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Argo: What We Can Learn From Film About Not Overwriting

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I watched Argo over the weekend, having seen it win an impressive collection of awards. Among it’s accolades were:

Seven nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, winning three, for Best Film EditingBest Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. The film also earned five Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Picture – Drama and Best Director, while being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Arkin. It won the award for the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards and Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Director at the 66th British Academy Film Awards.

As you can imagine, I had high expectations and the film didn’t disappoint.

Here is a brief synopsis:

In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was invaded by Iranian revolutionaries and several Americans were taken hostage. However, six managed to escape to the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador and the CIA was eventually ordered to get them out of the country. With few options, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez devised a daring plan: to create a phony Canadian film project looking to shoot in Iran and smuggle the Americans out as its production crew. With the help of some trusted Hollywood contacts, Mendez created the ruse and proceed to Iran as its associate producer. However, time was running out with the Iranian security forces closing in on the truth while both his charges and the White House had grave doubts about the operation themselves.

The film is adapted from a true story, written about in the book The Master of Disguise by CIA operative Tony Mendez.

I spent a lot of time wondering how it would translate into a written story (I do this very often when watching films) and one thing stood out to me on several occasions – None of the script was overwritten. There were a small handful of tense or sensitive moments where, as a writer, it would be tempting to fill the space with dialogue, but that didn’t happen. Instead, there were delightful silences where you, the audience, knew exactly what each character was thinking, purely from the situation and from the expressions on their faces.

There was one key moment at the end of the film where, without spoiling the plot for those of you who haven’t seen it, there was a handshake, and so many things could have been said but neither character said a word. The handshake and ensuing silence was far more powerful than any dialogue which would, I expect, have destroyed the scene.

It has been rumbling through my mind for a while, the film and it’s highlights. Most of the highlight were moments where there were no words, no fill-ins from the scriptwriter to destroy the impact. The topic is of a sensitive nature and it could have easily been crushed with careless writing. It was a stark reminder for me not to overwrite, not to fill the moments with words and flowery descriptions. Sometimes, when you are writing, just a snapshot of a character’s movement or their body posture can be enough.

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Author: fcmalby

Award winning novelist and short story author. Debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, winner of The People's Book Awards 2013. Short fiction published in various online journals and anthologies. Hearing Voices (Kingston University Press, Summer 2015). Unthology 8 (Unthank Books, Nov 2015). www.fcmalby.com

7 thoughts on “Argo: What We Can Learn From Film About Not Overwriting

  1. Pingback: The Influence of Film on Writing | fcmalby

  2. Very true about the dialogue, but what the film has been criticized for is the mad dash at the end. In the Hollywood way of overwriting for suspense, truth was stretched and so was credibility.

    • I agree. Although I think they left a few parts to speak for themselves, the ending was implausible and the take-off/chase unrealistic. I still enjoyed it for setting and tension, though. It made me think about book to film translation, what works and what doesn’t. I watched Anna Karenina and couldn’t help thinking that so much can also get lost in a film.

      • Yes, in the case of Anna Karenina what was lost were the two guys from the other couples my wife and I went to see it with. Their wives stayed but they skipped out for a bar midway through 🙂

      • 🙂 What did you think of Anna Karenina both on it’s own and compared to the book?

      • I thought the movie was very clever the way it was “staged” like an opera, but that also reduced the conflict to something less serious. It’s hard to feel tragedy deeply when you are reminded it isn’t real.

      • I found the staging a bit distracting and, instead of drawing me into the film, it made me feel like an intruder. I’m not convinced that it worked and I agree with you that the reminder of it not being real reduces your emotions to something less than Tolstoy might have intended.

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