Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Harrow Alley

Genre: Period Drama
Premise: A 17th century English town deteriorates during the worst years of the black plague. How's that for a crowd-pleaser?
About: This is it folks. This is the one. Considered to be the best script that's never been made in Hollywood. It was written in the 60s and has been optioned dozens of times. Yet because of its dreary subject matter and...aggressive length, it never made it in front of the camera. I've personally spoken to a couple of people who call this the best script they've ever read.
Writer: Walter Brown Newman

Even today's picture is old.

A lot of scripts make me feel old. They're simplistic, the devices tired, cliche-ridden, and there are a few too many orifice-dependent jokes. Harrow Alley made me feel like I was young. Kindergarten young. I found myself saying, "This is the kind of shit people used to like?" Talk about a script that takes its time. Harrow Alley is 180 pages long. That's half a circle man. Clint Eastwood wouldn't read this script because he was afraid he would die before he was finished. War and Peace is an afternoon read compared to this thing. Did they have editing in the 60s?

Anyway, I can't say I'm particularly surprised that this movie's never been made. It's got all the optimism of a Saudi Arabian beheading. The setting is compelling enough - A city in England during the plague - but in the end, the narrative is too widespread and the driving force too muddled to make the story modern audience-friendly. That's not to say it was bad. It was just...challenging. Very. Very. Challenging.

Harrow Alley takes place in England around the 17th century, or whenever the hell the Bubonic Plague was wreaking havoc. Although there are dozens of characters in the script, the two we focus on the most are Ratsey, a common thief who's been sentenced to death, and Harry, an alderman for a town in London called Harrow Alley.

Mere seconds before Ratsey is to be hanged, one of the guards faints due to complications from the plague. The precious few seconds Ratsey gains from the man's death allows a stage coach to race in, and the Alderman Harry to leap out and declare a stay on the execution. Back in Harrow Alley, the plague is just beginning to flourish. Because no one wants to actually touch the dead bodies, the town is forced to look for help in unfamiliar places. Who better to risk their lives moving these diseased corpses than men who were supposed to be dead anyway?

Ratsey is shuttled back to Harrow Alley, where we get our first look at the town. It's bigger than you'd expect - housing tens of thousands of people - but no sooner are they home than they see the town is in complete chaos! People are fleeing for London (More people - dirtier conditions - makes sense) in a desperate attempt to avoid the plague. Even the Mayor himself is on his way out. Before he knows it, Harry - a low ranking alderman - is the highest ranking official left! Which means it is his job to run the town.

Ratsey, getting this reprieve on life, is particularly unaffected in the face of death. It irks the hell out of everyone else until someone finally asks him his secret. Ratsey confesses that he already had the plague as a kid, and since you can't get the plague twice, he's immune to it. Snap! As richer and more respected men fear for their lives, the lowly Ratsey strolls through town without a care in the world. Here, he's Superman.

We meet all sorts of people from Harrow Alley. The young prostitute, the ancient doomsayer, the doctor, the clerk, the mute boy, the scam their lives twist and turn and intersect in strange and surprising ways. As the plague ruthlessly devours the town, some of these people make it and some don't. But it's Harry and Ratsey's lives that we keep coming back to.

Harry, who begins the movie as the optimist, lives with a pregnant wife who he does not love and who does not love him. His closest friend is his dog, who he's forced to kill because of the plague. Harry is a good man who cannot bring himself to understand why the town's elite have left their people to fend for themselves. And even though he begins to fall in love with his wife, and she with him, the exponentially increasing death toll eventually leaves Harry just as hopeless as everyone else.

The final straw is Ratsey who learns by the death of a friend, that anybody can get the plague, even those who've had it before. And so the two acquaintences give in, waiting for the day when death will surely knock on their door.

Just when you think all is lost though (and let's not kid ourselves - it still is), Ratsey befriends the baker's widowed wife, who finds comfort in teaching Ratsey how to make bread. For the first time, Ratsey provides value to the world, which gives him something he's never had before: a sense of self-worth. When he runs into an old prison friend who offers him a chance to maim and pillage once again, Ratsey respectfully declines. At last he's found peace.

The end of the script perfectly bookends the beginning with an unforeseen and quite surprising turn of events. In a story that felt at times like a history assignment, it is probably the part that resonated with me the most. Harrow Alley is both satisfying and exhausting, and I don't know if I'd recommend it to the average reader. Those who have read their share of scripts might find the challenge intriguing. And to them I say, Read on! But for the rest of you, this review will probably suffice. Now, whenever you find yourself in a snobby film circle after a big premiere and someone brings up this "Harrow Alley" masterpiece, you'll be one of the few with an actual opinion. And that's what I do here at Scriptshadow. I suffer so that you may thrive.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Harrow Alley has these long chunks of action narration: 8, 9, 10 lines long. People have asked me, "If the professionals can use 10 line paragraphs, why can't I?" Here's the answer. Older scripts. Adaptations. Writer-Director screenplays. Writing assignments. There are different rules for these scripts. With the older scripts, - before the spec boom -we just had more time on our hands. With the other examples, those scripts don't have to make it through the overworked time-strapped underbelly of impatient readers who secretly run this town. They're given more freedom to take their time and set things up because the people reading those scripts already trust the writer. You don't have that luxury. You're basically going up against someone who wanted to go to sleep 3 hours ago by the time they even start your script. So you have to keep things short and to the point. Action paragraphs should rarely, if ever, exceed 3 lines. It keeps your script lean and easy to read, which is exactly how you want it. Don't be thrown by these massive chunks of action in scripts like Harrow Alley. That's a different world, a world you're 20 years late to my brother.