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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'News of the World'

January 7, 2021
3 min read time

With long, strolling shots of the Old Texas landscape, News of the World was meant to be seen on the big screen and in any normal year, the Oscar® contender would have opened to a stronger box office draw than its current limited possibilities. The film opened at #2 and pulled in just $2.2 million over its opening weekend.

However, the western also proves that epic historical adventures still draw in major talent.

News of the World is a stunning film based on the novel of the same name (written by Paulette Jiles) and adapted for the screen by Luke Davies and Paul Greengrass (who also directs). The story takes place in 1870 and centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former soldier who roams from town-to-town, sharing the news he collects from newspapers throughout the world in front of a paying audience.

One day he comes across Johanna (Helena Zengel, a young girl who was taken from her family by the Kiowa tribe. She has spent the majority of her young life with the Kiowa and recognizes them as her family; her people. After being removed from their land, Johanna is discovered amongst the tribe and Kidd’s task is to return the girl to her remaining blood family members.

Here are five takeaways from News of the World to consider as you develop your historical-based screenplays.

1. Bad communication can be a good idea

Communication issues create a large amount of conflict. It gives characters the opportunity to be both wary of each other and simultaneously grow together as they figure out how to communicate. From westerns like Dances with Wolves to more modern films like Rush Hour and Love, Actually characters Jamie and Aurelia, this element provides plenty of room for characters to struggle and share light-hearted, even comedic moments.

News of the World pairs the English-speaking Kidd with Johanna, who only knows the Kiowa language, thus adding conflict to an already tense situation.

2. Modern themes

Movies mostly touch on universal themes. Historical films can offer a glimpse into our own world in a unique way, and can also show us that the issues we face today are similar to ones faced in the past.

While News of the World is fiction, it does portray events that actually happened. One compelling aspect of Kidd’s readings is that he provides federal news in a time and place that was hostile toward the North. Taking place just five years after the Civil War, hatred and distrust still runs deep in the South. Listeners boo at the name of President Ulysses S. Grant and are openly hostile to the Union Army, who are still in the South protecting the peace. But Kidd’s reading of the news makes him a trusted source and it’s his intention to remain objective. His listeners trust him too, even if they don’t always like what they hear.

As Kidd travels with Johanna, they come across lawless parts and people, one of which is a man named Farley, whose goal is to keep Texas (or at least parts of it) a separate entity from the United States. Farley controls part of a county and sees to it that the men and women under his control receive only the news supplied by him. This propaganda keeps them engaged only with what Farley wants them to know.

These two themes: trusted news sources and propaganda/misinformation campaigns are relatable to our modern day media, even if they are disguised in a world from 150 years ago.

3. Reluctant hero

What story doesn’t love a reluctant hero? Kidd is simply so busy and focused on his life that he doesn’t have time to watch a child, nevertheless deliver her to family on the other side of the state. Who else can manage this task? Trying to pass her off to different people, whether they’re friends who operate a school, or the military, is not an option. No one has the capability of helping Kidd.

Reluctantly, he must be the one to protect Johanna and be the hero who takes her to her only remaining family, even if she continually fights to return to the Kiowa people who raised her.

4. Family isn’t always defined by blood

Another takeaway that a screenwriter can glean from the relationship between Kidd and Johanna is how these characters with nothing in common come to depend on one another. This involves setting up early what both want, how they get into each other’s way, and ultimately how they evolve to become better off together by surviving through the circumstances.

Both main characters in News of the World walk the world without families. It’s the screenwriter’s job to make characters who butt heads at the beginning become emotionally dependent upon each other by the end. This sets up higher stakes for the climax and conclusion of the story.

5. Storytelling is universal

It is often said that storytelling goes back to the days when our ancestors sat around the campfire and swapped tales of adventure. Today, we have TikTok videos. Either way, we have in us the desire to hear stories that inform and move us, which brings the need for people to create them.

Kidd’s role is to find the best stories the world over and share them with his audience. He must pull in and relate the ones that give his listeners the information locally, nationally and globally. But he also shares the smaller stories his audience can relate to, and the ones that holds their interest. It’s why he regales one of his Texas audience members with a story about heroic coal miners in Pennsylvania. If he accomplishes being both informative and entertaining, then he gets paid.

For screenwriters, storytelling is the job. Do it well, hold your audience’s interest, and you can be paid as well.

 

News of the World s was released in theaters on December 25, 2020.

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