127 Hours: Screenwriting, dramatic need and a big rock

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127 Hours is one of the most gripping, intense films I’ve seen for a while. A lot of that is down to Danny Boyle’s audacious visuals, but all the camera trickery in the world won’t hold the attention for ninety minutes of a man standing by a rock talking to himself. Ultimately, 127 Hours works because it’s so efficiently structured.

The screenplay for 127 Hours was written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between A Rock and A Hard Place by Aron Ralston. Ralston was a climber who found his arm trapped by a rock in a canyon in Utah in 2003.

It’s an incredible story. Like most people, I’m amazed by Ralston’s courage and resourcefulness. Like most people, I don’t know how I’d have coped (probably by not going anywhere near the desert in the first place — I’m not the outdoor type). Here, I’m going to talk about the screenplay specifically, rather than the true story. I’ll also be talking about ‘Aron’, a character in a screenplay, rather than about Ralston, the real person.

As incredible as the true story is, it doesn’t sound very cinematic. Flashbacks show us Aron reflecting on his life, but it’s still the story of a guy who can’t move. Phone Booth and Buried also depict a guy who can’t move, but Buried can play with has the mystery of how he got there, and Phone Booth has plenty of people to talk to. Aron has neither. How, then, is the film so utterly gripping from start to finish?

Needs must

Screenwriting guru Syd Field teaches that a screenplay depicts a character overcoming obstacles to fulfill a need. This need, this goal, must be clearly defined to the audience. 127 Hours is this structure of the overcoming of obstacles to achieve a need broken down to the bare bones (almost literally).

Aron’s overall need is simple, and primal: survival. He needs to free himself from the rock, or he will die.

In Act I, we meet Aron as he heads out for a weekend in the desert, an environment he knows well. Aron’s fall into the canyon where he is trapped by the rock is the first plot point. Act II consists of Aron’s time trapped by the rock: in the first half of Act II, Aron attempts to free himself; then at the mid-point he accepts death. The premonition of his son is the second plot point. Act III resolves the situation.

The inner need

As the film progresses we learn Aron has an emotional need, too — a character-based inner need that he must fulfill, revealed by but independent of the narrative need. His enthusiasm, uniqueness, and devotion to living in the moment is what makes him likable to the audience, but it has cut him off from his family and friends. His emotional need is to find a balance between his individualism and his emotional attachments. Becoming a whole person won’t move the rock, but it will make for a more satisfying resolution than if he simply escapes and goes back to his old ways.

While his narrative need — to survive — takes primary importance over the course of the film itself, his emotional need extends beyond the 94 minutes/127 hours we spend with him, back past the time we first meet him and on after we have left him. That means that his emotional need is greater, in dramatic terms. What’s the point of surviving an experience if you don’t learn from it? Or, as many films put it, what’s the point of living if you haven’t learned to be alive?

For a character to learn to be alive, to be fully realised, they must change. They must learn something. That’s the character arc: the line drawn between one state to another — in Aron’s case, individualist to family man. Aron’s arc is complete when he acknowledges that he needs others, and acknowledges he must be there when they need him. The change in his character is symbolised when he stumbles out of the canyon and screams “I need help!” That’s true of his life in general, not just the immediate narrative concern of his wounded arm.

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Man vs rock

The narrative obstacle is as simple and primal as his desire to survive. Drama is conflict. The narrative conflict pitches Aron against nature — both the canyon, and his own body. He has to escape, and he has to do it before he dies of thirst. He must defeat the rock and the clock. These are the obstacles he must overcome to fulfill his narrative need.

There is emotional conflict as well as narrative conflict, just as Aron has narrative goals and emotional goals. The emotional conflict is between Aron and himself. As he tells himself early on, he mustn’t lose it. Then finally he must overcome all natural instinct in order to mutilate himself. These are the character obstacles he must overcome to fulfill his emotional need.

As the story of Aron’s inner life emerges we realise their are other character obstacles too: his individualism means he hasn’t told anyone where he’s going, so there’s no hope of rescue. There’s an irony that his desire to do everything himself means he is now stuck having to solve this problem himself. His individualism cuts both ways, and through the course of the film he realises that no man is an island.

Canyon dig it?

Aron starts the film with very different goals. Often goals will change in the course of a screenplay. Often it’s the first plot point that transforms a character’s needs from an everyday need — having a fun weekend canyoneering — to something more dramatic — escaping the canyon alive. In Act I, Aron’s need is articulated straight to camera: to beat the guidebook’s journey time. Then his bigger goals are established.

Aron’s primal, primary need, and primal, primary obstacle are established. To make the film compelling from start to finish, we need smaller, subsidiary goals and obstacles. An economist might call them micro-goals that make up a macro-goal. A character’s battle with obstacles in the way of these smaller goals, leading towards a bigger goal, drive a story along.

127 Hours strips these right down to the most tiny point of focus. Boyle immerses us in Aron’s situation by concentrating with him on the minutiae of his situation. Hence we get close-ups of his kit, and even inside his kit. We get close-ups of Aron — and even inside him too. In Act II, he is presented with obstacles that create micro-goals, like retrieving the multi-tool. When he does escape, he has to leave the canyon, then make it down to the water, then leave the desert. Each goal is clearly defined. We are shown what has to be done, rather than told.

Syd Field argues that character is revealed by action. Aron is an extremely active character. He initiates situations, rather than reacting passively. He is unafraid to tackle obstacles head-on: when he comes off his bike, he grins, takes a picture, and moves on. His reaction to the completion of goals, even in the face of further adversity, shares the experience with us. When he rescues the multi-tool, he laughs and says “Sweet!”; I could have hugged him. His actions reveal his character, telling us he lives in the moment and enjoys small triumphs even when larger problems still exist. When the sun briefly warms his rocky prison, he basks in it, and is reminded of a treasured memory with his father.

Aron also learns even from the achievement of micro-goals: in the next shot after the dropped multi-tool is retrieved, it’s securely tethered.

Like as not

Audiences like to watch characters move towards clearly-defined goals. Even if characters are unpleasant, watching them battle obstacles to complete a goal is compelling. Elaborate heists are a classic example of enjoying the execution of a goal, even if the goal is questionable. There are other ways of making characters sympathetic: action, and competence, for example. Passive characters fade into the background, so characters who act rather than react engage the audience. Characters who are skilled or resourceful also engage the audience. Perhaps it’s the vicarious thrill of action and competence that we enjoy — look at all the silver-screen gangsters and killers who commit unspeakable acts but do so without hesitation and with lashings of style, and remain enduring icons.

Aron is an extremely likable character from the outset. In narrative terms, he acts, and is competent and resourceful. In character terms, he is also enthusiastic, genuine and unconcerned with what others think. Those things make him instantly likable both to us and other characters — but they’re also at the heart of his emotional problem. He lives in the moment at the expense of relationships. We’re shown that he’s too busy rushing somewhere to return his mother’s call, and when he wishes he’d returned all her calls, we realise with him that each of his individual moments add up to a long-term pattern.

The final cut

Aron is also escaping from his everyday life, which helps us identify with him. Aron is in the great outdoors and we’re in a cinema, but we’ve both left behind life, job, and worries to escape into a place where anything can happen — and that includes being utterly gripped by 94 minutes of a guy having an argument with a rock.

127 Hours is a precision-engineered piece of work. I’d give my right arm to make something as good.

83 thoughts on “127 Hours: Screenwriting, dramatic need and a big rock

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