Originally written on October 25th, 2018, for Screenwriting Analysis class.
The film Catwoman and its registered screenplay are rather two different topics. I do not mean just the cosmetic changes like name and description of the characters, but their motivations, their roundness, references to mythology and even plot twists differ heavily. But yes, the film does refer to the screenplay’s structure and plotted drama, occasionally. However, the final film easily takes the cake for being truly atrocious in every department. With this paper, I will try to analyze the screenplay and compare it with how the film portrays it.
Like a traditional, quintessential ‘origin’ film, the opening sequence swoops the reader into the mythological nature of the entire story. Although, it does not return to it frequently. The complete premise is a bit of fusion between contemporary technological modern world, whose reasoning lies in a myth which is centuries old, and in the overall picture, the reasoning quickly takes a backseat. This clearly becomes a clumsy device then instead of a convincing premise which would add to the density of the film’s world. I would have liked more nuances and frequent screen-time of this pre-classical antiquity period, drawing parallels between present time.
The film, however, condenses the entire mythology within opening credits and a couple of dialogues, which clearly takes away any logical weight to be applied to the fantasy, and robs it of its importance. Instead, a contrived narration by the protagonist comes up, with flashes of her dramatic death, which feels to be constructed just for the sake of a stylistic, non-linear element. After serving the purpose of taking us back to its original timeline within seconds, this narration hardly comes up again, thereby losing most of its credibility.
As Thomas Pope put it, the first act lays out the ground rules of the style, characters, internal & external problems.*1 Both screenplay & film here, rush the characters a little, and are inconsistent in style. The screenplay, at least, gives a breathing space to different characters, but the film throws up characters along with their motives in the same scene as their establishment. Compared to the 2002 film of the same genre, Spider-Man, which also follows the three-act structure very closely, the characters in Catwoman never get proper roundness or multiple dimensions. I specifically chose Spider-Man here, because these films were made around the same time, and aside from genre, they have many other elements in common. For example, our protagonist is this underdog character, alienated by society, unable to pursue its love interest, and victim of an establishment he/she is closely associated with. Also, their special powers are based on an animal. It is safe to say that Spider-Man turned out to be a landmark blockbuster, which closely set the structure of now popular superhero genre and their origin films, while also making it much more personable with relatable characters and a dash of tragic high-school romance.
The characters in Catwoman’s screenplay are far richer than that in film. This is one of the biggest reasons for the failure of the film. The non-complex, single-dimensional nature of almost all the characters deprives the viewer of any relatable human element, denouncing ‘the audience bond’ explained by Robert McKee.*2 That is not to say that the screenplay doesn’t have its share of flaws. It is difficult to point out any round characters apart from protagonist Patience, who exhibit a conflict or has a proper journey. Patience’s journey, conflicts and desires are definitely well crafted in the screenplay, which the film largely skips, thereby adding to its improbability.
The split-personality within Patience, after her resurrection as a Catwoman, is an admirable direct spin on McKee’s theory about the protagonist’s conscious & unconscious desires. The gradual development of this idea, though without proper realistic psychological weight, is one of the strengths of the film. The clue to this overlapping persona, however, is exposed rather too early via Edna’s dialogue. With the journey to accept Catwoman as a part of her, Patience’s character becomes well rounded and relatable to the audience. This progression is like Peter Parker’s in Spider-Man, wherein he gradually realizes his powers can be put to perform good deeds.
Screenplay also has more meaty character introductions. It also enhances characters with well detailed actions, following on what Howard & Mabley suggest as a sign of accomplished screenwriting in The Tools of Screenwriting.*3 It is ironic, that film fails to capitalize on this. Instead it gives way to theatrical devices like voice-over narration. Even when it does emulate some of those, it does so as a stylistic element instead of attaching logical reasoning with it.
Both the film and screenplay use a rather typical dramatic trope for Patience’s death-cum-reincarnation. The film, comparatively, swings into it too quickly and gives away the villain too easily. The screenplay gives it more substantiality and better surprise values, by seeping into the matter slowly and giving more screen-time to supporting characters. This adds to the world building as well. For example, when Catwoman avenges her ‘irritators’, there is more weight behind her behavior in the screenplay, than in the film.
However, there are still a lot of factual flaws in both the film and screenplay. Like, how can Patience never realize that Tom Lone is a cop? She has been observing him without his knowledge. Also, Lone claims to be working in the Burglary department, and he has also been given responsibility of a homicide case. Or why wouldn’t Angel detonate Patience’s place as well, as he did with Mr. Berger? And what kind of factory, situated in the middle of the city, works at night? These kinds of liberties hurt the believability of the story and sweep the audience away from immersing into its world.
The screenplay still tries to develop a few characters apart from the protagonist, while the film completely ignores this aspect and chooses style over substance. Screenplay has clichés and typical stereotypes too, but not without some ideas to add more depth and reasoning to make them relatable. Some of these ideas are contrived and clumsily put together. For example, a dumb, single-dimensional Laurel is suddenly shown to be the mastermind of whole conspiracy. This has a good shock value but is far from believable. Although, it does help Georges’ character to be less stereotypical. And the third act gives multiple motives to Laurel’s dark side.
In this particular subplot, the film establishes Laurel with grey shades from the start, but then there is no journey or substantial motives to her acts later on, which are very predictable. The film edits out most of the tertiary characters, which helped with world building in screenplay. All the tertiary characters, for example Sally, abruptly come up and disappear again.
The inconsistency in style is evident in Screenplay as well. Some of the actions are described with so much of detail, that when some other action comes along, we look for its explanation. The scene progressions are unreal too. For example, Patience and Lone go for a coffee date right after she has had her first Catwoman experience. I understand this is a depiction of two opposite personalities contained within Patience, but it comes across more as a hurried drama.
Another thing I couldn’t make out was the time when Patience sings/talks to herself in rhymes. If it was just a humorous & parodying take or a comedic trope gone terribly wrong. Devices like these also take away the believability or self-awareness of the world. And so do awfully bad comebacks like ‘a bitch is a dog’. This kind of weak and for-the-sake-of-genre-elements writing induces unintentional laughter and takes away the seriousness of the entire scene.
Back to characterizations, it was good to see the film avoiding putting forward a Russian scientist as completely evil. Although, it still goes on to hastily put him just as another victim. But as a whole, it is not just because of their descriptions, that the tertiary characters like Angel, Weasley or Nevski (the Russian scientist) in the screenplay are rather more believable. Their different actions, their screen-time, their dialogues at least generate little more interest in them. The film chooses to avoid this and instead keeps throwing up these plastic shots of shiny architecture. In a way, it imitates the shallowness & obsessions of the beauty industry, though I doubt that it was intentional.
The major problem with the film is it skips though most of the mythical background as well as the scientific jargons, which takes away authenticity of its fantastical and larger-than-life premise. This is one genre element, well exploited in the screenplay but idiotically edited out of the film. It almost feels like the makers thought the audience will never use their brain throughout the film. Spider-Man utilizes this background very smartly. It becomes a driving force for both the protagonist and its villain.
Speaking of villains, Catwoman film & screenplay’s one of the biggest weaknesses is their lack of a strong villain. Nowadays, it is almost necessary that a superhero is pitted against a supervillain with equally superhuman powers, if not more powerful than the hero him/herself. I am not even suggesting a villain with powers here, but Laurel as an endlessly cunning character just doesn’t feel that strong.
I did enjoy some of the elements in action, written in the screenplay. Especially the scene where Catwoman goes to kill Georges during a ballet performance. The stylistic spin that during most of Catwoman’s sneaking in part, the show remains unharmed and undisturbed is almost a nod to how cats mess things up but still maintain their grace. Even her escape from the venue is well detailed, and rich with snappy one-liners which really worked for me.
The screenplay does a good justice to drawing parallels between human and feline natures. For example, Catwoman’s rebellious and spontaneous instincts to whatever she likes, or affinity towards fish. This does not transcend well on screen. Halle Berry’s mannerisms as a Catwoman are not just too theatrical, but also funny and cringe because of its unreal, forced and overdone delivery. The amount of flexibility that Catwoman showcases once in a while in the film, is inconsistent enough to make the climactic fight look unconvincing.
The romantic subplot between Patience and Lone has a much better progression and likeability than that in the film. The screenplay gives almost similar amount of weight to Lone’s attraction towards Patience, as that of Patience’s towards Lone. Their romance blossoms over a greater number of encounters, which adds to its believability. The film, however, resorts to a typical element to showcase Catwoman’s newly acquired skills, and the sexual base of their attraction. This sensual but borderline erotic treatment almost feels like a B-grade trope, again taking away all the seriousness of the romance.
The development of Patience accepting her feline Catwoman side is also more convincingly and progressively conveyed in the screenplay. We see that her darker desires are strong at the start as shown via her acts of stealing the jewelry, destroying the club, etc. Finally, it reaches a point, earlier to the climax, that her human side doesn’t let her kill Georges, which was mainly her agenda to avenge her death. The film just tosses in this morality as one dialogue at the end. This is a very lazy attempt to add shades to a character.
More often than not, there are some enjoyable dialogues in the film. Like the exchange between Lone and Catwoman during the escape from ballet. Or, the different exchanges between Laurel and Catwoman, felt cool even today. I don’t understand why the makers cut those out and replaced them with clumsy mannerisms which look just plain childish. I found them to be as fun as that in the original Spider-Man trilogy or even the latest Spider-Man: Homecoming, which focuses much closely on the witty side of the superhero. This occasional wit especially during intense fight scenes, has now become one of the essential elements of the superhero genre. Ignoring it was a really bad decision on the filmmaker’s part. This element not only increases the entertainment value of the film, but also underlines likeability of the character, as audiences love to identify themselves with such individuals who can effortlessly possess both a sense of humor and a control of the situation.
I also felt there was a greater idea and a nod to feminism, in putting a female antagonist against a female protagonist. Yet, it remains undeveloped or capitalized upon. It comes up only in one dialogue. If Laurel’s character had a better journey and roundness, it would have added to that dynamic really well. Spider-Man shows a transformation of a villain exemplarily with the duality that Normal Osborne’s character has. His obsession slowly sinks into madness, which is an equal and opposite response to Peter Parker’s journey to use his special powers for others’ welfare.
The screenplay is smart in referencing its own ideas once in a while. For example, during most of her interrogation, Patience puts up rather vague statements that I am not the person you’re looking for. It’s a good device to keep Lone from concreting his belief that Patience is the Catwoman, while also still suggesting that Patience is not ready to accept her other persona. The whole craft surrounding clearing Patience’s name from the suspicion, though she is performing all the tasks of Catwoman, is pretty admirably pulled off.
What broke the smooth flow of story sometimes, was the sudden use of dramatic elements which didn’t fit into the overall picture. Like bringing back Patience’s loneliness and loser-tag before her death, with scenes where she is (sort of) shooed away from the club and sees romantic couples all around, while she walks back home alone. This does not occur again, to be signified properly. One can argue that her attire and lifestyle is a supplement to her alienation from the society. But these are two different things.
A similar problem also occurs with mythical elements of the story. We do not get proper insight into the Egyptian history of cats. The full moon atmosphere turns up suddenly later, and only for a moment, failing to revive the theme. It feels more like a clue that maybe most of the concept is based on Werewolf folklore, but again, without building upon that sub-genre.
The male characters, in both film and screenplay, are quite poorly written. Frequently, those succumb to the traditional chauvinistic clichés. They just become a placeholder for forced development of the females. Lone’s character had its conflicts and a small journey, but I wished that Georges wasn’t written so unimaginatively. Other characters like Angel, Wesley, Nevski and Xavier serve their purpose to the story, but the unoriginal writing associated with them, just makes them forgettable. This is where Spider-Man can be appreciated more. It also depicts character problems and the journey of Harry Osborn, who is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. And its female character, MJ Watson has a great depth and progression too. Even Peter’s boss, JJ Jameson has a memorable presence.
Another problematic character is Sally, which is clearly a sidekick to Patience. I do not see any place for such a character in a female driven film. It is in fact, the most anti-female-empowering character. She’s written full of clichés and stereotypical gender roles, which is annoying to say the least. She serves her purpose in the film, very slightly, to help Patience solve the problem with Beau-line, but all her dialogues make me wish she wasn’t part of the story. The humor associated with Sally is absolutely stale today.
Overall, I felt there were some original ideas in the screenplay, which were not fleshed out well till the end. The story instead falls prey to conveying a typical three-act structure and shies away from being ambitious. It has a mix of many different and new things. A cross-section between history, Werewolf fantasy, clash of animal instinct & human nature, special abilities for the welfare of mankind, strong females challenging & overpowering their male counterparts, the novel premise of not-that-frequently-used beauty industry, an endearingly awkward romance, an international conspiracy, etc. These things could have been developed separately, providing occasional weight to each of them, like the romance was developed. Some more time could have been given to reason these different elements, instead of concentrating on the details of fights.
If I were to rewrite this screenplay, I would try to break and sprinkle these themes throughout the story. The mythical past won’t be revealed and ended just with the first scene. The different milestones in Patience’s journey will give a nod to how things happened in the past. I think that would make a more interesting structure to keep the audience involved in this world. Maybe I will remove a few characters like Wesley or Angel and add more dimensions to the more important ones like Georges, so that the runtime does not exceed too much. One of the areas of improvement is also to include more snappy dialogues, to increase entertainment value as well as the likeability of the characters. I will also research about previous Werewolf films and include some of the elements commonly attributed with that sub-genre. Laurel’s character will get a make-over, in a sense that her journey will be closely tied with the politics that goes on inside the beauty industry. I am not so sure about the scientific and global warfare related to motives of negative forces. I might change that to something else as mixing myth with science would be a tightrope to walk upon. I don’t want both of those themes to end up half-baked. Another focus would be to build up the romance between Lone and Patience with a few more quirks.
Lastly, I did not completely hate the screenplay of Catwoman, as much as I despised its cinematic realization, but it still felt like a case of giving up to the pressure of studios to shell out a formulaic popular fiction.
1. “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts” by Thomas Pope
2. “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee
3. “The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley