Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why "Hanna" is an Example of Great Writing

Hanna, the story of a girl raised in the wilderness by her ex-CIA operative father to be a lethal, stealthy killer, has an interesting premise, great direction by Joe Wright, and an awesome score by the Chemical Brothers. However, I was especially taken by the writing. I'm going to be talking about parts of the movie here, including the climax, so obviously, SPOILERS ahead.

I want to look at something in Hanna that I like to call a 'flourish.' Although it may have another name, what I mean by flourish is a piece of dialogue or character action that could easily be considered a throwaway, but adds depth and realism to the story. The first and main instance I noticed in Hanna came in the scene where she first meets Sophie and her brother walking through the desert. Hanna rattles off a rehearsed backstory meant to hide the fact that she has been raised as a wolf girl in an arctic forest, ending in a line about her supposed dog. The boy, Miles, replies, "We had a dog once, but he went mad."

HELLO! Aren't you impressed? That was the best line in the whole movie! Let me explain. This dog was never brought up again, and the family, which actually plays an important role in Hanna's journey, is not given a resolution, but instead cut off in the middle of the story and not heard from again. There is no reason to bring up this dog, let alone the fact that it died, let alone because it went mad! Miles could have just as easily said, "We have a dog, but he's at home; we had a dog, but he ran away; we had a dog, but he got run over." Why, "we had a dog, but he went mad"? (I do have a suspicion that this is just how British people refer to rabies, but even then, why rabies?) This flourish adds realism to the story, and it's something that you won't see bad screenwriters do.

Character, as well as dialogue flourishes abound in this script, from Isaacs, the German hitman, and his creepy midget show and incessant whistling, to Wiegler's obsession with dental hygiene, to Rachel, the hippie mother played by the too-little cast Olivia Williams, and her obvious free-spiritedness ("Dharma, come down from there!"). But I'd like to look at the father of the hippie family, Sebastian. Hardly any information is given on him, but one thing we can tell is that there is some sort of tension between him and Rachel. And why not? They're traveling across continents with two kids. But we never find out what the source of the conflict is, and we do see them in relatively happy situations: singing along to "Kooks" by David Bowie, and later, rocking their trailer "going at it like rabbits," as Sophie notes. They just seem like real people.

To a similar effect, look at the character of Knepfler, who Hanna encounters during her stay at Grimm's house. You could certainly count many aspects of his character as flourishes: his magic tricks, seeming insanity, and the fact that he lives in a creepy abandoned amusement park, but again, what's noteworthy is what the the writer chooses not to reveal. In a scene like this (in which Hanna is meant to rendevous with her father, Erik) we could have easily gotten some trite explanation of how Knepfler and Erik knew each other, even by way of a logical question from Hanna herself, i.e. "How do you know my father?" Instead, the author chooses to have Hanna trust Knepfler uncoditionally (which seems to the audience like a huge mistake) and we never find out how the two were connected.

Of course, flourishes work best in doses, and similar omissions can be detrimental. The audience is likewise left out of the loop for story points I would deem valuable, if not necessary, regarding the history between Erik and Wiegler, and whatever connection Wiegler has to Hanna. In the final standoff between the two, it seems implied that Wiegler feels a motherly connection to Hanna, but without really knowing, I don't think the climax was nearly as powerful as it could have been.

Next up, a look at a piece of really bad writing, Source Code.


Cole said...

Interesting. I imagine you'd be fun to watch movies with, mainly to hear your commentary. What were your thoughts on Book of Eli?

Garrett F. Baker said...

I haven't seen it! Heard interesting things though.