There’s an important rule that you must always follow when sharing your creative work with people you trust: you must take caution not to fuck over those people with your egomaniacal scheming so that they later have the desire to see that work dragged to hell and New Zealand and back in front of all the mighty gods of Mount Olympus.
An anonymous source contacted me last week to gift me with some gossip and the most cursed object of all time:
That’s right. I have in my possession a copy of the Handbook For Mortals screenplay.
Please note the revision number: 3841. I sincerely hope that this was part of a numbering system and this has not, in fact, been revised three thousand times. Because I have read it, dear reader. And three thousand more revisions would not have saved this. From its earliest days, Handbook For Mortals has been a total non-starter.
“Wow, Jenny! I can’t wait for you to rip this thing to shreds in a very special episode of Jealous Haters Book Club!” you may be thinking. Sadly, it’s much more difficult to prove Fair Use for unpublished material. After a weekend of reading up on Fair Use and unpublished work by living creators, I have decided to forgo becoming embroiled in the stupidest lawsuit of all time. I will not be excerpting any lines of text. However, the dialogue and much of the action in the book is taken wholesale from a draft of the screenplay. In some passages, even typos are duplicated, suggesting that it was copy/pasted from one document to another. You won’t be missing much.
Remember when I was like, “Wow, this book sucks so much because you can tell it was being adapted from a screenplay?” Yeah, I was wrong. The book sucks because the screenplay sucks, and somehow the book is an improvement. This draft of the screenplay is from 2011, so it had at least five years to age like milk, but somehow it managed to come out as a fine…well, I can’t say wine, but at least a vinegar that would be particularly useful for cleaning laminate flooring.
So, just how bad is it?
Shot according to this script, Handbook For Mortals would have been a shockingly short film. If we were to follow the oft-repeated “one page equals one minute” advice, the 112 pages of Handbook For Mortals would create a movie that’s just shy of two hours. But that oft-repeated advice is wrong as hell, as anyone who has ever read a screenplay could tell you. This has a lot to do with the pacing of scenes. For example, the movie Braveheart was shot from a screenplay that’s 143 pages long, but it clocked in at 177 minutes. Why? Action scenes take up a lot more room on film than on the page, as do sweeping shots of the Scottish countryside. On the other hand, movies with snappy, quick-paced dialogue like Moneyball, have longer page counts and shorter run times (168 pages of mostly dialogue for 133 minutes on the screen). The Handbook For Mortals script is mostly dialogue with little action and incredibly short scenes, some with only five to eight lines of conversation without action, like the scene that opens with Mac and Zade lying on some grass chatting for less than a page. What isn’t dialogue is usually description, rather than action. If produced in this format, Handbook For Mortals would be more Dunkirk, less Gone With The Wind. It would need significant padding to get it past the one hour mark. And speaking of those short scenes…
The film version would be choppy and confusing to any viewer who isn’t Lani Sarem. Think the “several weeks later,” time jumps in the book drag the story out over what feels like a full calendar year? Well, you’ll love the screenplay, where everything seems to happen on the same day. Zade leaves her home in New Mexico and seemingly auditions moments later, as we shift from leaving home to the theater without any indication in either the script or the dialogue to suggest a passage of time. No shot of Zade passing a Welcome To Nevada sign, no exterior of the theater, just straight from Zade telling her mother goodbye to Zade opening the doors in the casino. After Sofia’s literal stage dive, she shows up at a bar just a scene later, fully healed, with no mention of a passage of time. Events within scenes move weirdly, too; within eight urgent lines of Pete shouting for someone to call the paramedics, they arrive on the scene as if they’ve been standing in the wings waiting for their cue.
Sarem’s writing micromanages everything. Anything you’d see an actor do on screen from laughs to eye rolls, even blushing is scripted. It’s true that direction like, “(laughing nervously)” will come up in screenplays, but it’s usually when the action is commented on in the dialogue. I haven’t read the Fifty Shades Of Grey screenplay because I don’t hate myself, but I assume Ana’s lip biting and eye rolls would have been included because they’re an impetus for Christian’s lines that follow and therefore must be acted out by Dakota Johnson. In the Handbook For Mortals script, Sarem frequently specifies how the lines should be delivered, what emotion the actor should convey, and what expressions should be used. As someone who reads a lot of screenplays, I feel pretty confident in stating that the number of times this occurs in Handbook For Mortals is highly unusual and displays a shocking lack of faith in the director and actors. This could be due to inexperience as a writer; multiple crucial elements are either missing or employed in strange ways, like fades to black separating what should be continuous scenes and v.o. dialogue labeled as o.s. lines, which suggests this may have been Sarem’s first time.
Sarem included plenty of chances to showcase her singing as well as her nude or nearly-nude body. We know from interviews and the listing on IMDB Pro that Lani Sarem envisioned herself taking on the role of Zade. Which is what makes it so incredibly cringe-worthy when the position of her body is breathlessly described as being fully nude and barely covered by a sheet or lying on her stomach in just her underwear while reading her tarot cards. Why would she be nude, you might ask? Because the “passionate kissing” post-motorcycle ride doesn’t end with the pair just going home and taking things slow. Instead, there’s a sex scene, complete with Mac undressing her and a morning-after discussion of her tattoo, which stands in for the family necklace. In case you’re not impressed with Sarem’s beauty, she included a lot of subtle hints that you should be.
She’s sexy and she knows it, and you’re going to, as well, audience. Besides the nude scenes, we’re treated to the same book interludes of male characters standing around and discussing how sexy they find her. When Sofia is introduced, it’s important to Sarem to note in the action that it should be clear to the audience that though Sofia is beautiful, her personality makes her unattractive. Many characters make references to how gorgeous Zade is and how great her body is, to the point that it borders on sexual harassment of Sarem, by Sarem.
The characters are all somehow much, much worse than their book incarnations…except for Mac. Without the narrative to explain to us that Zade is given lots of gifts and perks at the production’s expense, Sofia’s griping about the special treatment Zade receives comes off as nothing more than unfounded jealousy. There’s no internal monologue from Zade or Mac to describe Charles as socially awkward or unusually career-driven, so on screen, he would just appear to be a total jackass. When the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dates with Jackson are removed, you’re simply left with a guy who likes to talk about how much he’d like to bang the chick he works with. Yeah, you read that right. The dates with Jackson aren’t in here at all.
The love triangle from the book is non-existent. Answering perhaps one of the most pressing questions I’ve had about the novel, the screenplay leaves out the oh-who-ever-will-I-choose subplot by almost immediately pairing up Zade and Mac. As in the book, Mac asks that they “take it slow,” although there’s no mention of his past heartache and just a few scenes later, he calls a company meeting to kiss Zade in front of the entire cast and crew, settling the matter. Though Jackson does have designs on Zade (and Sarem makes sure to include a scene where they kiss), his feelings aren’t reciprocated and absolutely no conflict arises as a result. This may be due in part to the fact that “Jackson” is literally Jackson Rathbone playing Jackson Rathbone. While the novel features “appearances” by Plain White T’s, the screenplay explicitly uses 100 Monkeys as the band, as well as the titles of their songs and the real names of the band members. Sarem wrote this while she managed the band. Imagine if someone you worked with wrote a screenplay in which you’d be expected to portray yourself kissing and delivering lines about how much you want to fuck the character based off of and played by them. Considering that the marketing of the Handbook For Mortals novel now includes “Team Mac” and “Team Jackson” merchandise, it’s clear that Sarem saw Rathbone, still starring in the wildly popular Twilight franchise, as her ticket toward getting the film produced. When the personal and professional relationship between Rathbone and Sarem soured and she set out to turn the book into a Young Adult sensation, she simply tacked on a love triangle because Twilight had one, and Twilight was the only blueprint she had to work from.
Handbook For Mortals was never meant to be a series. In another blatant attempt at copying the success of Twilight, Sarem stretched her original idea (already paper thin) into what has allegedly always been a planned series. Leaving aside the age of the protagonist, the love scene and multiple unclothed moments, the Handbook For Mortals movie was clearly meant to be a one-off. The single element in the novel that suggests any sort of continuation of the story, Lamborghini Girl, is conspicuously absent. There is no mention of being the town outcast due to special “magick” powers, and there’s no greater “magick” community that could oppose Mac’s involvement with Zade. The “magick” conflict is missing because…
We don’t find out that Zade is “magick” until page ninety-four. The novel’s scenes of Zade’s secretive illusions are presented in the screenplay as exactly that: illusions. The confrontation at the lemonade stand and the attempted murder of a cyclist––events that are superfluous in the book––would have tipped the audience off to Zade’s abilities and were sorely needed on the screen. Instead, her powers are inexplicably revealed at the end of the script when Dela breaks the news to Mac. Imagine watching a movie that appears to be a romance with a weird title from beginning to nearly the end before learning that it’s actually a story about witches. And then imagine that when the love interest finds out that his girlfriend is a witch who’s been using him for magic without his knowledge, he simply laughs it off in the final line of the movie.
All of the problems from the book are present here. For example, Sofia’s name flipping between Sofia and Sofie depending on its use in dialogue or description remains throughout, as does her abrupt, unexplained disappearance from the book. Overly used phrases like “show blacks” and “deeply into [his/her/character’s] eyes” first debuted here, in abundance. Dela and Charles’s flashback is unnecessarily included and, if filmed, would be one of, if not the, longest scenes in a movie that…isn’t about them. Dela’s manipulation of Charles with magic, as well as Zade’s use of magic on Mac are never dealt with, and though the mysterious family necklace becomes a mysterious family tattoo in the screenplay, it’s mentioned once and nothing ever comes of it, similar to the book. The characters state their personalities aloud in dialogue, just as in the book. The tarot card reading scene is still just Zade talking aloud about what the cards mean. Basically, anything that didn’t work in the novel was ported over from the screenplay, which was already terrible.
So, there you have it. The Handbook For Mortals movie that, God willing, will never come to fruition. The only good thing I can say about it is that they actually say the title of the movie in the screenplay. And even then, it sounds stupid.