(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here's Dedi on The King's Speech, a new hit that's been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. -- Levi)
“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V's funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.
But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice?
Seidler’s a master storyteller to pull all this off. Let’s take a quick run through some of his techniques. Like all good storytellers, Seidler knows the importance of having high stakes. In this case, they couldn't be higher. The country is at war and the British Empire needs a King who due to that damned new technology, the radio, can provide an oral — as opposed to merely visual — public bucking up. Bertie’s got a stammer and deep-rooted trauma. He neither believes he can be King, nor particularly believes in himself. His stammer, the resulting conflicts with his father and brother, his upbringing, and his nanny all contribute to his deep ill ease with self — and his resistance to cure. He needs fluent speech to reassure his country. He needs fluent speech to find his own life “place.” We’ve got personal and public stakes of the highest emotional sort.
The storytelling icing on the cake? These conflicts have universal elements. We ordinary folk may not have stammers and no kingly duties await us. But who hasn’t needed to find their voice to discover their true path in life? And how many of us haven’t had to leap over impediments placed by father and family in order to do so? Seidler levels the challenges faced by royalty and commoners. It’s a tremendous feat.
Seidler then uses these high stakes to create suspense. We are so emotionally invested in this character and take his stakes so personally that despite our knowledge of how it will all turn out, we're on the edge of our seats actively routing for Bertie to succeed. As Hitchcock said, with emotional investment one can create suspense even when there's no surprise.
How else does Seidler get viewers so involved? As most women’s magazines will tell you, humor can be more important than looks with regard to male attractiveness. Bertie may not have timing going for him but both he and Logue have incredible wit. If the challenge of humorous screenplays is to “find your funny,” in this aspect Seidler has hit it with grace notes. Both characters avoid the trap of maudlin exaggerations that might accompany such an impediment; their utterances hit dryly perfect notes. A lot of the credit goes to these two great actors, but witty dialogue and great restraint in the writing is the actors’ launching point.
I was also intrigued by how Seidler uses both Logue’s and Bertie’s families to warm them up. Both men have strong, witty, sensitive and understanding wives. And, for some extra resonance, both have children who grow up to have stories — and voices — of their own. Bertie rarely stammers with his children; he seems most comfortable in his role as loving Dad. As a Royal, Bertie can be gruff to Logue. But we get a glimpse of his inner tender teddy bear when he’s with his kids and we immediately feel protective. And we bond. Logue’s boys similarly highlight the play and tenderness in the man. And the scene where our fearless therapist is too terrified to tell his wife his secret about treating Bertie is comic, humanizing gold. To portray the men’s insecurities and strengths through their relationships with others is the stuff of screenwriting, in this case exceptionally well done. To nail the tertiary characters, especially children, and use them to round out your main characters’ humanity is an extra challenge in such a very adult flick.
Conflict and reversals in the script are also extremely well-played. The resolution for Bertie depends less on a purely psychological resolution of his trauma than on his finding of a friend. It’s an arc handled with extreme care and paced accordingly. From the moment Logue and Bertie meet, we know each man has met his match. “How about Bertie?” Logue suggests as a form of address. The would-be king only grudgingly acquiesces. Then fed up with what he considers Logue’s insolence (and possibly scared by what he might learn about himself) Bertie breaks off their first consultation. Upon hearing how flawlessly he read on the record Logue that gifts him, Bertie resumes the meetings which are then interrupted again by Bertie’s father’s death and a bit later by another spat, this one turning on the highly upsetting topic to Bertie of whether he is, after all, fit to be King. (It’s at this point, “a Low Point” at the end of the second act, that Bertie verbally flogs Logue for what he considers his treasonous statements.) The heated conflict over their identities — Logue’s status, Bertie’s elevation, who’s in charge and who knows best — continues up to the penultimate moment when Bertie in a fit of pique (and probably nerves) picks a fight with Logue over his credentials. “True, you never called yourself ‘Doctor’. I did that for you,” Bertie explodes. Yet when the Archbishop tries to dispense of the “imposter,” Bertie, in a quick turnaround, sticks up for his teacher.
Resolution is attained only in the final scene, after the glorious speech has been made and all doubts put to rest. When Bertie thanks “his friend” and Logue thanks ... “Your Majesty,” it’s an incredibly poignant beat, a moment of mutual recognition between two proud and “splendid” men. It’s also a moment of high emotion for the viewers. The screenwriter, Seidler, couldn’t have better earned the payoff. See The King’s Speech. And don’t be surprised if afterward, you’re sitting around in a room with a friend talking for hours on end.
This article is part of the The Screenwriter's Craft series. The next post in the series is Writing the Antihero: Zuckerberg and the Social Network.