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Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: From Barbenheimer to Indie Films: What Every Movie Must Have According to a Screenwriting Professor

When movie stars and other creators in the film industry descend upon Hollywood for the 2024 Oscars, they’ll celebrate the best stories put on the big screen in the last year.

John Glavin in a suit in Dahlgren Chapel
John Glavin is an English professor in the College of Arts & Sciences who teaches screenwriting and is an expert on movie adaptations.

Almost certain to be recognized at the 96th Academy Awards are blockbusters Oppenheimer and Barbie — collectively earning 21 nominations. But alongside the box office hits will also be not as celebrated films that will earn the golden trophies. What all of these dramatic films have in common, however, is a trait essential to cinematic storytelling: the tear.

The tear is the one element that every dramatic movie has, according to John Glavin, English professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. A Victorianist and playwright, Glavin also teaches screenwriting. He is an expert on movie adaptations and drills the concept of the tear into all of the students who pass through his screenwriting classes at Georgetown, including screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, comedian John Mulaney and comedian and actor Mike Birbiglia. 

“It’s almost impossible to imagine any film, no matter what else it does, that doesn’t root in the tear,” Glavin said.“The good tear is a tear that makes it impossible for the protagonist to continue to lead the life he or she has been leading. It has to be impossible. It has to be that deep.”

To learn more about the tear, watch Glavin unpack what makes a great story come alive in movies, then read his takes on this year’s blockbusters, the challenge of making adapted screenplays and the most ingenious tear he’s ever seen in a movie.

Ask a Professor: John Glavin on Film Adaptations and the Storytelling Secret Behind Barbenheimer

This last year has seen the success of hugely popular film adaptations over original screenplays, such as Barbie and Oppenheimer. Why are adaptations so popular right now?

Even in their heyday, the studios were always hungry for content. Their in-house staffs could never generate enough. Film has always been taking things from other mediums and turning it into film. 

And the other thing is it’s hugely in the interest of people making the movie to use a product already out there. So it’s got a reputation, it’s got an audience. Half of the work of the publicity is done already because people know this book or whatever it is. 

There are two ways in which you can get people interested in the movie. One is because people have read the book, and the other is because it has a star. And so if you take the star who’s already got a reputation and the book, which already has a reputation, and put them together, then an enormous part of the work you have to do is done.

How is the process of adapting a novel for film different from making an original screenplay?

The work of filmmaking is to make a film. How am I going to tell a story in images? Because films are made for the eye, how am I going to take something that’s built out of language and make it into something built out of images? I’m actually completely transforming [the source] at the most basic level.

[The challenge of a filmmaker is to figure out] how I can take what’s happening inside the character and make it something that is seen outside. The great challenge of being a novelist is to take the physical world and turn it into language. They are two very different challenges.

You teach the tear to all of your scriptwriting students.  How do you define the tear?

A dramatic story starts from a status quo ante. People are in a situation, and then something happens to them, and the life that they’re living can’t be lived in that way anymore. They have to find a way to restore balance in their lives. Very often their first move is to try to repair the tear, but in a really good story, you can’t repair the tear, you can’t go back to where you were. So you have to invent a new way of being. You have to invent a story, a plot.

How would you define the tear in Oppenheimer?

The historical tear is the discovery that the Germans are working on an atomic bomb and that something has to be done to prevent them from getting the bomb first. It’s not just about putting armies on the ground and navies on the blue water and winning battles because there’s this other story that has to go on at the same time in which somebody has to invent this weapon because if the other side gets the weapon first, then the war is lost. So the tear is, in historical terms, here’s what war used to look like, and now this is what war looks like. So we’ve got to find this guy, and he’s got to get this group of people together and make everybody believe that you can do this astonishing thing.

What about the tear in Barbie?

The tear in Barbie is Barbie’s discovery that it’s not working anymore. She can’t just float off the second floor, and all the things that are working in Barbie Land aren’t working anymore. So Barbie has to figure out why all the things in Barbie Land don’t work anymore, what that means and what to do about it. 

Is it possible to make a dramatic movie without a tear? No.

John Glavin, Professor, College of Arts & Sciences

Are tears just as essential in novels, or are they a unique concept for film?

You can write a novel that doesn’t have a tear. You can write a great novel about boredom because a novel is really about the interior life and the vicissitudes of the interior life. The interior life is by itself fascinating and undramatic.

I’m kind of a heretic about Virginia Woolf. I think Virginia Woolf became a great novelist when she realized when she was writing The Voyage Out that she couldn’t invent a plot. So she stopped trying to invent plots and realized that she was unrivaled at tracing the minute-to-minute moments of consciousness of how life registers in the interior life of individuals. She changed the novel forever in many ways because she figured out how to do that.

Is it possible to make a good movie out of a novel that doesn’t have a tear?

That’s a really tricky question. The answer in some ways is, what’s a good movie? I wouldn’t talk about a good movie. But is it possible to make a dramatic movie without a tear? No. 

You can’t make a dramatic story in which things don’t fall apart. In many ways, dramatic stories are like a tower of blocks that get knocked over. You try to build the tower of blocks again, but what happens is in the course of tearing the tower of blocks down, you can’t build the same tower again. You have to build a new tower, and that’s what makes a protagonist.

Are creating tears for adaptations different from original screenplays?

The adaptation tears the original [or source material]. You can’t film it as written. You have to tear it apart and remake it. If you want to follow a novel as closely as possible, then you make it as a series for television.

What’s the best tear you’ve seen in a movie?

The best tears are not obvious to the protagonist until much later in the movie. So what is the best tear of all tears? The best of all tears is the iceberg hitting the Titanic. Everybody thinks it’s unsinkable, they make love and plans, and even when the iceberg hits, people make jokes, the band plays, and then they get it. The clever trick in that script is that you don’t see the tear until halfway through.  But the audience knows the tear is coming and that makes the movie.

It’s the most ingenious movie because it’s a really interesting example of adaptation. You have this story that’s really about what happens in two hours and 40 minutes after the iceberg hits, [James Cameron] decides to make a movie about the voyage, and his problem is to make the movie about the voyage interesting.