How to Write a Bad Screenplay: The Adjustment Bureau (as example)

The Adjustment Bureau poster (2011)
The Adjustment Bureau poster (2011)

Many books and articles will explain how to write a screenplay, but not that many will tell you how not to write a screenplay. Writing a screenplay is a complex form of writing that has specific rules. Writing a screenplay that gets turned into a theatrical movie is a very difficult task. It requires a great deal of skill and a considerable amount of luck. Further, getting a screenplay turned into a good movie is even more difficult. Many a great screenplay has been turned into a really bad movie.

The Adjustment Bureau is an interesting movie with an interesting concept based on a story by Philip K. Dick. It's director, George Nolfi, is also its screenwriter. Nolfi is no slouch either, having written the screenplays for The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean's Twelve among others. Honestly, having watched The Adjustment Bureau, I assumed that the movie was written by a first-time screenwriter whose work got mangled during the process of filmmaking. Such is not the case.

The point of this article isn't to break down the screenplay for the movie because adapting a short story is not an easy task and because such an article would be too long. The point of this article is to look at a couple of particular aspects of the screenplay that fail badly. Thus, this isn't an exhaustive article on screenplay writing, but a focused article on a couple of common mistakes screenwriters make, even skilled ones, as is the case here.

The movie is about the role of fate. In this case, fate is actually controlled by a group of men called "The Adjustment Bureau". The men work for "the chairman" and apparently walk around, mostly unseen, making sure that important people live their lives according to plan. We learn this information through the story of David Norris (Matt Damon), a rising political star in New York who, at the beginning of the film, loses an election - his first run at a Senate seat.

The Adjustment Bureau teaser poster (2011)
The Adjustment Bureau teaser poster (2011)

In terms of structure, the film follows established format. The first ten minutes launches the film. As he's preparing his concession speech, David meets Elise (Emily Blunt) and is smitten. He then goes on to give a speech that instantly makes him a contender for the next election. Elise disappears and David is obsessed with finding her. At the end of the first act, approximately 25 minutes into the film, David becomes aware of the The Adjustment Bureau when he walks in on an adjustment. He tries to get away, but can't. The purpose of The Adjustment Bureau is then explained to him by one of its agents, Richardson (John Slattery). We learn that David is not meant to see Elise again. And here is where things start to go wrong for this film.

For the purposes of this article, I'm only focusing on one of the screenplay's problems and that's too much exposition. It's a major contributor to the film's awkward tone. There are a number of ways the film could have revealed the purpose of The Adjustment Bureau. Instead of doing that visually, the film chooses to do it through dialogue. This is a mistake and it's a mistake in almost any screenplay. Unless you are directing and producing your own movie (as is the case here), you simply cannot get away with lots of expository dialogue. That being said, the scene between Richardson and Norris, although needless, isn't the main offender. At the 35-minute mark, the film actually follows up with another exposition scene between Norris and another agent named Harry (Anthony Mackie), who's been following Harry his whole life.

The scene takes place on a boat because, as Harry explains, water apparently messes with the Bureau's tracking ability. As the film's misguided need to explain the details of what the Bureau can and can't do, things just get worse. There are several other awkward exchanges between the two including an exchange where David asks Harry if they're angels. Harry responds: "We've been called that." Apparently, the agents are beings who live longer than humans, according to Harry. It's a bad sequence that's indicative of the film's larger problems - the need to explain everything and make sure the audience understands things like Chairman = God. There's another terrible expository sequence in the film's third act where Harry explains how their hats allow them to travel anywhere through doors and how turning the knobs in one direction works, but in the other direction, something will go wrong. It's all utterly pointless detail.

The film isn't unenjoyable, but it's weighed down by many issues. The most striking is the emphasis on details explained through dialogue. This violates one of the major rules of screenwriting. Film is a visual medium. A screenplay should, with very rare exception, endeavor to explain everything it can visually. When characters spend too much time explaining details of the story and characteristics that define situations or people through dialogue, it is almost always a problem.

Don't make the mistake made in The Adjustment Bureau. Have as little exposition as possible in your screenplay. Explain everything through images and actions.

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