Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan
January 7, 2007
“An apocalyptic tone poem.”
That’s how Fellini described Alfred Hitchcock’s nature-strikes-out-at-man thriller The Birds. It’s also one apt description for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest screenplay, The Happening, a harrowing nightmare vision against which a young couple fights to survive. It is a vision that at one point almost seemed destined to not make it to the silver screen.
Shyamalan brought the screenplay, originally titled The Green Effect, to Hollywood in January 2007, while the Philadelphia-based writer/director was in Los Angeles working on the plans for his cartoon-to-live action adaptation Avatar: The Last Airbender for Paramount. Although he met with executives at most of the major studios – Disney being the noted exception, with Shyamalan perhaps still harboring bad feelings from the confrontation he had with now ex-production president Nina Jacobson that led to him taking his script for Lady In The Water to Warner Brothers – no one moved to buy it. A rewrite later and Shyamalan made a second round of the studios. The March 6, 2007 edition of Variety reporting the results- 20th Century Fox greenlighting the film with production to begin August 2007. As the film’s start drew nearer, Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo were announced as being cast as leads. It is Shyamalan’s initial draft that is under scrutiny here.
One fall morning, people begin to exhibit strange behavior before inexplicably killing themselves. In Central Park, a woman reading a book suddenly stabs herself in the throat with a hairpin. Blocks away, workers on a construction site just casually walk off the iron skeleton of a skyscraper, plummeting to their deaths. Meanwhile, in a downtown Philadelphia apartment, Elliot and Alma are having an argument. After months of trying, Alma realizes that their marriage is no longer working and is preparing to leave Elliot. Elliot, however, feels that there is still hope that they can repair their relationship, but Alma disagrees.
As reports of strange deaths begin to come in from cities around the world, some believe that the mysterious deaths are part of a coordinated terrorist attack, while others argue that there is no one connection between the cities so far targeted. The school where Elliot teaches science is dismissed. Elliott races home to collect Alma and then meet his friend Julian and his child at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station in order to head out to the presumed safety of the New Jersey countryside. But it is only after they begin their trek do they begin to realize the scope of the death toll. People in big cities, small towns and cars parked on the New Jersey turnpike all succumb to the urge to kill themselves. Elliot begins to realize that the deaths aren’t the result of a terrorist attack, but are being caused by the release of a toxin by the surrounding plant life in an evolutionary last-ditch attempt to protect themselves from the predator that endangers them the most- man.
Much in the same way Shyamalan’s Signs isn’t so much about an alien invasion but how one man rediscovers his lost faith in God in the middle of extraordinary circumstances, the events of The Happening are merely the backdrop against which Elliot and Alma rediscover their love for each other. Interestingly, the screenplay’s original title, The Green Effect, refers not only to nature’s attack on humanity, but to the climactic scenes of the script’s third act, when the color green takes on additional significance, becoming the element that facilitates Elliot and Alma’s reconciliation. It seems a mistake to loose a title that has layered meanings with the story for the more generic The Happening, which only seems to highlight nature’s attack against mankind and ignores the character-driven story that is the film’s backbone. Unless it ties into some change Shyamalan has made to the script based on the original round of studio notes.
(Oddly enough, for an apocalypse story, there’s no real mention of religion. Although Shyamalan has Elliot posit a scientific explanation for what is going on, it would be hard not to imagine some would interpret the events as God’s judgment on mankind.)
Shyamalan clearly and deftly defines the Elliot and Alma relationship in the first three pages of the script. Their marriage is falling apart. Alma recognizes this but can’t get Elliot to see it himself. Elliot, for his part, is clinging to the memory of what their relationship was, rather than face what it has become. In this opening scene, he tries to get out of an argument by postponing the discussion. “We’ll talk about this later. We’re angry,” he says to Alma, oblivious to the sarcasm in her reply, “That must be it Elliot.” Alma doesn’t hate her husband though, and even tells him that she’s not trying to hurt him. Unfortunately, it is this admission that Elliot latches on to as hope that their marriage can be saved. It’s a complex dynamic between the two and Shyamalan sketches it for the audience gracefully through the simple dialogue of the scene.
For all the foreground action that focuses on Elliot and Alma’s relationship, Shyamalan doesn’t neglect the horror elements of the situations he has conceived. He cannily mixes graphic images such as the early deaths in New York City with other scenes, like one set in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, that play out just off-screen, leaving the details to our imagination. Shyamalan doesn’t spare many characters a grisly fate, either. Sweet old ladies walking their dogs, commuters, teenagers and others going about their daily routine are all indiscriminately killed by the plants’ toxin.
But the real horror of the script is that with the sudden release of the toxin by plants, man finds his taken-for-granted dominance over nature suddenly gone and that he is quite literally surrounded by a quiet, invisible killer against which there is no defense. There’s something insidiously frightening in the simple descriptions of a light breeze rustling the grass of New York’s Central Park in the moments before the plants’ toxin begins to claim its first victims. Filmed properly, and there’s no reason to believe that Shyamalan wouldn’t do the image justice, this should produce suitable chills in the audience.
Those coming to the movie expecting another “Bruce Willis is really a ghost” type twist ending with which some appear to expect from Shyamalan will be sorely disappointed. At this point in his career, it should be obvious that Shyamalan is more than a one-trick pony, a weaver of supernatural O. Henry stories that send their audiences out theater doors into the bright sunlight of a much safer and rational world than the one they just witnessed, their minds still reeling from a last minute storytelling hairpin curve. Instead, Shyamalan is a fantasist with a fascination for the human condition. He is more concerned with exploring human emotion and reaction than he is with presenting the spectacle against which these stories invariably play against. And while he may have recently stumbled with last year’s Lady In The Water, this initial draft of The Happening shows a writer/director working very much on all cylinders.