Premise: (from Black List) The true story of 25-year-old Joanne Rowling as she weathers first loves, unexpected pregnancies, lost jobs, and depression on her journey to create Harry Potter.
About: Today’s script finished high on 2017’s Biopik List – er, Black List – with 20 votes (no. 6 overall). The writer, Anna Klasen, is a newbie. She got some attention earlier in the year for a pilot she wrote. But this is effectively her breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Anna Klassen
Details: 116 pages
I chose today’s script for a very specific reason.
J.K. Rowling is the greatest success story in literary history. Between the money she got from writing the Harry Potter series and receipts from the movie adaptations, Rowling’s net worth is said to be approaching 1 billion dollars. Just think about that for a second. For typing words on a piece of paper, someone has made 1 BILLION dollars. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty damn cool.
And yet today’s script isn’t about counting checks. It’s about the less heralded aspects of writing. The perseverance that’s required. One’s ability to overcome doubt. Not listening to the more “practical” minded people around you. Taking on the devil known as Procrastination. It’s conquering those little things that nobody outside the arts understands.
When Lightning Strikes does this really neat thing in its final scene. It shows Joanne (as she’s introduced here) sitting down to finally write Harry Potter. It then flash-forwards to all of her amazing successes (climbing to the top of the best seller list, going to the premier of the first movie, signing books for adoring fans) and then cuts back to her in that room, alone, before any of it has happened, before she’s typed a word. For all she knows, this book will sell 10 copies. It’s a powerful reminder of why we do this – because amazing things can happen on the other side of those pages.
25 year-old Joanne Rowling works in the refugee branch of Amnesty International. She’d be helping less fortunate people find better lives if she wasn’t so achingly awful at her job. Joanne’s a scatterbrain – her mind always 20 minutes behind or 20 minutes ahead of where everyone else is. This makes her ineffective to the point where she gets fired.
The bad news keeps dumbledoring when Joanne’s mother dies after a long illness. Her mom, it turns out, was the only person who encouraged Joanne to write. So losing her is a major blow.
Joanne is so eager to escape England, she takes a teaching job in Portugal, a country she knows nothing about. Once there, she meets a scholarly rogue named Jorge, a guy she kind of likes, but whose constant drinking leaves her unsure if he’s the one. And then she gets pregnant.
While the weight of that situation settles in, Joanne keeps getting ideas for a book about a boy who goes to wizarding school. But that’ll have to wait while she gets married and tries to manage life as an adult. However once her child’s born, Jorge’s drinking gets worse, and she decides to leave him and the country forever, flying back to the UK.
With no jobs and no prospects, an increasingly depressed Joanne must apply for state financial aid. Things get so bad she even considers suicide. However, something keeps driving her to write that story about the boy who goes to wizarding school. So she takes out the box of all the paper scraps and knick-knacks she’s written ideas for the book on, and begins to write what will become the most popular book series in history.
I don’t know the difference between a Hermione and a Dumbledore, which makes me the perfect person to read this script. I can judge it on its story alone, and not on how slyly the writer references the inspiration behind Severenus Snape. Let’s face it. Ever since “George Lucas in Love,” the formula for these scripts has become as predictable as a Quidditch Match between Gryffindor and Wimbourne.
But what’s unique about “When Lightning Strikes” is that, despite being about the most famous author in the world, there isn’t any writing in it! That’s smart when you think about it. As we’ve established here before, the act of writing is one of the most boring things in the universe. It’s hard to dramatize. So what better way to get around that than to not show it?
The question then becomes, is a non-writing JK Rowling’s life interesting enough to watch an entire movie on? That one I’m not so sure about. One of the first things I do after reading a script about a famous person is ask, “Would that have been interesting had the person not been a celebrity?” Does the story work on its own? Or does it only work because you know this is going to become JK Rowling? If you’re leaning on that the whole script, you’re not making your story as good as it can be.
And the juiciest parts of JK’s journey – while good enough for a documentary or a TV movie – weren’t exciting enough to merit the feature treatment. For example, we have Jorge. Jorge is a drunk. And one night, while drunk, he hits Joanne. She’s devastated, takes her child, and leaves the country. I’m not saying hitting someone is okay. But I guess I was expecting the abuse here to be more of a constant if it was going to affect the story that much? Not a one-time drunken thing.
Or there was the stuff about JK having depression. All we get there is Joanne admitting to a therapist that she sometimes thinks of harming herself, and then a later scene where she looks at a razor for three seconds. “When Lightning Strikes” wants so badly for you to feel its weight and yet it never pushes down. Looking at a razor for three seconds doesn’t convince me that Joanne is suicidal just as a single drunken tussle doesn’t convince me that Joanne endured an unbearable abusive relationship. Even when she was on government aid, I never felt like Joanne was in danger.
And with these stories, that’s the objective. The journey can’t just feel difficult. It must feel impossible. We have to wonder how the main character is going to overcome this. Because remember, we already know that JK Rowling becomes a billionaire. So if she’s not overcoming impossible obstacles to reach that point, why is that a story worth telling? If her journey is only “kinda hard,” is it one the world should hear? Or is it better left to a Wikipedia entry?
With that said, When Lightning Strikes gives us plenty to think about as writers, starting with the title. “When Lightning Strikes.” Is that all zeitgeist novels and films are? Lightning in a bottle? Are our digital documents evenly weighted lottery tickets and nothing more? I don’t think so. I believe that you can align the variables (clever concept, marketable premise, practice practice practice) so that the storm forms around you, increasing the chances that the lightning will strike nearby.
“I’m hoping to do some good in the world.” This is a line Joanne thinks of early in the script and writes down (I’m assuming it was used in the book). I’m not a fan of writing non-specific lines down and then looking for somewhere to put them. Good writing comes organically and the best lines tend to arrive in the moment, as you’re writing the scene. If you’re going into a scene rearranging the characters and the setting and the dialogue rhythm all so you can put in some cool line you thought of 7 months ago, you’re losing the game of screenwriting. Of course, if the line you thought of 7 months ago happens to fit into your story perfectly, use it!
When Lightning Strikes is also a reminder that you’re never going to encounter the perfect circumstances in life for writing. Writers are famous for telling themselves, “Well if I can just cut my hours down at work,” or “If I just had a partner who supported me,” or “Once school is over, I’ll have more time,” or “Once my 4 year old starts school, I’ll have a big chunk of time to write.” Life is ALWAYS going to make writing difficult. And you can’t use that as an excuse. Part of succeeding as a writer is writing when you don’t have the time, when don’t feel like it, when you’re waiting for better circumstances to arise. The next Harry Potter ain’t going to write itself, dude.
While “When Lightning Strikes” offered some slight differences in the writer-biopic formula, it wasn’t enough to get me to cast my best Avada Kedavra spell. This felt too light and feathery. I expected heavier. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go google what Avada Kedavra means then decide if I’m Team Ron or Team Harry.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In the opening scene of When Lightning Strikes, which takes place on a train, Joanne gets the idea for Harry Potter and must find a pen so she can write it down. She desperately asks everyone around if they have a pen and no one does. However, she eventually finds one and is able to get the idea down. — I have a controversial belief when it comes to idea generation. If you have to write a movie (or book) idea down to remember it, it’s not a great movie or book idea. If you’ve got a great idea, YOU WILL REMEMBER IT. That’s what great ideas are. They’re unforgettable. If the next day you’re struggling to remember what that “great” idea was, there’s a good chance it wasn’t that great. Which is actually a nice indirect way of filtering out your weak ideas.