This week’s Screenplay vs Film selection is Sherlock Holmes — the 2009 remake helmed by Guy Ritchie, and starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as his trusty sidekick Watson. Guy Ritchie has a good reputation in the movie world, or so it seems to me, so I was excited to see his take on one of my favorite sleuths.
I have to admit though I haven’t seen any of his other works. I rented one of Ritchie’s movies, I think it was Snatch, and I couldn’t understand a word, so I stopped watching after a few minutes. But I have to say, I really enjoyed what he did with Sherlock. At first, it seemed that he took a few liberties with the material because the Sherlock I was used to wore tweed and certainly didn’t box. But apparently, if you go back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original materials, you’ll find Sherlock Holmes as Ritchie presented him: a drug addict detective with a keen mind and a penchant for boxing.
Whatever the reason, the change was refreshing (unlike turning Miss Marple into a pretty young thing, for example). According to the film credits, the WGA gave story credit to Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson and screenwriting credit to Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg. The screenplay draft I compared to the movie was a draft written by Johnson (based on a story by Wigram) with revisions by Peckham. Got all that?
I have to say I thought it was a very good draft, and if the movie followed it closely, it would have been a great movie. But some changes (both small and large) were made that turned this good draft into an excellent movie with heart, humor, adventure & mystery.
Basically, studying Sherlock Holmes is perfect for the aspiring screenwriter who has a solid draft (heavily revised) under her belt. The structure is solid, all of the 8 major plot points are in place. Your characters are vivid; your dialogue is fresh. You’ve thrilled your audience (if writing a thriller), or you’ve made them laugh (if writing a comedy). In short, if you tried to sell your screenplay right now, you’d have a decent shot…but, if you took a little more time, and did a little more analysis the way Guy Ritchie & crew did with Sherlock Holmes, you’d make the transition from good to excellent.
If you’re familiar with our Screenplay vs Film series, then head straight onto the screenwriting tips. If not, here’s an overview: one of the best ways to hone your screenwriting skills is to compare a screenplay to its resulting movie. If you don’t have time for this, don’t worry, because I’m going to post the screenwriting tips I learned by doing exactly that. I’m also going to post a list of plot points from the movie I analyzed. If you analyze these plot points, you should strengthen your understanding of screenwriting structure and pacing.
And now for the screenwriting tips from Sherlock Holmes:
Screenwriting Tip #1: Show your hero’s key skills right away
In the Sherlock Holmes screenplay, we first meet Holmes as he’s thwarting Lord Blackwood’s plan to sacrifice a young female victim. He’s quick, brave, and strong — but no mention is made of his superior deductive skills. This is a key omission because it is one of Holmes’s distinguishing traits, one which also elevates him above the bumbling police, in particular Lestrade.
In the movie, however, we see Holmes’s deductive reason at work right away. Ritchie showed in slow-motion Holmes’s thought process before he decimates his opponent. While this isn’t exactly the same as solving a mystery by deducing facts from evidence, it follows the same sort of “if, then” principles.
This was a great way to give us a taste of Holmes’s deductive skills because it:
- reveals the skill set our hero will use to overcome the villain
- does so in a way that indicates the genre of the movie (action adventure mystery)
- and introduces Guy Ritchie’s stylistic slow-motion technique, known as Holmes vision.
When you’re writing your own movie, spend a lot of time thinking about ways to introduce the hero. If he has a defining quality or skill which he needs to use to defeat the villain, try to SHOW that quality the very first time we meet your hero.
On a side note, overt direction usually annoys me. But Ritchie’s slow-motion Holmes vision didn’t. Why?
The stylistic technique was used throughout the movie to put Holmes’s deductive reasoning on full display. Because it was used for the sake of character & plot, it didn’t come off as pretentious “look what I do behind the camera” movie-making.
This applies to writing too. Everything should serve your plot and your characters. If you’ve written the most hilarious comedic sequence, but it has nothing to do with the story, then you should find a way to weave it in or eliminate it altogether from your screenplay.
Screenwriting Tip #2: Increase the stakes & urgency
Carson Reeves over at Scriptshadow frequently observes that amateur screenplays lack stakes and urgency. The screenplay draft of Sherlock Holmes had stakes & urgency: Holmes had to solve the mystery before Lord Blackwood exterminated everyone in Parliament as well as several London citizens, and he had by noon on a certain day to do it. In the movie version of Sherlock Holmes, two small changes were made that increased those stakes even more.
In the movie, Watson was the doctor who pronounced Lord Blackwood dead after his execution. If Lord Blackwood is now presumably alive causing all sorts of mayhem, what would happen to Watson’s professional career? Holmes reminds Watson of this repeatedly in the movie by saying, “your reputation is at stake,” which was a simple, efficient way of increasing the personal stakes for our starring duo. Due to his highly developed sense of responsibility, it also helps reel Watson back into the case even though he has resolved to leave amateur detecting behind and settle into comfortable domesticity with Mary.
The ending of the screenplay also differed quite a bit from the movie. In the movie, a warrant was put out for Holmes’s arrest. Now he has to solve the crime, while being on the run from the police. Time is ticking away, Holmes deduces that Lord Blackwood’s final act will involve killing Parliament, but before he can prevent it, he is arrested by Lestrade!
Talk about increasing the urgency. When I saw the movie in the theatre, I was definitely in suspense, wondering, now how in the world is Holmes going to get out of this? Of course he does, and the arrest was all part of the plan, but I didn’t know that…did you?
These might seem like small changes to you, but they are the sort of changes that make the difference between solid and spectacular. When writing your own movie, look for organic opportunities to increase stakes and urgency in ways both large (killing off Parliament by noon) and small (Watson’s career; Holmes’s arrest).
Screenwriting Tip #3: Choose your backdrop wisely
This screenwriting tip is especially relevant to set piece sequences. If you’re writing an action adventure movie or a thriller, choose a location for one of your action sequences that naturally has objects that your hero could use as a weapon (or for his defense). If you’re writing a comedy, think of settings that naturally have objects which can add to the humor, as Jon Lucas and Scott Moore did in comedy script tip #3 in the Hangover. These key objects have to occur organically — there that word again! — otherwise, your action/comedy sequence won’ fit in with the rest of the screenplay. It will seem that you just threw it in there because you knew you needed a set piece scene. Both the screenplay and the film versions of Sherlock Holmes handled this wonderfully.
In the screenplay and movie, a huge action sequence takes place at a shipping dock where workers are putting together a giant hull. What a great backdrop for an action sequence. You’ve got ropes, mallets, and other tools that your hero–and his opponent–can use against each other. The action sequence culminates in Holmes’s giant of an opponent, Dredger, unleashing the massive ship hull which almost crushes Holmes. It was a great sequence that fit into the story very naturally — and provided several clips that made it into the trailer!
This is how the shipyard scene was depicted in the screenplay:
EXT. SECOND SLIPWAY – CONTINUOUS
Grappling frantically on the runners, both Holmes and Dredger look up as the HUGE CHOCKS holding the battleship in place EXPLODE BACKWARDS —
— and the GIGANTIC PROPELLERS on the stern of the battleship start sliding down towards them.
EXT. CEREMONIAL PLATFORM – DAY
A scream goes up from the DIGNITARY’S WIFE as she sees what’s happening on the slipway.
EXT. SECOND SLIPWAY – CONTINUOUS
VAST COILS OF CHAIN begin unwinding off the ship as it gathers speed, exploding onto the ground like artillery.
Dredger looks up at the approach of the huge propellers —
— Holmes charges into him again before he can run, tripping him backwards across the runners. Dredger pulls Holmes down with him.
Who are you working for?
EXT. BELOW CEREMONIAL PLATFORM. THAMES IRONWORKS – DAY
WATSON sees the dwarfed, struggling figures of HOLMES and DREDGER on the slipway, then the accelerating ship obliterates them from view.
INT. SECOND SLIPWAY – CONTINUOUS
The noise is ear-ripping now as the keel gathers speed.
Dredger grabs Holmes by the collar and punches him directly into the path of the ship.
Holmes lies semi-conscious, eyes rolled back into his head, as the leviathan roars down towards him.
The ground beneath him shakes, bounces him, knocks his head against the runner — once, twice — and he blinks back into consciousness, sees the great shadow sweeping over him.
Holmes rolls sideways as the massive propellers slice through the air above his head and the gigantic hull screams past him like the side of the world being torn off —
— and then the battleship’s away, parting the Thames with a vast, frothy explosion of water.
Holmes watches the ship drift gracefully out into the river — from the vortex to serenity in a matter of seconds.
His head collapses back, great gulps of air disappearing into his lungs. He tries to pull himself to his feet, but Dredger’s bone-shaking punch has taken it out of him and he sags back to the ground.
Only when Watson arrives, does Holmes get to his feet. He staggers back to the slipway, to where Dredger was standing.
Nothing. No blood or trace.
If your goal is to make a huge spec sale, then your screenplay better have some trailer-worthy moments. One way of the best ways to do that is to choose the appropriate backdrop for your set pieces.
Screenwriting Tip #4: Don’t make your villain a cliche
In the movie, Dredger is not just a giant brute of a man–which is expected for the villain’s henchmen. He also speaks French. It’s unexpected, making Dredger even more memorable, and it also provides some comedic Gallic repartee between him and Holmes.
When you’re editing your screenplay draft, look for ways to distinguish minor characters. You can do it the way it was done here in Sherlock Holmes. You can also give them an obsession, which was done in 10 Things I Hate About You. For a list of 25 obsessions to spark your imagination, read How to Create Original Characters in Your Supporting Cast.
Screenwriting Tip #5: Explain the complicated with the least exposition
At the root of the crime in Sherlock Holmes is a secret society that works behind the scenes to orchestrate world events. In the screenplay it was called The Order of the Golden Bough, but in the movie it was renamed The Temple of the 4 Orders. When he becomes head of the Temple, Blackwood wants to destroy everyone in Parliament so that he can create a new world order without interference. Scary stuff.
I was able to describe the secret society in a couple of sentences — but if you do that in your screenplay, you’ll have a dreaded block of exposition. This is how the movie avoided the exposition trap: after the shipyard fight, Holmes and Watson are thrown in prison, presumably for destroying public property. Mary bails Watson out, but leaves Holmes to linger. He doesn’t have to stew in prison long before someone with wealth bails him out — and covers his head with a black cloth.
When the mask is removed, Holmes faces a older gentleman in an ornately decorated room. The man gloats, “do you know where you are, Sherlock?” With his reasoning skills, Holmes deduces where he is and more importantly that the man in front of him is Lord Roterham. “But who you are really is another matter entirely,” Sherlock finishes. Which is when Roterham describes the secret society and introduces two of its members: the home secretary, Coward, and the US Ambassador to England, Standish.
This was a great way to explain the secret society because we get yet another demonstration of Holmes’s deductive reasoning coupled with a bit of humor and intrigue.
Screenwriting Tip #6: Use underlings to your advantage
Believe it or not, there was no Coward in the screenplay. It’s pretty surprising since Coward played such a key role in executing Blackwood’s evil plan. When you’re constructing your villain, spend time thinking about his henchmen. In real life, it seems that bad people get their underlings to do the dirty work. Well, the same is true for fictional villains.
In the movie version of Sherlock Holmes, Dredger was Blackwood’s muscle, but Coward carried out more sophisticated work, including manipulating the police to do Blackwood’s bidding. What operations are assigned to the henchmen in your screenplay?
Keep in mind that while your villain can have many henchmen–their sheer number might even be a display of his power–you have to write your scenes in such a way that the villain’s power doesn’t become diluted by all of these minions. Sherlock Holmes maintained a nice balance between Dredger’s muscle, Coward’s governmental collusion, and Blackwood’s all-around evil. Make sure you have balance too.
Screenwriting Tip #7: Get a lot of mileage out of one scene
With the best screenwriting, scenes accomplish many goals at once. Watch this scene where Holmes makes assumptions about Watson’s fiancee, Mary:
How many things did this scene accomplish? It gives us insight to the way Holmes perceives the world, the way his senses are bombarded with information, which seems to be a painful, isolating existence.
It gives us another demonstration of his brilliant deductive reasoning–and his hubris. It shows that Holmes doesn’t have much knack or respect for the social graces. It also shows that Holmes doesn’t have a good understanding of healthy human emotion.
Finally, it embodies one of the main conflicts of the movie: Watson is leaving Holmes behind to marry Mary, and Holmes resents this change in his lifestyle and will use trickery to stop it.
Wow, that four minute scene accomplishes quite a bit! Take out your screenplay draft, pick out a lengthy scene, and list the objectives your scene accomplishes. It is just one? Then you probably need to rewrite it. It is exposition-heavy? Then you definitely need to rewrite it.
I’m including an excerpt from the screenplay to show how the scene was written. Notice that in the screenplay, Holmes seems more adherent to societal graces. He also doesn’t conclude that Mary is only after Watson for money. Which version — the screenplay or the film — is more in keeping with Holmes’s personality? Do you agree that the changes should have been made?
Watson told me you’re a governess.
Yes, I am.
Your student’s a boy of 8.
Charlie’s 7, actually.
Then he’s tall for his age. He flicked ink at you today.
Is there ink on my face?
No, your face is perfect.
There are two tiny drops on your ear. Almost invisible.
(trying to soften the blow)
India blue’s nearly impossible to wash off, anyway.
Please sit down.
How do you know I didn’t punish him?
Well, because —
And then Holmes notices Watson glaring at him.
— perhaps I should sit down.
I’d like to know. Really.
Holmes shoots Watson an apologetic look, but he’s in too deep to stop.
Your necklace and bracelet are matched South African diamonds from Asprey’s, flawless. Not …
… not the jewels of a governess. The lady you work for lent them to you. She wouldn’t’ve done so if you’d punished her son, not even if he deserved it — human nature being what it is.
Mary is beet red with embarrassment.
Some human nature is unaccountable. In my professional opinion.
I hope that you enjoyed these screenwriting tips. I will post the rest of them tomorrow. As always, I’d love to hear your suggestions for screenplays/films to analyze in this Writing for Movies: Screenplay vs. Film series.
Watching a blank screen (with modifications) by Kenneth Lu