Genre: TV Pilot – Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: In the future, earth sends a small expedition to visit the origin planet of a strange musical signal, only for the mission to end in unparalleled disaster.
About: The Sparrow is one of those projects that’s been mired in development hell for almost 20 years now. And when you familiarize yourself with the subject matter, it ain’t hard to figure out why. This isn’t a simple story to tell. It’s an incredibly introspective (and weird) exploration of aliens and religion that’s unlike anything you’ve read before. They tried to turn it into a movie for a decade. And it was only in 2014, with this iteration, that they went the TV route, which is a way better medium for the complex character-driven tale. The draft was written by Michael R. Perry, who wrote one of my favorite scripts ever, The Voices. But it seems to have been jettisoned by AMC since. Sparrow was probably a few years too early. Nowadays, with everyone desperate for content, I find it difficult to believe that Sparrow can’t find a home. Maybe it’s time for Hollywood to get its bird call on.
Writer: Michael R. Perry (based on the novel by Mary Doria Russell)
Details: 57 pages (Revised Writer’s Draft – Sept. 30, 2014)
I’ll read any popular science-fiction novel. In fact, if you have any recommendations for sci-fi novels I haven’t read yet, by all means, suggest them to me in the comments. I read The Sparrow at least a decade ago, and found it to be one of the most challenging science-fiction novels I’ve ever read.
You have to understand that my blueprint for science fiction up to that point had been stuff like Independence Day and Men in Black. Big, loud, and obnoxious. Well, The Sparrow’s DNA is quiet, introspective, and creepy.
Despite that, I felt that the bones were there for a good adaptation. They would definitely need to deviate from the source material in places, though. Some of the plot points here are so non-commercial they may as well have been cooked up in Pyongyang. To turn this into a movie or TV show, an awesome writer would be needed. Knowing what Michael Perry was capable of, I felt this pilot had a chance. Let’s find out if he cracked it.
The year is 2089. We’re in the Vatican. A man in his 50s, Emilio Sandoz, is being kept there after some harrowing event, as we can see from his heavily bandanged body. Outside, a huge crowd is growing, throwing rocks at his window, calling him a rapist, calling him a murderer.
Cut to 20 years earlier. Sandoz is part of an exhibition to a faraway planet. The 7-man crew is being guided by Jesuits, the result of the unique signal that was sent to earth – a melody that many believe contained religious undertones.
The key members of the crew besides Sandoz are Father Roubidoux, the captain, Sofia Mendes, a linguist, and Sam Hawkins, a brilliant science professor and the only member of the crew who doesn’t believe in God. Sofia and Hawkins are married. And we find out early on that Sandoz isn’t a big fan of their relationship. That may be because he secretly loves Sofia.
Once on the alien planet, which is strangely devoid of obvious intelligent life, the team begins a weeks-long waiting period so the ship can measure the safety of the atmosphere. However, just a couple of days in, everyone wakes to find out that Hawkins has snuck out onto the planet.
Sandoz and Sofia go after him, and Sandoz eventually finds him looking out over a cliff. As Sandoz tries to persuade Hawkins to come back, Hawkins slips. Sandoz grabs him. But the question is, how hard did he really hold on? Because Hawkins slips from his grip and falls to his death.
Sandoz must break the news to Sofia and the rest of the crew. However, we get the sense that Sandoz is secretly happy. Sofia is finally his alone. Err, not so fast Sandozy. In a truly miraculous turn of events, Hawkins shows up at the ship the next day, perfectly fine! He also admits to something that would’ve been unthinkable just a day earlier – He saw God, and he now believes.
My big worry with an adaptation of The Sparrow was that much of the book was about thoughts and debate and religion and themes… all stuff that’s terrible for movies and television! There wasn’t much of an engine pushing the story along. And the characters were all rather restrained, or worse, droll.
Perry seems to have recognized this and smartly implemented a wonderful device to jump start a story.
Before we get into what that is, this is a good time to remind you that when it comes to visual storytelling, you want to make things ACTIONABLE! All that means is you want to introduce things that get your characters out there doing things, as opposed to staying in small rooms discussing things. Discussion has its place in storytelling. But it should never be the primary driving force of your narrative.
The quickest way to make a story actionable IS TO INTRODUCE A PROBLEM.
I was pretty bored throughout the opening of The Sparrow. But I can tell you the exact moment when my interest was jump-started. It’s when the crew woke up to find Hawkins gone. Now you had a problem. They needed to find Hawkins. That whole sequence was one of the best of the pilot. And it’s not because of any magical writing trick. It was simply that a problem was introduced, which meant our characters had to become ACTIVE to solve it.
Another great thing about making things actionable is that, usually, it leads to other interesting story developments. The thread where Hawkins comes back from the dead could’ve never occurred had Perry not created a problem in the first place. So if you ever feel like your story is slowing down, throw a problem into the mix. I guarantee you your characters are going to become more interesting, at least until that problem is resolved.
There will be challenges ahead if this pilot gets made. Mixing religion and aliens is a bit like mixing peanut butter and mayonnaise. I’m not sure the two sides believe in one another. It’d be like making a show about an NRA spokesman who preaches for more safe spaces. But that could also be the ace up The Sparrow’s sleeve, what makes it different from everything else out there. And we are in the Golden Age of television. You’re telling me you can’t greenlight The Sparrow when you’ve got stuff like The Orville on the air?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Here’s a way to further take advantage of an ACTIONABLE sequence. Let’s say you need your characters to have a touchy-feely heart-to-heart, or a debate about religion. Do NOT write the scene in a room, with your characters sitting down statically. Instead, introduce the PROBLEM – in this case, Hawkins leaving – then SAVE that conversation for when your characters – in this case, Sandoz and Sofia – are on their way to solve the problem (in this case, finding Hawkins). The dialogue is going to play a lot better underneath the anticipation of solving something.