Writing lessons from Tom Stoppard's script doctoring on INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

Playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard is perhaps best known for his postmodern Shakespearanisms—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare In Love (though I'd personally argue that his greatest works were Travesties and Brazil). But a new Stoppard biography from Hermione Lee has brought some new and revitalized attention to one of Stoppard's lesser-known literary contributions: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for which he served as an uncredited script doctor.

It's not uncommon for Hollywood films to bring in outside, uncredited writers to punch up and tighten up a script. But it is perhaps notable that a beloved film with so many big-name creators already attached it would have had yet another significant creative contribution that went unsung. (Although Spielberg would later acknowledge that "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.")

Screenwriter Mike Fitzgerald has painstakingly broken down Stoppard's secret script changes to The Last Crusade. He created charts and graphs to quantify and visualize Stoppard's contributions—which miraculously include cutting 15 pages from the previous draft while also adding a number of significant and beloved story beats. But if you're interested in dramatic writing and structure, you would be well-served to read Fitzgerald's more detailed explanations of the mechanics of Stoppard's screenplay improvements. It's truly a mini-masterclass in storytelling—with crucial skills like escalation:

As a story progresses, stakes grow. Obstacles get harder. Time runs out. Last Crusade's first act follows Indy searching for his father. Boam's draft kicks this off with an early proof of danger: still in America, Indy and Brody find a murdered housekeeper in Henry's backyard. They now know this is life-or-death.

Yet, once in Venice, they adopt a breezy mood and Indy flirts with Elsa. You'd think he'd mobilize the police to find his dad, but there he is, drinking wine and taking his time. Stoppard's revised draft loses the corpse and delays Indy's first encounter with danger until after he's found the knight's tomb. This bestows an escalation: at first it's a mystery, then it's a life-or-death struggle.

Escalation can also improve scenes and beats. In the castle, when the SS officer demands that Indy fork over the grail diary, Boam's draft has Henry incredulously ask Indy if he brought it with him. In Stoppard's version, Henry's initial reaction is to laugh, before asking, "Do you think that my son would be that stupid?" His face then falls as he realizes the answer is yes. The beat thus gains a small arc, in which Henry's mood escalates from sass to disbelief to fury.

And tightening:

Efficiency. Brevity. Can a half-page beat be condensed to a quarter-page? Can a ten-word line be trimmed to three words?

When Indy meets Donovan in New York, the scene's first beat is a basic introduction. Boam's version of this beat lasts 6/8 of a page; Stoppard's lasts 3/8. The beat is utilitarian and as such should be pared to its tersest form.

Boam's version contains two jokes, plus Donovan spends a line talking about his G-Men. The G-Men are irrelevant so that's an easy cut. As for the jokes, sure, the audience welcomes a laugh, but we're still in the first act and the main plot hasn't even been introduced. The ride needs to get started. We know Indy is wry and can expect plenty of that later. 3/8 of a page may seem insignificant, but Stoppard chips away at many moments throughout the script – a few lines here, half a page there – and the result is a hugely streamlined experience that allows him to add higher-quality moments later on.

Dare I say, Fitzgerald breaks down Stoppard's brilliance brilliantly.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Learning from Stoppard [Mike Fitzgerald / Creative Screenwriting]

A Comparative Analysis of Two Drafts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [Mike Fitzgerald]