a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sometimes, Characters Don't Speak Your Language

So I read a really awful screenplay yesterday about two teens who time-travel to the past, and bring Mozart back to present day, where he joins their garage band and they become stars.

Don't ask.

Anyhow, one of the things that really irked me about this script (which was nominally for kids, and was trying at least in theory to sort of be semi-educational) is that the teens land in 1791 Vienna, realize they are in Mozart's house, have a whole conversation with him (he thinks they are the angels of death), and then bring him back to the future.

Yeah, they have a whole conversation with him. In English.

Now, I get it that it is a comedy, but still. It isn't the first time I have seen something like this.

We've become so use to the idea of people in other times and other cultures speaking English, that it feels almost second-nature to use now.

I suppose there are good reasons (okay, no, it's money, because people hate reading subtitles) why movies like "Memoirs of a Geisha" need to have everyone speaking English.

And it's a conceit that works, as long as everyone in the movie speaks the same language to start with.

But if there's a language barrier, it really needs to be reflected in the tale, and not glossed over. Because, you know, if all your character speaks is English, and he's in 1791 Vienna, it's going to actually be a problem.


Of course, when Mozart starts trashing his hotel room and hitting on groupies, it all probably becomes moot anyway.


At 9:35 AM, Anonymous emily blake said...

At least they didn't bring back Dave Beethoven. Or Maxine of Arc. Or something else extremely derivative. They really dodged a bullet there.

At 10:11 AM, Anonymous shecanfilmit said...

Sounds kinda like a bastardized version of the subplot in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure where they bring back Napoleon and take him to the mall. (He didn't speak English.) It was pretty funny.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Methinks it best for all writers to steer clear of Time Travel and all of its ramifications.

Plus we all know that the prime directive of time travel is to go back and kill Hitler.

Plus if Mozart was kidnapped from 1920 or whenever he lived, it would have grave implications for all of music. Ratt may have never formed as a result.

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

And just adding to the Bill and Ted's references...

"Say something philosopical, dude"
"All we are, is dust in the wind, dude."
Quizzical look from Socrates.
Picks up dust.
Blows it away.
Points to Socrates.


At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

Yes, a complete rip of Bill & Ted, which was at least smart enough not to have Socrates, Beethoven, Joan of Arc and Napoleon speak English.

(Though Napoleon did pick up a few choice phrases like "water sliiiide".)

Sounds absolutely dreadful.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Maybe in bringing Amadeus back to the future from Austria, they disrupt the space-time continuum enough to actually prevent Hitler from ever being born in the first place.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Shawn said...

Right, they take Mozart just before he composes "Die ihr des unerme├člichen Weltalls", which Mr. Hitler used to get Mrs. Hilter in the mood the night Adolf was conceived.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger taZ said...

It's a nice idea!

But that's also all it is, an idea...

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Are there boobies?
Can't have a Mozart movie without boobies, right?

At 2:54 PM, Blogger mahlzeit said...

And why wouldn't Mozart speak English? He was a child prodigy after all, and -- according to Wikipedia -- performed in London at some point.

At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mozart spoke several languages and even though english would've been fairly far down the list, it was one he understood.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Be that as it may, it certainly isn't reflected in the screenplay, where English is the language he uses to address these strangers, and he shows extreme fluency in it throughout.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if a paranthetical under the first dialogue caption SPOKEN IN GERMAN would have helped? probably not eh?

At 5:38 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I bet a thousand beer atoms that someone pointed it out to the screenwriter, and he/she shrugged and said, "It's the magic of movies. No one will care."

People do care. They may not bat an eye to Global Warming or the torture of thousands, but commit a story faux pas and they are all over you.

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Vlad said...

Two quick points.
One: Mozart might have a basic understanding of 18th century English, but there's been quite a bit of change in the language in the ensuing three centuries.
Two: Mozart trashing a hotel room and hitting on groupies actually seems pretty in character. At least according to the characterization expressed in Amadeus.

Oh, and how could anyone not love the Excellent Adventure?
"The only true wisdom consists of knowing you know nothing."
"That's us, dude!"

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Lucy said...

I'm with Scott. I'm a reader too and sometimes certain things are done to death so much just opening the page can make you lose the will to live.

Also, I think it shows willing to at least attempt translation in your screenplay with the english underneath in brackets - why not? There are even loads of translators online that will help you do it (check out I've done this myself and tried with books etc and been complimented on having a go. It doesn't always work of course, esp. relying on automatic machine translation: once "Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?" apparently became "You must wear a hell shirt for Jesus" in Slovakian according to one native-speaking reader. What are the odds!!

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous cwmagee said...

What languages did Mozart speak?

And English in 1791 was more like English today than english from 1591- for example,
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,"
was published in 1791. Seems pretty straight forward to me.

At 4:42 AM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

"You must wear a hell shirt for Jesus" So sad. That single phrase is more original than anything I've written in the last year or so.

I wasn't the first to say it but wouldn't it be wonderful to go back in time to when time travel stories were actually fresh and interesting?

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Wolfgang Amad├Ę Mozart said...

what is the title of this screenplay? im quite curious


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