed, directed by Danny Boyle, captures the cool, damp of Wales, its caves, and its downtrodden people during a time of need. The boy has rosy cheeks, chapped by chill winds that bring forth thoughts of the innocent blush of childhood. But this protagonist is much more than a child. He’s a wee adult capable of scheming and dissembling. He’s a bit selfless and selfish simultaneously--as are all the best, most interesting and real characters.

Would that Mr. Clooney had studied at Boyce’s or Boyle’s feet. His adaptation of Monuments Men, a book by Robert Edsel, makes events in history the star. In other words, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov teach the audience about a moment in history when men and women were not drafted into military service; they volunteered in order to defend and protect world art in the belief that the record of man’s imagination, vision, and expression is as priceless as the freedoms we prize.

The hearts and blood coursing through the veins of these men and women never pulses through our own. We witness a ruined Englishman and a flamboyant Frenchman die for the cause of art, but their loss does not move us to tears anymore than it brings tears to the eyes of their on-screen colleagues. They mourn by appearing solemn, invoking the men’s names, and writing heartfelt letters. We hear Clooney as the leader of the band of misfits invite anyone to depart before their next most dangerous foray, and we are not at all surprised when no one does because--well, that's what should happen in any good stereotype.

When Damon steps upon a land mine and suggests that his colleagues leave him while he steps off into oblivion or away from a dud, no one accepts. All remain to live or die together. Their choices are our character notes: these guys must be like-minded and brave, loyal to a fault, and collegial beyond belief, but these are conclusions to which we leap because Hollywood has trained us well, not because the film introduces fully-formed, alive and convincing characters. Such brief episodic camaraderie is all that Clooney and Heslov have time for in a script that must move from the U. S. to England to France, Italy, and Germany, from high-level meetings with President Roosevelt to basic training, from orders to covert operations and back again. In the end, the movie feels like a thumbnail sketch and cursory review of a moment when men and women dared to be great.

Reading Challenge:

Read Framed in print or on film. You may also enjoy another of Boyce’s books, Millions, also transformed on film by director Danny Boyle, the director of Framed (2009).

Writing Challenge: 

Find your own moment in history and re-create it in screenplay format. What are the best camera angles? What dialogue will reveal character fully, in flesh and beating heart? Write it!