The Art of Screenwriting: Philippa Boyens
Countless minds are dreaming of the day their script comes to life, with there being many professional and iconic screenwriters for inspiration. One of the best in the screenwriting world is Philippa Boyens, who received the highest screenwriting accolade after winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at the 76th Academy Awards in 2004.
Boyens is a screenwriter and film producer who co-wrote the screenplay for Peter Jackson's films The Lord of the Rings series, King Kong, The Lovely Bones, and the three-part film The Hobbit. Boyens collaborated with Jackson and Fran Walsh on these films, making Boyens a perfect screenwriter to analyze, specifically for adaptations and writing a successful franchise.
Photo credit: Tracking Board
Knowing How to Adapt Source Material
Adapting something as sprawling as the Lord of the Rings is daunting, no matter how talented the filmmaking team is behind the story. Boyens, Walsh, and Jackson had an incredible ahead of them, but as we all know, they knocked it out of the park, making it one of the most popular franchises in film history.
The lesson learned is that a complete adaptation, no matter what it is, should take the core elements of the story and utilize them as pillars throughout the story. With something as sprawling as The Lord of the Rings, Boyens, Walsh, and Jackson wouldn’t have been able to fit everything from the story into the films.
Take a look at how Lord of the Rings is introduced in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring script:
SUPER: THE LORD OF THE RINGS
EXT. PROLOGUE - DAY
IMAGE: FLICKERING FIRELIGHT. The NOLDORIN FORGE in EREGION. MOLTEN GOLD POURS from the lip of an IRON LADLE.
It began with the forging of the Great Rings.
IMAGE: THREE RINGS, each set with a single GEM, are received by the HIGH ELVES - GALADRIEL, GIL-GALAD, and CIRDAN.
GALADRIEL (V.O.) (CONT’D)
Three were given to the Elves: immortal, wisest ... fairest of all beings.
IMAGE: SEVEN RINGS held aloft in triumph by the DWARF LORDS.
Though some hardcore fans may get annoyed with the liberties taken in the film franchise, it comes down to knowing how to adapt a story. It focuses on adapting the story, not the source material, meaning you can leave out some characters or arcs if it doesn’t benefit the film's central narrative. In The Lord of the Rings case, they left out Tom Bombadil, which you can dive into a Reddit page to learn more about if interested.
Every Character Has a Voice
Boyens and the Lord of the Rings crew indeed left out a lot from the book, but what can be said is that every character they ended up using has a voice. No matter what script you bring up from Boyens, there are many characters tangled throughout these stories, most of which are dense with characterization.
Every writing class emphasizes characterization’s importance, and Boyen’s scripts' dense nature is primarily centered on giving every character a voice. Though there are main characters in these stories, there’s a reason many of these side characters are fan favorites. The reason is that we know practically as much about the side characters as the main ones.
Boyens has very much worked on scripts with a larger budget in mind. You can’t make a Lord of the Rings or King Kong without a big budget behind it. Still, even with those bigger budgets in mind, Boyens and everyone else involved understood the necessity to be practical with their writings.
That practicality is why The Lord of the Rings and King Kong still hold up today, even with some of the special effects being dated. It’s about writing stories that could be brought to life instead of writing whatever comes to mind with the hope that it can get made. Hence, there’s a process to envisioning what’s possible.
No matter how dense the story is for Boyens to work on, Boyens understands the necessity of understanding a theme while writing. For example, the core of The Lord of the Rings is the notion of good versus evil. Though there are overarching themes like friendship, loyalty, and brotherhood, it centers back on good and evil.
Thus, Boyens’ scripts build around that central theme, no matter how sprawling the story gets. Themes are what give a script meaning. It can get lost within the narrative if you don’t have a proper theme or message behind a story. That way, if you know what your script is attempting to do, you’ll have a more robust script by the end.
Leave The Audience Wanting More
Whether you analyze Love and Bones or a franchise like The Lord of the Rings, Boyens believes in leaving the audience to want more. In an era like today, sequels are constantly made with offshoots and prequels. Attempting to write a large story like Boyens has means you’ll need to craft an ending that can spin off into something else.