Genre: Biopic
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.

  • carsonreeves1

    Where the HECK is the Solo trailer???

    • Citizen M

      Shit! Beaten by a minute.

      • Avatar

        Well, you can’t beat Carson to the punch…he controls the timing of the article. :)

    • klmn

      Here’s a question for you: How do we spend all this time writing without looking like George R.R. Martin?

      • carsonreeves1

        lol. limit In and Out trips to 3 per week. The snack train must be kept in the station. And no, the station is not your belly.

        • klmn

          Oh sure. Go ahead and laugh, Mr. Cheeseburger Addict.

        • Avatar

          I really do not know what Kathleen Kennedy is doing. She fired the original directors after they essentially shot most of the movie. She pushed Gareth Edwards aside and got another director to tinker with Rogue One. She fired Colin Trevorrow off Star Wars 9. She fired Josh Trank off the Boba Fett movie. If she wants to micromanage so much, why doesn’t she just be the director? She’s the one that hired all these guys in the first place. Maybe, it’s time to ask whether Kathleen Kennedy should shoulder some of the blame for all of these expensive musical chairs.

          • carsonreeves1

            She’s definitely in over her head here. No question.

          • Avatar

            It feels like the old guard trying to cling to power, so she over reacts when there’s “creative differences.” If she doesn’t trust the creators she hires, then she shouldn’t have hired them in the first place. They can’t even figure out a tone for Han Solo… which is really concerning because that’s my favorite character in Star Wars. The Force Awakens, Rogue One and the Last Jedi all do not seem to match each other…. the original trilogy had a continuity.

    • Raza Rizvi

      Clearly, they don’t want anybody to see any of the footage. This movie is going to be a disaster.

      • carsonreeves1

        Well they can’t hide from it forever! The movie’s coming out in like 5 months.

        I’m predicting they push it to December. If it’s as bad as people are saying it is, why not push the movie to a spot where Star Wars fans are comfortable seeing new Star Wars films anyway, and really try and save it. I don’t see how they would dump a Star Wars movie and just accept defeat. It’s too valuable of a franchise.

    • Mayhem Jones

      I was just reading gossip about this yesterday!! Apparently Alden Ehrenreich’s performance of young Han Solo is so bad Disney is already writing the movie off as a bomb… whatever! I’ve worked with Alden before and am excited to see it — hopefully Disney is wrong about this one!

      • Avatar

        I liked his performance in Rules Don’t Apply. Sometimes, it’s the script and director. I thought Boyega and Daisy Ridley came off awkward in the first film….but maybe those scenes were just silly to begin with.

    • andyjaxfl

      Attached to Avengers: Infinity War because it’s probably dropping in December!

    • Scott Crawford

      Where’s the trailer for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 6? What’s the title? Not even a production still. Seems to be the new way of doing things.

      Cast your mind back to 1997… Godzilla trailer dropped, a teaser, over a year before the movie came out. By the time it did come out… Godzilla fatigue.

  • Citizen M

    “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.”

    Monty Python managed to dramatize writing, although perhaps only for those who think cricket commentaries are exciting.

    • PQOTD

      Only the Pythons could pull this off, lol.

  • Adam McCulloch

    I could’a been a contender. I could’a had SS primo position.

  • Lucid Walk

    I didn’t get to post this when Carson posted his, so I’d like to do it now.

    2017 is over, but I’ve still got a lot of films to watch and rewatch before I can compile my top 10 list. That being said, here are the 7 which will definitely make the cut, as well as the order for which they’re ranked.

    IT — A horror film has never been my number one pick. And while it wasn’t as scary as I hoped, it had a surprising amount of heart. My eyes get misty every time I see Bill holding Georgie’s yellow jacket, and his friends hug him together. Great movie.

    LOGAN — Having grown up with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine since I was 9, of course this was gonna make the list. The fact that it’s a semi-Western doesn’t hurt either.

    DUNKIRK — What Nolan lacks in character development, he makes up for with spectacle. I saw this at the SJR on the WB lot, and nearly lost my hearing due to how loud it was. The time twist was just icing on the cake.

    STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI — Love it or hate it, it’s Star Wars. It’s why we go to the movies. And regardless of what path this new trilogy takes, I’m just delighted to experience the adventure.

    WONDER WOMAN — At last! We finally got another badass female hero. What else can I say that hasn’t been said already? Epic film.

    JOHN WICK 2 — The surprise hit of the year. While I wasn’t too gung-ho over the original, this one delivered everything you could want out of an action movie. And after that killer ending? Chapter 3 can’t come soon enough.

    BLADE RUNNER 2049 — Masterful. By all accounts, this film should sweep every Oscar it’s nominated for. Alas, it’s too damn slow and doesn’t pack the rewatchability factor like the rest of my list. Still, this is the pinnacle of artistic motion pictures.

    Happy New Year, btw!

    • Doug

      BR2049 was a huge disappointment. Never has a movie looked so good, yet been so let down by its screenplay. It’s a one dimensional story, with one dimensional characters and one dimensional dialogue, spread out to a ridiculous length.

    • andyjaxfl

      I loved most of John Wick 2, and I love the threads left dangling at the end. Has me really, really excited for Part 3, which in my fantasy will begin with John having to fight his way out of NYC.

  • ripleyy

    Her life is unremarkable since others have gone through what she has, but worse

  • carsonreeves1

    I believe in writing down details once you have a movie idea in place. But the entire idea? I mean, how good can it be if you forget it the next day?

  • Wijnand Krabman

    I agree. You can construct a story based on one single line, it only has to be a great line. Collateral damage, regardless if you like it or not, had that line; If only we could be strangers again? This was a great line they used it a little too often but never the less.

  • Dimitri

    And one idea can turn into another idea, which turns into a great idea. I know Stephen King has the same filosophy Carson has. But he’s Stephen King, like Tarantino or Sorkin, there is only one of them on the planet.
    I believe in writing your ideas down, most of the time they’ll stay there and won’t evolve. But sometimes they’ll grow into something bigger.

  • carsonreeves1

    oh wow, four weeks? that is pretty brave.

  • andyjaxfl

    I love JK Rowling’s rag-to-riches story, but is it too widely known right now? Who is going into the cinema not knowing these details? Hell, I’m a casual Harry Potter fan and there isn’t much that I don’t already know about her story.

    This is crazy, but why not wait 10-15 years before filming this. People will forget some of the details that went into creating this fantastic world, and it’ll be fresh again when this movie arrives in cinemas for Christmas 2033.

  • Malibo Jackk

    I put off writing for as long as I can.
    Someone calls. I tell them I have 80 pages.
    I tell them I will send 30 pages in the morning.
    Truth is I have nothing.
    — Buck Henry

    This has been a Malibo moment.