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"Shave him, and he'd be the King!"

I've always been fond of The Prisoner of Zenda movies and I've often wondered about the claim (current in Wikipedia, among other places) that the 1952 colour version was a shot-for-shot remake of the 1937 black-and-white original.

To me, shot-for-shot means "as nearly exact a copy as possible", and I'm now able to say that though the 1952 is very, very close in most respects, it's not shot-for-shot, and most emphatically not line-for-line. There are a lot more than "slight variations" between them, especially in dialogue.

Click "read more" for the rest of the article and the links to the screenplays.

So how do I know? Because I've inherited a bunch of Mum's DVDs: The Way to the Stars, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Thief of Baghdad (1924 and 1940), Mrs Miniver and others; all films she and Dad enjoyed together.

I watched both Zendas back to back and then went looking for an on-line source for the screenplay. Surprise, surprise: there isn't one! The 1937 version of the film is praised as a classic on the Net and in cinematic-history books such as Jeffrey Richards's excellent Swordsmen of the Screen; the US Library of Congress considers it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and has preserved it in the National Film Registry; but an actual copy of the script is very hard to find.

So I rewrote it. In fact, I rewrote both of them. (And posted them here: the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda screenplay and the 1952 Prisoner of Zenda screenplay.)

It's more accurate to describe my endeavour as "dramatized transcript," but I was doing something fairly right, because the inflexible Rule for live-action screenplay is that One Page of Screenplay equals One Minute of Screen-time. According to IMDb, the 1937 version runs for 101 minutes, and my reconstruction runs between 86 and 96 pages; the 1952 version runs for 96 minutes; my reconstruction is between 82 and 91 pages.

The variation in page count is because the default settings for Movie Magic Screenwriter.scw, Final Draft.fdr, Microsoft Word .doc and Adobe .pdf all give me a different number. Even if I knew the correct tabs and margins for the original typewritten pages, I still couldn't get the page count exactly right, because my scene descriptions aren't John Balderston's and I was keeping to master shots only, without calling every camera angle. Still (pats self on back) it's not too bad.

Because this classic film doesn't have even a dialogue transcript on-line, I call what I've done a public service. Diane calls it daft, and says she doesn't want to hear the main-theme Ruritanian National Anthem for a long, long time. She's right, by the way. The opening fanfare would make a good ring-tone, but the rest of Alfred Newman's music has too little variation, and can get downright saccharine-sweet ("those soupy strings" is how an IMDb reviewer described them) during Big Romantic Moments. But maybe that's just my cynicism showing.

The exercise wasn't entirely altruistic. It gave me some much-needed practice with Movie Magic Screenwriter (we've also got Final Draft -- some companies prefer it, but I like Screenwriter better.) This is the program we used for Ring of the Nibelungs, and I'm planning to use it again for a couple of spec-script projects. One will be a dramatized version of my short story The Longest Ladder, intended as a 1-hour TV drama (so let's say 45-50 minutes, to allow for opening/closing credits and two commercial breaks) and it's been useful to see how close my page count can come to the on-screen length of a completed movie.

The multiple viewings needed to get the dialogue and scene descriptions as correct as possible have taught me several things, one of which is don't do this too often, or your brain will turn to marshmallow. There are numerous major dialogue differences between the versions -- speeches either drastically altered, shifted in sequence, or dropped entirely -- but there are also frequent one-word changes, or changes in word order, that serve no purpose except to show that someone (perhaps Noel Langley, the "new boy" in the 1952 writing credits) had been at his typewriter that day. They're like midges: tiny and easy to miss, but all the more intensely annoying because of it.

You might say "so what?" but since the whole point of this exercise was to have some sort of definitive comparison between the two versions of the story, ignoring even the slightest difference defeated the purpose. That said, I may have missed a word here or an altered tense there, because they're everywhere!

Here's an example: Hentzau's line in 1937 was:

"I see -- you want to let the drawbridge down. Well, well. I just killed one man for trying that."

In 1952 the line had become:

"So you want to try and get to the drawbridge? I just killed a man for trying that."

The first change is easily spotted, but the second - well, I missed it the first three times, hearing only what I expected to hear. There are dozens like that, and when, let's say, a becomes the, or a that disappears in the middle of four otherwise identical lines, you have to wonder why did the second screenplay bother? (Except for the justification-of-paycheck mentioned above, of course.)

This sort of little change may fall into the same reason I've ignored contractions. When you have becomes you've and so on, that can have more to do with the actor's delivery than a change in the script. It doesn't make nonsense of the line, and unless the (in)formality is required - the Cardinal during the coronation scene sounds different to Hentzau during a swordfight - it isn't enough to justify a retake. But there are so many of them...

Anyway, as Rassendyll says (on PDF page 85 and 81 respectively, or 84/81 since the script doesn't count its own title page...)

"My work here is done."

(But just wait -- I bet I'll get a comment saying "didn't you know the screenplay was here?" any day now.)

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