A story in today’s LA Times about chocolate-making got me thinking about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and an error I deliberately introduced. Early in the tour of the factory, Wonka says…
Wrong. The right word is cacao — it’s not cocoa until it’s partially processed, and as a globe-trotting master chocolatier, Wonka would certainly use the right word. And in the book, Roald Dahl does:
The cacao bean, which grows on the cacao tree, happens to be the thing from which chocolate is made. You cannot make chocolate without the cacao bean. The cacao bean is chocolate. I myself use billions of cacao beans every week in this factory.
So why change it? Why be wrong?
Because cacao is a weird word. It’s sounds like it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not actually funny in context. Then Wonka uses the word six times in the scene. You generally repeat funny things, so when you repeat something that wasn’t funny to begin with, the stench of failed joke begins to waft in.
Worse, cacao is confusing. It demands explanation, but the explanation isn’t particularly rewarding. As the audience, we don’t really want to learn about chocolate. We want to see bad things happen to terrible children.
Cocoa is a synonym for hot chocolate, so it seems reasonable that you’d make chocolate from cocoa beans. For the movie version, changing “cacao” to “cocoa” made it easier to focus on the point of the scene (a flashback to Wonka meeting the Oompa-Loompas), and concentrate on finding things that were actually funny. It’s wrong, but it’s right.
And that’s true in this general rule:
In screenwriting, simplicity should almost always trump accuracy.
I’m going to break that statement down into parts so that it doesn’t get misconstrued.
In screenwriting — I’m only talking about writing for film and television, stories that race ahead at 24 frames per second, give or take. In novels and playwriting, the writer has the time and opportunity to be far more precise and thorough. And in journalism, accuracy is a fundamental responsibility. The journalist’s challenge is to make that accuracy comprehensible to the readership.
simplicity — Simplicity is not the same as idiocy, or pandering. If you’re making a thriller set in the world of international espionage, you can’t have the computer expert “dial in” to something. We need to believe that the expert is an expert, that security is difficult, and yet be able to understand roughly what he’s doing. Consider the crew in the first two Alien movies. We don’t know how their spaceships work, but it’s easy to follow what they’re working on.
should almost always trump — Sometimes, the complicated-but-accurate version is more rewarding than the simple version, so be wary of smoothing out all the wrinkles. And screenwriters aren’t absolved of societal responsibility, either. For example, the pilot episode of Eli Stone had a plotline about childhood vaccines that was widely criticized for its inaccuracies. If there wasn’t time in the episode for a more thorough exploration of the issue, another case should have been substituted, because what remained was inflammatory and (debatably) dangerous.
accuracy — In archery and life, accuracy is measured by how close you come to the target. For movies and television, the target is pretty wide. Looking back at the derivative challenge, it was more important to give a sense of why derivatives exist than explain exactly what they were. For a medical drama, we’ve come to accept a certain amount of time compression, allowing characters to recover from surgery in much less time than they actually would. But if a character became pregnant and gave birth in the same day, we’d protest. That’s not just inaccurate, it’s implausible, and plausibility is a much higher standard.
Granted, even plausibility takes a back seat in Charlie. (c.f. Great Glass Elevator)