Premise: The life of Benjamin Button, a man who ages backwards.
Writer: Eric Roth
Technical: 199 pages. Shooting script.
"Maybe some things last..."
Sometimes, art is created within Hollywood. Sometimes, you think that you have read five pages of a screenplay, and then you look up and see that you're on page 100. Sometimes, a screenplay is so full of true, profound life lessons, that you come away from reading the screenplay wiser, and thinking about it for a very, very long time.
The premise says it all. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" tells the story of a man who ages backwards. We see his birth as an octogenarian, all the way to his final breath, dying as a newborn baby. We see all of the pivotal events in his life. His growing up in a care home during the early twenty-first century... His relationship with his adopted mother, Queenie... His days working at sea, fighting in the war... And one of the greatest, more tragic cinematic romances of all time; the complicated and breathtakingly realistic relationship with his childhood friend, Daisy Fuller. The best description of this screenplay (so vivid and beautifully written that you forget you are reading at all) is pure cinema.
Within the actual writing of Benjamin Button, Roth has a very distinct style:
INT. THE NOLAN HOUSE, NEW ORLEANS - NIGHT, 1918
A piano’s playing a standard, people singing.... There’s a myriad of old dark rooms... heavy furniture and carpets... an eclectic mixture of the possessions of those who have lived and died here over many years... and we see a parlor is crowded with Old People, from sixty to ninety-five, in various stages of health... various contraptions to keep them "afloat". An Old Age Home.
Reading a passage like this, I guess most "screenwriting gurus" would start bleeding from their eyeballs. "It's too long... it's formatted incorrectly... etc. etc." I have always liked the three periods, "...", Roth places after some descriptions and lines of dialogue. It is a very small detail, but I haven't really seen it anywhere else. It really helps with the flow of the blocky descriptions (nothing wrong with blocky descriptions), making it all much quicker to read.
As appropriate, there is no sense of time in the screenplay. The present day hospital scenes do not seem as if they occur after Benjamin's life. Nothing feels as if it happens before or after anything. The reader is introduced to a new concept of time: the concept that there is no time. How Roth does this, I couldn't tell you. It's not as though in the screenplay he writes, "And now we find ourselves back in the darkening hospital... having no sense of time or place..." or anything like that.
The writing itself is phenomenal. Each line is something to be enjoyed slowly and thoughtfully. The dialogue in the film... is sensational, to say the least. A lot of the lines should be classics, but I guess they're not, because you never hear them anywhere. Lets just say that most of the lines in here blow "Like, I am your father" and "We're gonna need a bigger boat" out of the water.
Another very small part, but the reader never once questions Benjamin's ageing backwards. It is dealt with in such a mature, intelligent, and interesting way, that how could they? Also, smartly, the writer never much draws the other character's attention to Benjamin's ageing. Or rather, they never question it, they never investigate it. It is never sensationalised, which is where most writers would have taken the material. There is no, like, evil neighbour antagonist, blackmailing Benjamin, threatening to reveal his "secret" to the news unless he does a., b., and c. I understand how ridiculous that sounds, but there are some "writers" who could have done much worse than that. The fact that Benjamin's ageing backwards is accepted and rarely spoken of is crucial to the success of this screenplay. It seems extremely obvious and an easy choice, but anyone who is a master at their craft makes their work look obvious and easy when it is not.
Every character in the screenplay has their own unique voice, and is a real person. When they're speaking, you're sitting in the room with them. Based on the words themselves, one could identify the character that spoke them. Benjamin is extremely relatable, but also very intelligent, which is refreshing and clever. By the ending, your heart is breaking, watching a seventy year old Daisy taking care of a toddler Benjamin.
Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button were both written by Eric Roth. Many have noted the similarities between the two films, the two screenplays. The similarities are undeniable, but the real question is who gives a damn? These are two separate films. I don't have much to say about Forrest Gump, but the Benjamin Button screenplay is a masterpiece by itself. Saying that they are similar means nothing, and is idiotic.
Lesson: If you are going to give your screenplay a theme, it should be dead simple and crystal clear. At the end of the screenplay, the reader shouldn't be trying to guess your theme. The theme should be memorable and a reader should be able to relate it quickly and simply. In "Benjamin Button" this was done by flat out having the main character state one of the main themes, in clearest terms possible. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as it's incorporated into the story in the proper context, and not put in wherever.