Dec 8, 2008
All the praise for Slumdog Millionaire has been focused on Danny Boyle for his energetic and colorful direction. No question Boyle's direction is terrific. But the real key to the film's success is the script by Simon Beaufoy. Using a unique story structure and scene weave, Beaufoy combines the myth and love genres with some advanced screenwriting techniques to build his story to a stunning climax.
To appreciate Beaufoy's accomplishment, we first have to look at is challenge. This is the story of a "slumdog" orphan boy who grows up in Mumbai with his older brother and ends up competing for the big prize on the game show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Here are just some of the difficulties inherent in the premise: a boy as main character, a story that covers ten years, a mix of myth and love story forms - two genres that are notoriously tough to put together - and keeping the hero's desire for the girl believable and strong. In the Great Screenwriting Class I spend a lot of time on specific techniques for developing the premise, since this is where 99% of writers fail. To win the premise game, you first have to identify the structural problems buried in the idea, then come up with structural solutions to solve them. And you have to be able to do this before you write the script.
Beaufoy's solution to the daunting challenges of his premise is a triple cross-cut framing device. In this advanced technique (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class and the Blockbuster story software for details), the writer cuts between the hero, Jamal, being tortured by the cops who suspect he has been cheating, his performance on the game show, and the story of his life. This is a classic example of how a non-chronological structure is often the right one for a story. But it is very risky, because this much cross-cutting can suck out all the narrative drive.
So why does it work here? One of the big problems of telling a myth story that covers many years in a character's life is that it becomes extremely episodic, meaning that individual events stand out and don't build in a single, narrative whole. A storytelling framing device literally puts brackets around these events. They are told from the mind of the hero, so they gain a unity they would not have if told chronologically from an omniscient narrator.
Using a child as the main character poses all kinds of problems. A child has limited awareness, he is usually a victim and the audience senses that the most dramatic elements will come near the end of the depicted life. That's why Beaufoy uses the other two cross-cut lines. By beginning with the boy grown-up, being tortured, then cutting quickly to his performance on the game show, Beaufoy brings the most dramatic element of this boy's life story to the front of the tale. Structurally, he has taken the battle step - one of the seven major structure steps that usually occurs at the end of the story - and cut it into pieces. The audience is constantly reminded of the most dramatic moment of the story, and it too builds slowly and steadily as the hero moves closer to winning the big prize.
This also allows Beaufoy to connect the game show questions to the key events of the boy's life, a technique that not only undercuts the episodic quality of the story but also makes the thematic point that any life is a combination of chance, freedom and necessity.
The torture and game show lines solve another problem inherent in the premise: they are the primary way Beaufoy connects the myth form to the love story. Myth usually covers vast time and space. Love is compact, driven by white-hot passion that tends to dissipate if the story travels. The torture and game show frame allows Beaufoy to establish Jamal's love desire at the very beginning of the story, even though chronologically the hero encounters the girl of his dreams when he is a little boy and then doesn't see her for long stretches of his life. This makes the love story the primary genre, which is a much more unified form than myth.
The writer was also fortunate that the writer of the original novel, Vikas Swarup, chose the picaresque tale as the basis of the original story. A picaresque tale is a kind of comic myth in which the hero is a rogue-trickster character from the lower class who succeeds by his wits and in so doing highlights the corruption of the society. This sub-genre is the basis of such classics as Tom Jones, Oliver Twist, and Huckleberry Finn. In the "greatest techniques" section of the Blockbuster software, I talk about this rogue-trickster character as possibly the single important element in blockbuster films. From the very beginning this boy is a schemer, able to succeed and even escape death through his quick mind. Faced with terrible poverty and corruption, he nonetheless survives and flourishes. There is even an Indian version of Oliver Twist when a man saves the brothers from their poverty only to force them into his society of beggars.
This film is worth careful study by any writer hoping to master advanced storytelling techniques, as well as to learn how to bring together genre forms in unique combinations.