“I’m saying you are stuck in Wichita.”
Del Griffith (John Candy)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
On Thanksgiving Day 2013 I decided to challenge myself to a movie mash-up. Could I take a classic 26 year old Thanksgiving story (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and somehow connect it with a movie that is currently number one in the box office this Thanksgiving (Hunger Games: Catching Fire). According to Box Office Mojo Planes had a total gross of just under $50 million—Catching Fire made more than that its opening day and has gone on to make more than $300 million worldwide in the first six days of its theatrical release.
Granted Planes was released in 1987 so you’d have to adjust those numbers to be an equal comparison, but the truth is that John Hughes written and directed film starring Steve Martin and John Candy was far below the box office winner (Three Men and a Baby) the year it was release. But when was the last time you heard anybody talking about Three Men and a Baby or quoting lines from that movie?
Like every year, 1987 had its share of memorable films that have endured. Some did well at the box office (Fatal Attraction) and others didn’t find their audience until later (The Princess Bride). But what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles continue to entertain and please audiences today?
“Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us. When ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ was released in 1987, I enjoyed it immensely, gave it a favorable review and moved on. But the movie continued to live in my memory. Like certain other popular entertainments (‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘Casablanca’) it not only contained a universal theme, but also matched it with the right actors and story, so that it shrugged off the other movies of its kind and stood above them in a kind of perfection. This is the only movie our family watches as a custom, most every Thanksgiving….The buried story engine of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”
Review for Planes, Trains and Automobiles
What Ebert called a “buried story engine” I would call theme and emotion. Here are two of my favorite questions on those subjects:
“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
Screenwriter Bill Martell
“The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.
Selling Your Story in 60 seconds
Call it “an understanding how the other guy feels” or “empathy,” but 26 years from now people will still be watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I’m not sure the same can be said for Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The studios don’t care about that now, they’re making money. The reviews are good. They’ve done their job. Me? I’ll watch anything with Jennifer Lawrence in it (she had me at Winters Bone), but Catching Fire didn’t warm my bones. I felt like I was watching a middle program in an episodic TV show that was a cross between Survivor, LOST, and The Truman Show. (Please don’t tell me I need to read the books to appreciate the movie. That was never said of The Godfather—or The Wizard of Oz.)
At first I thought maybe it was just me coming off a long road trip before I saw Catching Fire until I read ScriptShadow’s review of the film.
“The Hunger Games, and movies like it, represents one of the most thankless screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. Sure, you get to write one of the biggest movies of the year, but all the credit will go to the two people who sandwiched you in the process – the author of the original book, and the director who put the movie on the big screen.
To that end, that middle cog, the screenwriter who adapts these huge books, is allowed little to no creativity. His job amounts to that of a translator. Maybe that’s why Catching Fire feels so empty inside. Its two talented screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, weren’t allowed to do anything but translate. And it’s left this movie without a soul.”
Movie Review—Catching Fire
Even if you really enjoyed the film (which many of its intended audience did) you have to admit it didn’t have what Arndt calls an “insanely great ending”—the credits just come up and you go, “I guess it’s over.” Just one of the problem of sequels.
BTW—Scriptshadow also had a good post this week on 10 Screenwriting Tips from Thanksgiving favorite: Plane Trains and Automobiles!
P.S. Films released in 1987 worth going back and watching or re-watching include Empire of the Sun (Christian Bale’s first major film), Wall St. (Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his role created by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser), Moonstruck, the third Coen Brother film—Raising Arizona, and my personal favorite of that year Broadcast News written and directed by James L. Brooks.
40 Days of Emotions
Theme: What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
“The Artists” 3— “Hunger Games” 0
Before John Hughes Became John Hughes (And how Planes was inspired by his day job.)