Saturday, March 24, 2007

Charlotte Bronte - The Professor

Here’s proof if there ever was any that I can’t turn my film head off, even when I’m studying liht-ra-chure. I just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s first “adult” work, The Professor, on my computer – oh, Project Gutenberg! how you expand my brain, and incinerate my retinas – and suddenly I was wondering what a Hollywood producer would do to the story. Okay, most people cringe and scream about how destructive Hollywood is to classic, subtle stories – but I think an industry attitude toward plot development would improve this work a lot.

See, the problem with The Professor is the same problem that so many of us in screenwriting seminar share when we make our first pitches to the class – a lot of new writers have creative, interesting, compelling ideas, but most of them are situations and not stories. There’s absolutely no way for a beginner and an unknown to move an “idea” in Hollywood – you move stories, or you move out of town. Most reasonable writers, by a certain point, are able to capture a sum of feeling and tension in their pitches…but the hardest part of learning to write is turning those feelings and tension into very physical plot development.

I was disappointed with The Professor because the situation promised so much; after all, look at her tales of Angria before, and Jane Eyre after – she knows how to write juicy. Here’s her log line:

Disowned and broke, William Crimsworth flies to Brussels and scrapes together a living by teaching English – until his romantic entanglements with the headmistress and an enchanting student threaten to destroy his livelihood and his heart.

Okay, so the producer says, “Corner – that’s your name, right? Currer. Whatever. Tell me more.”

Crimsworth severs the last tie he has to family when he resigns his position as a clerk in his tyrannical brother’s factory mill. Impoverished and aided only by the sardonic socialist Yorke Hunsden, Crimsworth finds work as a professor of English in a privileged boys’ day school in Brussels. Events seem to have taken a fortuitous turn when Crimsworth is offered the chance to augment his salary by giving additional lessons at a neighboring ladies’ school. However, the outlook becomes grim when Crimsworth is trapped by the seductive manipulation of the ladies’ headmistress, who is engaged to Crimsworth’s employer at the boys’ school. Crimsworth overcomes her influence and finds love and fulfillment with his most promising and imaginative student, Frances.

Here’s the producer: “So, who does he bang to get the job at the ladies’ school?”

And our Charlotte: “He’s offered it because he has worked hard and proved himself trustworthy and morally upright.”

“So he gets the job because he won’t bang anyone? What about the seductive headmistress?”

“He resists all her advances after he learns she’s engaged to his employer.”

“Right. And this socialist guy. What’s he doing?”

“He’s absent for most of the story.”

“And Crimswart gets kicked out of the ladies’ school for having an affair with a student?”

“Actually, he waits until they’ve both escaped the restrictive influence of the school before they become engaged.”

“But they have a fiery, tear-streaked make-out in a classroom, right?”

“He corrects her papers. Er, suggestively.”

“Listen, Carson…”


“Curry. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

And you can learn the rest of the story from Woody Allen: “Hollywood is worse than dog eat dog – it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.”

So, what actually happens in The Professor? Like a damp bottle rocket with a long fuse, it’s a lot of build-up and no bang. Crimsworth arrives at his situation and spends a couple hundred pages resolutely resisting any development into a story. And don’t forget that even in liht-ra-chure, physical activity is important – reading about someone sitting on a log slowly rearranging his worldview is not quite as exciting as reading about that person changing his worldview while stroking the lips of the student he shouldn’t be in love with.

It doesn’t even have to be sex. The important thing to remember is that the endless internal monologue only really means something if it’s attached to action – otherwise, the reader isn’t necessarily believing the narrator, she’s simply accepting what she’s being told. You need something a little stronger than that to inspire sympathetic passion, longing, and despair, on the level that a work like Jane Eyre does: “He made me love him without looking at me” vibrates with intensity because Rochester’s very glance is super-magnified into a physically commanding motion – whether he awards it or withholds it, his body isn’t far from following with passion or violence. Crimsworth, on the other hand, seems to do nothing but look - and what he’s looking at isn’t doing much, either.

So, let’s assume the Fates farted and the Hollywood producer calls Charlotte back.

“Right, Curby, we’re going to buy that Professor property.”

“I’d like to maintain script approval –”

“Ohnoyoudon’t. Here’s $50k, go buy yourself a nice cup of coffee.”

So the producer hires Script Doctor Bob to fix it up a little. Script Doctor Bob comes back with this pitch:

Young, friendless and broke, William Crimsworth settles for a teacher’s life to make ends meet. Things are not all calm and propriety when he unwittingly becomes ensnared in a love triangle between his seductive, manipulative headmistress at a ladies’ school and her fiancée, his headmaster and landlord at a neighboring boys’ school. Just when Crimsworth thinks he’s free from the destructive influence of his employers’ affairs, jealousy and convention threaten to destroy his forbidden chance at happiness with a lonely and enchanting student.

So the producer asks Bob, “Does Crimstwat do anything he’ll regret with this headmistress before – or after – he discovers she’s already engaged?”

And Bob goes, “Hell yes.”

“And how does the happy couple get tossed out of the school?”

Bob gets excited because this is his favorite part. “They share one stolen kiss, which the headmistress spies. Headmistress frames the student in a rendezvous with another man, making it appear to Crimsworth that she’s double-timing him, and to all else that she’s dissolute. Headmistress then takes Crimsworth down with jealousy and disappointment, and nearly seduces him once more until he learns that the “other man” was in fact a relative of the student’s visiting platonically, and the headmistress’ plot is revealed. Finally, Crimsworth defies scandal and poverty to reunite with the woman he loves, and gets in a duel (why not?) with the drunken headmaster, who was just dumped by the headmistress. The student gets gravely injured by a misfired bullet during the ordeal, and is saved only by the charity of a parent whose child Crimsworth had saved from drowning once – the wealthy family orders a skilled doctor after Crimsworth’s urgent and blood-stained appeal, and the student recovers. Just as poverty threatens them again, their friend Hunsden offers them teaching positions in his school across the channel, and they live happily ever after in Jolly Olde.”

And that – as cheesy and overblown as it is – is something I’d pay money to see.

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