5 Lessons on Writing a Biopic from Ridley Scott’s 'Napoleon'
November 28, 2023
Who is Napoleon Bonaparte? Considering how significant he was in 19th-century Europe, it’s surprising that 2023's Napoleon seems to be the biggest and most comprehensive biopic of the French emperor's life over 200 years later. The film, directed by legendary director Ridley Scott, is not only a historical epic detailing Napoleon's role in the French Revolution and his rise to power but it's also a great example of how screenwriters can expertly write a biopic about such a prominent historical figure.
Let's go over some key takeaways from Napoleon that will help you construct your own biopic.
The Core of Your Character
If you’re writing a biopic that focuses on a single individual, you’ll want to define the core of that character at the beginning. While the character (yes, the real-life person becomes a character the moment you start writing your script) may have an arc and change throughout the story, the core of the character will remain intact.
Biopics from Ali to Lincoln to Elvis to Erin Brockovich have the central character defined at the start of the story. Napoleon is no different. Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) shown as smart, cunning, ruthless, and ambitious from the first scene. While he may change as a person throughout, he’s essentially the same person at his core from beginning to end. When creating characters, it’s important to consider what parts of them won’t change no matter what.
If you look at Iron Man (very much not a biopic), he’s the same person at his core from the first movie to the final Avengers film. He’s cocky, confident and believes he’s the smartest person in the room. Napoleon is that smart and ambitious person in the final scene, just as he was in the first scene even though decades have passed throughout the movie.
What Your Character Can’t Control
Napoleon can do a lot. He wins battles. He becomes emperor. He wins the adoration of his fellow French citizens. But the external forces he can’t control and his response to them are equally important.
For instance, when fighting in Egypt he learns of his wife Josephine’s (Vanessa Kirby) infidelities. How does someone who commands armies to battle to the death react to these insinuations? Regarding the character, does his reaction make sense to what has been developed as a character? In this case, the ambitions of his personal life supersede his ambitions on the battlefield so he deserts his forces and returns to France.
Most of the time, your characters are fighting things they can’t control even though it might be something of their own creation. A good example of this is J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer — the physicist grapples with the reality that he has helped create a weapon capable of destroying civilization and doesn't have the power to dictate how it's used. How does he react to what he can’t control?
Do You Need a Character Arc?
As mentioned above, Napoleon, at his core, doesn’t change throughout the film. To add to that, he doesn’t have much of a character arc either. What’s portrayed is a series of events throughout his life and how Napoleon played a role in the outcome. The film goes back and forth between battle sequences, his personal life as emperor, and his desire to have an heir.
And while the film spans nearly three decades of his life, Napoleon doesn’t change very much. He doesn’t seem to learn any lessons, have any epiphanies that alter his perspective, or become a different person.
Sometimes there are stories to tell in which the lead character barely transforms and so the story acts more as a portrayal of events. Examples include films such as Black Hawk Down, Passion of the Christ, and Forrest Gump. When it comes to writing a story in which your lead character doesn’t change, it’s important to show how their presence impacts and changes others.
Forrest Gump’s title character impacts the lives of those around him but remains relatively the same. Napoleon is more about his influence on politics during a tumultuous time in France and how he affected the empire’s expansion.
Find the Moments that Matter
What are the moments that impact your character’s life? You can’t fill an entire movie with every moment of your lead character’s existence so you have to find the parts that stand out as significant in their life and are relevant in telling your story.
In Napoleon, these moments included decisive battles that propelled him into being a hero to the people, meeting and marrying Josephine, and becoming the emperor. Within these moments are the scenes that show how and why they mattered to the character. For instance, the Siege of Toulon played a critical role in showing Napoleon’s intelligence in commanding an army and was significant in not only removing the Royalist rebels but increasing his prominence.
If you’re writing a biopic, find the moments that matter and plan out the scene(s) that lead to it, the action itself, and the aftermath.
Taking Creative License in Biopics
Napoleon takes some artistic license to provide a better cinematic story, so writers looking to create a biopic about a famous figure can always say, “Well, Ridley Scott’s movie wasn’t exactly accurate so I can be creative as well.”
Professor Michael Broers, a leading Napoleon expert, who was hired as a historical consultant on the film would provide what really happened in the key moments of Napoleon’s life. It was then up to the filmmakers whether they wanted to stay truthful or alter what happened.
One of the first scenes shows Napoleon at the beheading of Marie Antoinette, something Broers says didn’t happen because he was off in the south of France at the time. His presence in the movie at the beheading provides the context of how an event like this would shape his view of angry constituents, something he would both fear and use to his advantage.
It goes to show that you can take creative license as long as it captures the spirit of the character/event and helps advance the story you want to tell.
Ridley Scott tends to tell intriguing stories about historical figures or events. Any number of Ridley Scott’s movies provides a number of takeaways that can assist in your writing. Napoleon is a character focus on an extremely famous figure who hasn’t appeared in too many movies; now was the time for such a prominent individual to get their biopic.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.