Steven Knight: The Screenwriter as Auteur?

Steven Knight Dirty Pretty ThingsRegular readers of Curnblog no doubt recall fondly the slugfest Simon Butler and I engaged in a while back about the validity of the auteur theory. I don’t think we changed anyone’s minds, but hopefully it provided some reasonable debate. As an opponent of the theory that unquestioningly elevates directors above everyone else in every film, I felt I made a good case.

Then along comes Steven Knight.

Truth be told, Knight “came along” twenty years ago, first as a writer for the British series The Detectives (1993-1997) and then, more auspiciously, as the screenwriter of two very potent thrillers, Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Eastern Promises (2007). On the strength of those two movies alone, I was prepared in 2007 to call Knight one of the best new screenwriters around. (I couldn’t call him one of the best “young” ones though, as Knight was pushing 50 by that point.)

Then came the disappointment. Knight directed his own screenplay for Hummingbird (2013), and though it had some strong elements, this Jason Statham picture missed more than it hit. That’s OK. Lots of screenwriters stumble a bit when debuting as director. Chris McQuarrie, another first-rate writer, let the otherwise very cool The Way of the Gun (2000) careen a bit out of control when he got his first directing gig. And don’t get me started on Charlie Kaufman and Synecdoche, New York (2008).

But two of Knight’s recent screenplays are much harder to forgive. In 2013, he penned the script for Closed Circuit, an action thriller directed by John Crowley. The story, which could have come from any James Bond fanfic page, concerned advocates battling government corruption in the prosecution of an expected terrorist. It hits lots of the current hot buttons about freedom and surveillance, but it simply isn’t a very good screenplay or film. The actual plot is quite thin, and so there are many repetitive suspense scenes in which the good guys are in danger. An American journalist is included for no reason other than to pass on information and then be murdered, and there is a rather ludicrous and unnecessary love story between the two attorneys involved. Actually, I shouldn’t call it unnecessary. It is necessary precisely because the plot is so thin. There are some moments of genuine suspense, but this movie should have been a lot better – and in fact, was a lot better when Andrew Bovell adapted John le Carre in the Anton Corbijn-directed A Most Wanted Man. That 2014 movie covers very similar territory with much greater depth.

Steven Knight Eastern PromisesWhich brings us to Knight’s latest screenplay. He adapted The Hundred-Foot Journey from a very intriguing novel by Richard Morais. The movie was directed by veteran Lasse Hallstrom. It currently has a 7.5 on IMDB so maybe I’m being a bit too hard on it to say it isn’t very good. But, it isn’t very good. At least part of the blame goes to the screenplay. In Morais’ novel, we get to spend some time with the central family as they begin in India, and after suffering a tragedy, make their way to Europe, first to London, and eventually to the French countryside, where most of the story will take place. Given the two-hour run time of the typical feature film, any screenwriter tasked with adapting a novel must cut parts of the story. Knight moves the India section to a narrated flashback at the beginning and squeezes the London part into a very brief sequence shortly thereafter. He accomplishes the necessary exposition, and achieves the most important structural goal – which is getting the story into France quickly. His method makes sense. But it doesn’t work.

The India section, which is crucial to understanding both the individual characters’ sense of loss and the thematic issues of racism and assimilation, is reduced to almost nothing. One early horrific act, which should hover over the story like a ghost, carries almost no dramatic impact. When it is echoed at the midpoint of the movie, it slips by almost unnoticed. And the London section is simply meaningless in the film. It appears to be in the movie only because it was also in the novel. It would have been far better to have simply begun the film story with the family’s car breaking down in the idyllic French countryside, then found a way to introduce the tragic back story from India later in the movie, and jettisoned London all together. (I do know people who would like to jettison London, but that has more to do with traffic than with cinematic structure.)

Beyond the structural problems at the beginning, the screenplay does a mediocre job with its characters. The story really only has four characters of note: the young Indian chef Hassan, his father Papa, the neighboring restaurateur Madame Mallory, and her sous chef Marguerite. But Marguerite is a poorly written character. In the novel, we get a sense of her conflicting emotions – love and respect for Hassan mixed with jealousy and anger over her status as a female chef in a culture that favors men. In the movie, she comes off as petulant and two-note. She’s either wonderful or cruel – no real middle ground. There are other potentially intriguing characters in the story, both from Hassan’s family and from the French town, but none of them register in the least.

Steven Knight HummingbirdMaybe worst of all, the movie seems to be so eager to be a crowd-pleaser that it brushes over anything that might be upsetting. In addition to the initial tragedy in India, there are scenes involving violent racism, serious injury, and substance abuse. They all seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, never leaving any lingering doubt about the characters or the fact that everything will turn out all right in the end. Contrary to my curmudgeonly exterior, I have no problem with feel-good movies. But I object when movies use serious issues as artificial dramatic enhancers, with no real sense or feeling for how these events actually affect the story and the characters. It feels cheap and unreal.

So how does all this relate to the auteur theory? I would hate to have to admit that Steven Knight may be a good screenwriter whose screenplays look awfully good when directed by the likes of Stephen Frears and David Cronenberg, but whose screenplays look equally bad when John Crowley and Lasse Hallstrom get a hold of them. That would play right into the auteurist’s hands. But I have to admit that there may be some truth to this.

However, I suspect that there is another explanation, at least in the case of The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014). I mean, Lasse Hallstrom isn’t exactly my cup of chai latte, but he has some good credits to his name. I think the problem with The Hundred-Foot Journey went above both screenwriter and director, right up to the top. In the film world, that’s the producer. And this one had some pretty potent names up there at the producer level. Names like Spielberg and Winfrey. I don’t know about you, but when I see a movie that is trying too hard to be a crowd-pleaser and it is produced by Steven and Oprah, I think I know who to blame. In fact, if I could have one wish regarding this movie, it would be that Spielberg and Winfrey never collaborate on a film again. So while not abandoning my distrust of the auteur theory, I’m going to give Steven Knight a pass on this one.

That’s partly because Knight directed his second feature last year and it probably gives a better glimpse into the artist than anything he has written for someone else. Locke, an 85-minute drama that plays almost like a theatre piece, features Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a mild-mannered construction foreman trying to hold together the fraying pieces of his personal and professional life during one car trip from Birmingham to London. I will not make great claims for Locke, and as a director, Knight does not really solve the puzzle of keeping an 80-minute drive visually interesting. But the concept is adventurous. The story raises important issues. Ivan is a great character (and Hardy is excellent) and the other supporting characters, heard only as voices on the phone, are developed far better than the support in Closed Circuit or The Hundred-Foot Journey. He may not be strong enough to overcome weak directing or Pollyannaish producers, but anyone who can write the penultimate exchange that Ivan has with his son in Locke is a writer worth watching.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

6 thoughts on “Steven Knight: The Screenwriter as Auteur?

    • lol. Thalberg could do feel-good with the best of them, but he was rarely treacly. He may have cut Greed, but it’s not like he removed Death Valley.

  1. Great analysis, Jon … and I think it’s a testament to the strength of your beliefs that you avoided the trap of subscribing to the auteur theory! As you probably expected, I chalk up the power of the very compelling Eastern Promises to Cronenberg’s astute direction … despite his use of Viggo Mortensen, who is not my favorite actor. I agree with you, however, on Hallstrom, who isn’t my favorite director, either, so I’m more liable to blame that side. I haven’t seen The Hundred-Foot Journey yet, though I think my issues with it would probably mirror yours.

    • Thanks Simon. A lot of people seem pleased with One Foot Journey, and I must admit that I wasn’t angry about it sitting in the theater. It just felt like it could have been a lot better. The more I thought about it, the more worked up I got. Not quite as much as A. O. Scott, who really destroyed it in the NY Times. I guess I’m just a nicer guy.

  2. I was a fan of ‘The Detectives’, and ‘Eastern Promises’. I doubt I will give ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ even a passing glance though. It seems to be contrived, slushy, and little more than another attempt to cash in on the popularity of ‘Indian’ themes in general.
    The trend is familiar though. Start off with a biting new talent, then start to take the money. Can’t blame them, but it is a shame.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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