1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 19: Inglorious Basterds, a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino

Reading the screenplay to a film you’ve seen offers an interesting perspective. One sees to original intent of the screen writer. The original germ of every idea. One can read the dialogue and see how much, or how little an actor brings to a particular voice, and ultimately it illustrates how much of a collaboration art is. How much a piece is work-shopped from writer, to director, to actors and editors, even when the writer and the director are one in the same. And so it was when reading the screenplay for Inglorious Basterds. It made me very much aware of Tarantino’s knack for imitato, for dialogue, and at the time his utter inability to write creative prose. It draws attention to how much more the visual can sometimes offer over instructive prose, and how much life an actor can put into, or take out of a voice.

One of the obvious aspects that makes reading the screen play differ from watching the film is that one gets to read scenes that did not make the final cut and likely didn’t even get film. The film’s infamous hero, “The Bear Jew”, who uses a baseball bat to smash in the heads of Nazi soldiers, has a role in the screen play that differs from the over-the-top, gratuitous violence that made the final cut. He enlists in the army, but speaks with his father of specifically going to Europe, rather than fights the Japanese, he buys a baseball bat, and has a touchingly awkward scene with an elderly Jewess from his neighbourhood in which he asks that lady he does not actually personally know if she has any family in Europe whom she is concerned about. When she says yes, he asks her to write the names of those she is worried about on the baseball bat, which he then tells her he will be using to smash in the heads of the Nazis he comes across. The elderly woman, who seemed quite formal up until that moment trades her docile and proper tone in and quickly concedes to write the name of a loved one. So there is a mythos surrounding the bat in the screenplay which adds much to the scene that now, when watching, will seem still very much over-the-top, but much less gratuitous. There is also a fuller narrative concerning Shosana, the Jewess who escaped Col. Landa (“The Jew Hunter”) in the films opening sequence, in which she is adopted in a way by the mistress and owner of a French cinema. Much of the pragmatic information is retained in the film, but communicated in a different way, while the character development and relationships are absent from the film.

Quentin Tarantino

There is also a question of what actors bring to the film, and what the dialogue offers an actor to work with. Aldo, the Apache leader of the Basterds, seems to have the most colourful dialogue in the screenplay. It is an emulation of ‘cool’ in Hollywood, while also putting itself at a distance from Hollywood iconography, and Aldo even goes so far as to comfort a crying soldier who is worried that he is not having a “John Wayne” appropriate to his position, to which Aldo comforts the soldier by assuring him that John Wayne was only an actor and that he would cry if his personal chef broke the yolk of his egg. But in the film Brad Pitt (who I am a fan of, though I do see him as a limited actor), does little to take advantage of this great dialogue. In the film he is over-the-top and cartoonish. Had an actor like, perhaps Bruce Willis had the role, or Sam Jackson, I could see them really being able to make the most of this dialogue (primarily because it suits their scope of acting).

On the other hand the Col. Landa character doesn’t really jump up at the reader as particularly interesting or menacing, but Christopher Waltz, who won an Academy Award for the role (whatever that is worth), breathes such life into the character that he steals every scene and is easily the most enjoyable performance of the film. Likewise, Dennis Menochet, whose role as a dairy farmer who is housing a Jewish family, turns in a performance that is ripe with emotion, as he is forced to choose between his own family, and the Jewish family he is trying to protect, and has to sacrifice the Jewish family to save his own. His dialogue is limited, but when you see him on screen there is so much conflict and guilt exuded that is just not present. In his instructive prose, Tarantino (who often steps out of the instructive tone to talk with, or seemingly pitch the scene to the reader), give instructions ripe with unimaginative clichés such as “cool as a cucumber”, instructions that offer nothing as intense as the performance Menochet sends in. Along the same lines, the comedic timing of actors Omar Doom and Eli Roth (and even Brad Pitt), make the scene in which the arrive at the premiere of Joseph Goebbels’ film far more comical than one would read it as being in the script itself.

But as awful as Tarantino’s instructive prose is, it also has its moments where it shines, such as the scene where Col. Landa is strangling a German actress turn allied spy, and Tarantino notes that strangling is an entirely human act of aggression, absent from the animal world. This is of course not true (snakes for one strangle their prey), but the spirit of the comment holds something in it, speaking to how much more bestial humans can be than animals. It is the type of observation that one might come across in Faulkner or McCarthy (though Tarantino’s prose is a long way from holding up to authors of that ilk), but still, it does at time add something that is absent from the scene in the film. And, as bad as his prose may be at times, his dialogue is still among the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Overall, it is an interesting experiment to step away from the finished product and look at what the embryo of a film looks like before production starts.



Favourite line: I wouldn’t be surprised if sixty years from now, it‘s “Lucky kids” that I’m remembered for.” This is of course Joseph Goebbels speaking on his film ‘Lucky Kids’. I guess hindsight is twenty-twenty. I laughed out loud when I read it, which I didn’t even do when I watched the movie!

Words I thought I’d look up:

Sword of Damocles: Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. This phrase refers to the famous (and by famous, I mean, I learned about it from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) narrative of Damocles, who told his king how fortunate the king was. The king then offered to switch places with Damocles, to which he agreed, only to find that the king magically (?) left a sword hanging over the head of Damocles held only by a horse’s hair (to what the horses hair was tied, I do not know, and you’d think that Damocles would just grab it so it wouldn’t drop on him, not?), and Damocles concedes that there are pros and cons to kingship and begs to trade back places.

Loquacious: Talkative.

Progeny: Offspring, or result of.

Wunderbar: Wonderful!

Auf windersehen: Goodbye!

Prego: Literally translates to “I pray”, but used in Italian as a way of saying “Your welcome”.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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