Indiana Jones and the Search for a Better Script

When it was first announced that George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Stephen Spielberg were contemplating a fourth dip back into the Indiana Jones franchise and the character’s wishing well of good will, there were immediate red flags. The first was perhaps the most disconcerting – Lucas had just successful sunk his formerly viable Star Wars series, and most of the prequel problems came directly from the movie mogul’s hands-on approach to the material (scripting, directing). The acknowledged king of the popcorn blockbuster at least guaranteed someone sane – and skilled – behind the lens, but Lucas was still going to handpick the story to be told…and the individual to write the all important screenplay.

In the past, the scripts for the Indiana Jones films were crafted by some fairly impressive scribes. Raiders of the Lost Ark saw Lucas share story credit with Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff) while Lawrence Kasdan got the nod to polish the plotlines. Temple of Doom had American Graffiti‘s husband and wife team of William Huyck and Gloria Katz behind the typewriter, while the Last Crusade employed Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) and Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Innerspace) to bring the trilogy to an end. So of course, the first question many fans had was – who would write installment #4. Oddly enough, the first name tossed around put everyone at ease.

While he is many things, Frank Darabont is definitely a smart, intelligent filmmaker. After spending most of the ’80s writing genre junk like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and The Fly II, he landed a gig helping bring the exploits of everybody’s favorite archeologist/adventurer to the small screen. From 1992 to 1993, he helped fashion the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles into a cult hit. Of course, 1994 saw him finally break out into the big leagues, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption turning into one of the most beloved films of the decade (and in some circles, all time). So he seemed like a natural to retrofit the aging character for a post-millennial mindset.

Of course, with all things Indy, Lucas made sure his imprint was all over the proposed plot. Certain elements had to be part of the updated environment. The Cold War would be substituted for WWII, Soviets would stand in for Nazis, Jones would be reunited with a famous face from the past, and the main narrative element would center around ancient astronauts, aka aliens, and the infamous crystal skulls that supposedly suggest that previous civilizations were inspired by (or perhaps started by) these visitors from another realm. It was a tall order, but if anyone could pull these divergent elements together, it was Darabont.

That was back in 2003! Now, five years later, we have the finished film, a semi-successful jumpstart of the entire Indiana Jones universe, with the possibility of more to follow. Strangely enough, Darabont’s name is nowhere to be found. While Lucas and Speed 2/Rush Hour 2‘s Jeff Nathanson are given story credit, it is David Koepp who earns the coveted WGA nod. Responsible for a myriad of projects both good (War of the Worlds, Spider-Man) and mediocre (Snake Eyes, The Trigger Effect), he now sits on the final screenplay, maestro of the character’s move into a golden sunset retirement.

Those uninspired by the Summer hit openly questioned what happened to Darabont’s draft. After all, this is an Ain’t It Cool News world, a place where films are reviewed and critiques confirmed BEFORE casting is even considered. Recent efforts like Rocky Balboa, Rob Zombie’s reimagined Halloween, and Speed Racer all got a going over before the first frame of celluloid could be shot. So the lack of a legitimate Darabont script seemed suspicious. After all, Lucas loves to keep a lid on his process, the better to keep the potential detractors at bay. And the pre-publicity junket provided the brave game face that marketers need to have their movie make money.

But you just knew that, somewhere along the line, Darabont’s version (entitled Indiana Jones and The City of the Gods) would eventually turn up. And supposedly, it has. About three weeks ago, 11 June, G4TV’s The Feed – along with several other sites – ran reviews of what they called “a bootleg copy” of the script. Available for a short while in a PDF file, those lucky enough to grab a look (before it was summarily removed from the web) learned a shocking fact – many of the elements fans complained about in part four were nowhere to be found in Darabont’s draft. Even more disconcerting, Lucas’ money grubbing mitts seem to have guided the film away from its origins and more toward a crass, commercial feasibility.

Perhaps the biggest difference between what Darabont created and the final product is the lack of a certain character named Mutt. The adolescent rebel without a clear creative cause (except, perhaps, to carry on the Jones’ legacy in another franchise of films) is nowhere to be found in City of the Gods, while he more or less dominates the last two thirds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Many view this character as a pure Lucas contrivance, an unnecessary link to Indiana Jones’ past that exists only to further the series’ future installment prospects. Making matters worse, new neo-teen it boy Shia LeBeouf got the nod, indicating that in action adventure terms, the flavor of the moment defies artistic advantage.

Mutt’s absence aside, the other major element gone from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is bad gal diva dominatrix Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. In her place – which really is a loss considering that the indomitable Cate Blanchett would be out of the film as well – City of the Gods has a series of unclear culprits, individuals who all want a piece of the glass head action. Even more intriguing, the actual aliens themselves are made into villains by Darabont, evil in their desire to keep the skull’s secrets away from the modern world, if you will. If there is one weakness in this occasionally talky script, it’s the lack of a clear antagonist. Indy always seems to work better when he’s up against a Belloq, an evil cult, or those bedeviling Germans of the Third Reich.

What’s increased in Darabont’s draft is the involvement of Marion Ravenwood. As we learn during Kingdom‘s first act University of Chicago chase, Mutt has a mother named Marion. Much later on, we are reintroduced to the Raiders fave, Karen Allen bringing the same spunk and drive to the part that she did back in 1981. The thing is, as soon as she’s introduced, the new film treats her like luggage, a grinning goon carry-on that simply enjoys basking in her former lover’s presence. Of course, in Koepp’s script, she’s mother material, giving Indy a biological link to the sequel shape of things to come.

But Darabont actually treats Marion like an important part of the story. She is more sidekick than cast off, back to the original role she played during the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant. She’s determined, not domesticated, a capable partner in this latest hunt. Clearly, Lucas didn’t want nostalgia usurping a potential payoff, so City of the Gods‘ take on this material was tossed aside. In its place was a moment of fanboy fodder, followed by little else. Indeed, while reading over Darabont’s script, many of the elements audiences complained about (the A-bomb/frig escape, the giant ants) are present, but handled in a serious, sobering manner (something Spielberg tried to match in his work behind the lens).

The last big difference rests in one of Kingdom‘s weakest subtexted – the notion of Indiana Jones as a potential communist sympathizer. The McCarthy era element within the storyline is quickly shuttled aside for more of Mutt’s Wild One vagueness, and the whole notion that, somehow, during the War, our hero could have turned (especially after helping the Soviets steal the Area 51 secrets) is played as pointless. In Darabont’s script, Indy is actually friends with one Yuri Makovsky from the USSR. It makes the eventual betrayal more plausible, palatable, and the questions of his motives much easier to accept.

Of course, Darabont tosses in the action. There is a wonderful bi-plane scuffle, and a last act denouement which, while not quite the optical spectacle delivered by Spielberg in the actual film’s finale, does provide the requisite send-off. Elsewhere, Indy’s dad makes an appearance, as do other characters missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you believe that this really is Darabont’s work (he loved his version so much that when Lucas rejected it, he asked for pal Spielberg to intervene), then what is clear is that, while his boss wanted a way to reinvent the franchise with a new lead (Mutt Jones and the Soda Shop of Death! ) City of the Gods was attempting something far more tenuous – pleasing the fans while finding a way to update the material after 16 years away from the fray.

Many have noted that Lucas, already a pariah among even the most devoted fans of his previous efforts, cleary mandated a certain type of script, one that relied on occasional drops into junk culture juvenilia for the sake of a certain demographic (can you say Jar Jar Binks???). He never intended the 200X Indiana Jones for adults, believing – rightly or wrongly – that the character remains forever cemented to its Saturday kiddie matinee serial roots. And no one knows if Darabont’s particular vision would stay intact throughout the production process, a system that sees stars, producers, studios, and eventual focus groups adding their trademark two cents.

But one can dream – and in that capacity, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont (or whomever) provides that point of conjecture. It reminds us of how manufactured most movies are, the creative committee stretching far beyond the simple mandates of a wide-eyed aficionado. That anything good comes out of such a struggle seems impossible, and yet the eventual release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit more marks than it missed. Would Darabont have been equally successful? One never knows. But what’s clear is that, in a battle for the final word, there was Lucas’ way, or the highway. All roads lead to his take on this material, for good and for bad – just like the fans worried about way back when.

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