This week, we’re going to be talking about “Barbenheimer.” That’s right, Barbie and Oppenheimer in the same podcast. And not just because you probably saw the two movies back to back.
We’re going to be talking about “Barbenheimer”–Barbie and Oppenheimer–together because there is so much we can learn about screenwriting by looking at these movies in the same podcast.
These are two groundbreaking political movies. These are two groundbreaking structural movies. These are two groundbreaking movies in their form and in their experimentation. And both of these groundbreaking movies were released in the middle of the summer, when we’re used to seeing nothing but popcorn action movies.
We’re going to be looking at Barbie and Oppenheimer to understand how to write a political film. Or to say it in a more profound way, how to write a film that is really about something.
So often when we’re taught structure, we’re taught about how to move a character from A to Z. How to test a character, how to change a character, how to make sure your character wants something and makes choices. All these things are really important, but they only matter within the context of what you are actually saying.
We don’t become screenwriters just because we like puppeting characters around. We become screenwriters because there’s something we want to say. And all of our writing, whether we like it or not, is political. We are the mythmakers for our generation and for the next generation.
We write the stories that show people a way of perceiving their own identities and how to behave in the world.
What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be good? Or what does it mean to be bad? Or what does it mean to be morally complicated? How should we act in the world? How should we try not to act in the world? What should we believe in? What do we not believe in?
This tradition of mythmaking goes way beyond Barbie and Oppenheimer. It tracks back thousands of years, all the way back to Greek mythology and even beyond. For as long as there have been stories, human beings have looked to stories for meaning.
So it’s our job as screenwriters to make sure we know what meaning we are actually communicating. Because if we don’t, our films and our shows actare nevertheless going to have very powerful effects. Our films and shows have profound societal effects, whether we like it or not.
If you listened to my podcast about therapeutic and anti-therapeutic films, you know our movies and shows, when they work, move people to a place of catharsis, a place of change.
We’re not just changing our characters: we are changing our audience.
And that means every single thing about how you build your film, how you build your TV series, how you build your play, how you build your novel, how you build your poem, how you build your song. Whatever kind of writing you’re doing, every single element of a story gctinrows out of the theme. It grows out of what you are building.
Understanding what you’re building is also going to serve you when your film is actually in production, or pre-production, or development, or even when your film is in the editing room. It’s going to help you know which notes to accept (because they’re going to make your film stronger), and which notes to reject or question.
It helps you know what rules to break and which rules to follow. It helps you know which voices in the room are your project’s allies and which are merely distractions. It allows you to know which brainstorms will serve the script and add to what you’re trying to build. And which brainstorms are simply rabbit holes that you’re going to disappear down. .
There is a metaphor I love to use in my Write Your Screenplay classes:
If you are building a cathedral and you budget a significant amount of money for a stained glass window, that makes a lot of sense, But if you’re building a bomb shelter and you spend even a single penny on a stained glass window, no matter how beautiful– even if you got a stained glass window for free– if you’re building a bomb shelter, it is a mistake. Because that stained glass window is going to shatter. And it’s going to destroy you.
This is the power of theme. Understanding theme is central to any script analysis, whether it’s Barbie or Oppenheimer or your own screenplay.
One of the challenges in screenwriting is that sometimes you don’t fully know your theme when you first start to write. This means that every draft becomes a process of revision and adaptation, which leads us closer to discovering the real theme, which then leads to another revision, which brings us even closer.
In other words, as we write, we discover more and more of what we actually want to say. We discover where the movie or the show lives. We discover what the movie or the show is really about.
Sometimes we think we’re building a cathedral and it turns out that we are building a bomb shelter.
And that’s actually when we have to kill our darlings. We have no choice but to kill our darlings when we realize, “I just put the most beautiful stained glass window into a bomb shelter.”
So, back to our script analysis of Barbie and Oppenheimer: both of these movies are also adaptations. And adaptations and revisions are actually deeply connected. In fact, they’re the same thing.
When we adapt a screenplay or revise a screenplay, we are taking something that is not yet a screenplay and we are translating it into a form that will one day be a screenplay.
So whether you are sitting down to adapt the story of an iconic toy like Barbie or the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus, the process of adaptation and revision is always the same.
Whether you’re starting with a book, a doll, a true story, a dream, a short story, a novel, a song, a play, a life experience a character, a line of dialogue, an image you can’t get out of your head, a question, a thematic concept, it doesn’t matter…
It doesn’t matter if you’re revising your own script starting with a rough draft or draft number 72…
You are always doing the same process of adaptation as you revise your script.
Adaptation and revision are the same thing. And that means whether it’s your first draft or your thousandth draft, if you’re revising, that’s because it’s not yet a screenplay.
Just like a Barbie doll is not yet a screenplay. Just like American Prometheus and the history surrounding Oppenheimer’s life is not yet a screenplay.
Though the process of adaptation and revision may be the same– taking something that’s not yet a screenplay and bringing it one step closer to being a screenplay– there are different ways to adapt.
If you’re adapting a doll like Barbie, you have tremendous freedom but you also have a corporate strategy you have to deal with. This is an iconic doll. Mattel is not going to let you mess up their doll or their brand image. At the end of the day, Mattel has to sell Barbies.
So how do you tell a radical story that is, as even the previews will tell you, targeted for people who both love Barbie and hate Barbie?
In adapting Barbie into a screenplay, you have to start with the givens of Barbie the doll. And in adapting American Prometheus into a screenplay, you have to start with the givens of Oppenheimer’s life and the book you are adapting.
The givens of Barbie are where your research begins for your adaptation:
Here are the many, many Barbies that have been made. Here is the brand identity of Barbie and how it’s evolved. Here are some of the terrible mistakes that people have made around Barbie. Here are some of the terrible models that have been released. Here’s the complicated relationship we have with corporations and brands. Here is the question of what it means to be a woman that is inextricably tied to what Barbie is. Here are the things I can mess with. Here are the things that Mattel is not going to let me get away with.
These are just some of the elements that we’re starting our adaptation with. These are the foundational elements; they’re not yet a screenplay.
Similarly, if you are working on Oppenheimer you also have some givens to look at.
A lot of true stories, quite frankly, are not true. Far too many true story adaptations take a germ of truth and build an essentially fictional story on that one true element.
You have to make some big decisions as a screenwriter when you’re adapting a true story or if you’re adapting a nonfiction book.
Are you going to tell the literal truth? Are you going to tell the emotional truth? Are you not going to tell the truth at all? Are you just going to spin it out into your own story?
You have to make a decision that, at the end of the day, is going to allow you to look at yourself in the mirror and say, My writing has meaning. I did something beautiful. I didn’t just do something exploitative.
Regardless of whether what you write is true or not, if your screenplay adaptation is successful, like Barbie and Oppenheimer, a whole generation is going to believe that whatever you wrote is true. Your story is going to become, if the movie gets made, the true story. Of what Barbie means to our society. Of what Oppenheimer’s life means to history.
So write your script in a way that allows you to live with that, and maybe even make a beautiful contribution.
There are obvious ways that these givens, and the desire to be not only historically accurate but also emotionally accurate, affects the unusual structural construction of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer screenplay, including the multiple framing devices through which he tells the story.
First, there’s the obvious frame of the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that the chairman, Lewis Strauss, puts Oppenheimer through.
But there’s another little frame that also involves Strauss, which is about a meeting between Oppenheimer and Einstein, long after the Bomb has dropped, which takes place just out of Strauss’s earshot.
The words Einstein and Oppeheimer exchange in this frame is actually what the whole Oppenheimer screenplay is building to. And we’re going to come back around to it a couple of times. The movie actually culminates when we find out what was said in this little frame.
Oppenheimer’s unusual structure moves us nonlinearly across time, coming back around and across time, as opposed to moving linearly from A to B and B to C and C to D.
It’s built around multiple framing devices that climax on an emotional level as we bounce through the timeline of Oppenheimer’s story–and it’s all built around that scene with Einstein. Everything culminates in that scene with Einstein. That is what the movie is about.
But that actually is not how it happened.
Yes, there was a relationship between Oppenheimer and Einstein, but Einstein wasn’t really the confidant in that situation.
That scene got rewritten and adapted because Christopher Nolan felt that it would be more impactful if those climactic words were said to the one scientist everyone in the audience knows about.
So that’s an example of an adaptation of fact in a movie that is shockingly truthful.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer screenplay, like all screenplay adaptations, has a complicated relationship with truth.
Part of the reason that Oppenheimer is three hours long is because of the faith that Christopher Nolan is showing to what actually happened. The reason (with the exception of the slight factual tweak to the seminal moment with Einstein) for the whole complicated structure of the piece is to allow Christoper Nolan to remain as truthful as possible to what actually happened, without losing the dramatic and emotional impact of the piece by being held hostage by linear chronology.
At the same time, Nolan also chooses to leave out some important things. And those decisions also grow from theme.
There has been a lot of protests around the fact that many, many, many people actually inhabited this place that is called “uninhabited” in the movie. Those people got cancer, those people got sick, those people suffered for generations. And their story really isn’t told in Oppenheimer.
So there are truths that are left out. There are truths that are adjusted to have the most emotional impact. There’s a choice to move events out of order, which is not what the book does. But it’s a choice that allows Nolan to actually stick to most of the facts, while still building to his crescendo. And the only way that he can do that without changing the facts is by moving events out of order, so that the emotional crescendo of the piece, the emotional climax of the piece, can resonate for the audience.
Christopher Nolan is playing games with time in his Oppenheimer adaptation in order to stay truer to history, These are the kinds of choices that we make as we adapt.
Let’s compare this to a movie like The Social Network (check out my The Social Network podcast), which is built around the ironic hook that Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, has no friends. The structure of the film is built around Zuckerberg’s lost love relationship.
Well, some of the elements of that story are true. But actually, Mark Zuckerberg had a girlfriend, whom he later married, through this entire period! The whole relationship around which the story is built is actually false. Even though some of the emotional truth of that movie may be very, very true.
We are always making choices as screenwriters.
How close to the literal truth do we want to be? How close to the emotional truth do we want to be? How do we ethically look ourselves in the mirror when adapting a true story?
And we’re also looking at what aspect of this story we actually want to tell. Because we can’t tell the whole story.
Christopher Nolan gets three hours. As a new writer, you get about an hour and a half. But even Christopher Nolan only gets three hours. This is not a limited series. This is not Chernobyl (check out my Chernobyl podcast).
Christopher Nolan has a limited canvas in which to apply all those different colors of paint.
Similarly, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, have an hour and 54 minutes to deliver their vision of Barbie. That’s a small canvas in which to tell a big story.
So we’re always making a choice. If you’re adapting a 500-page novel or a life story, you can’t tell all 500 pages or all 80 years. You can’t even tell the whole life of a doll that’s been around for generations. You have to ask, what is my take? What is the piece of the story that’s going to represent the whole?
And one of the ways that you can make that choice is through the use of Theme.
Adaptation always begins with Theme.
It begins with looking at what you’re adapting and asking, What do I want to say about this? What matters about this? Not to them, but to me. What resonates about this? What am I really trying to say?
It always begins with Theme. Because if you don’t know what you’re building, you can’t make any choices in relation to what you’re building. When everything becomes equally important, you don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. You end up diffusing your revision as opposed to focusing it.
This is true even if you are working on a totally fictional project.
Let’s say you just started typing one day and out came some beautiful dialogue and some messed up dialogue and some beautiful images and some messed up images and some cool characters and some flat characters.
Even though you’re working on your own screenplay, you are still in a process of adaptation, which means looking at the project, looking at what has already been written, asking yourself What are the givens? What’s beautiful, what works, what resonates, what do I connect to?
And then starting to ask yourself, OK, inside of all that, what do I want to say?
And that might be a moving target. What you think you’re saying in draft one might be very different from what you’re saying in draft 84.
So if you can’t figure out your real theme, ask yourself, What am I currently trying to say? What is a character trying to say? What do I think this means? If I just look at what’s already beautiful, what does it mean? What meaning does it suggest? What resonates with me?
Then you’re going to connect that to the opposite side of theme: Hook.
This is something I get into much more in depth in my Master Class, because the Hook and Theme connection is complicated. When you’re first starting out, in my foundation classes, you want to just start by connecting to a character and your voice. Let’s get something on the page that we can react to.
But as we get more advanced, we start to juggle new balls like theme and hook together.
What is Hook?
Whether you’re writing a screenplay as playful as Barbie, or as serious as Oppenheimer, Hook is the simple answer to one simple question: What’s it about?
But unlike the meaningful answer we look for when building around Theme, when we build around Hook, we are looking for the short, simple, obviously exciting answer that differentiates your screenplay from others in the genre.
How are people going to talk about your screenplay? How are you going to think about it in order to focus it around the most powerful, pitchable elements in relation to the theme? What’s a simple structural idea around which the movie or the show is built?
Theme is the other side of that same coin. What’s the emotional truth? What is the thing I’m trying to say, or wrestle with, or make sense of? What’s it actually about? What does it do emotionally or politically? What does the catharsis mean?
The screenplays for both Oppenheimer and Barbie are built around characters who don’t totally know themselves.
Barbie is built around a character who has lived her entire life in what she believes is a utopia, but has never experienced what it really means to be a woman.
She’s literally an idea.
You can see this choice is Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s way of adapting the Barbie doll into a screenplay that relates to both the positive and negative values that Barbie has installed in young girls throughout its history.
Barbie has always been a symbol of what it means to be a woman, but over time the meaning of the symbol has evolved.
Barbie is a symbol of what it means to be a woman both in terms of empowerment and impossible expectations of beauty and perfection.
The proportions of the Barbie doll makes it impossible for her to stand upright. Her heels literally never touch the ground. And she is sold, as a convention, with the expectation of a Ken partner.
Barbie’s an evolving target of what it means to be a woman both in a super-empowering way, and a super-problematic way.
This is the history of the Barbie doll, and this is what Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are adapting in the Barbie screenplay. This is the truth that they’re starting with, the givens of Barbie. And these givens are quickly transformed into a character around which the adaptation will be structured.
The idea of a doll who exists as an idea, who is not even aware that she is just an idea, who slowly starts to…
…and there are going to be some spoilers coming now…
…Who slowly starts to experience human emotion, who slowly starts to experience human experiences, who slowly starts becoming something more than just plastic, more than just a symbol, more than just an idea.
This begins when Barbie’s perfect dance party utopia is interrupted by sudden thoughts of death.
Barbie, like so many women in our society have been trained to do, after receiving a negative reaction to her authentic experience, tries to push those thoughts down in order to hold on to her perfect utopia.
Then other things start to happen to her. Her feet go flat. She starts to develop cellulite.
Barbie is experiencing exactly the duality that every little girl who’s ever dreamed of being Barbie experiences when they start to realize that they are not fully Barbie– that they are not fully perfect.
And if you want to go even deeper, she starts to experience the problem of being a woman, even in a utopian society, of trying to live up to an impossible ideal, and the pressure of being human in relation to that ideal.
Over the course of the Barbie movie, Barbie is going to end up going to the real world. And she’s going to realize that she hasn’t even done the job that she’s been told she is responsible for–making the world perfect for all the real little girls.
Barbie imagines that she’s going to venture into a world where all women are fully empowered. She believes she’s accomplished that for them, simply by being “perfect” herself. But then she arrives in the real world and she realizes that even that belief is wrong.
There’s an extraordinarily powerful scene where Margot Robbie, as Barbie, cries for the first time.
This is what we’re watching in Barbie–the journey of a perfect “idea” of a woman coming to grips with what’s actually real.
And because Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are such brilliant screenwriters, and because they understand that political movies like Barbie work best when you meet an audience where they are, they make an interesting structural choice in their adaptation about exactly how to communicate this experience.
They know, of course, the already liberated, already feminist-leaning audience is going to be delighted to watch Barbie’s journey and garner meaning from it.
But in a blockbuster feature like Barbie, the audience is bigger. The audience is not just feminists. And it’s not just women.
Heck, most women already know what this feels like. If you really want to have an impact, you’ve got to find a way to get through to the men!
The audience, when you’re writing a political movie, is bigger than the people who think like you.
If you’re only preaching to the choir, you’re going to raise some excitement, but you’re not going to change the world.
(I’m not saying that Barbie is going to completely change the world, because changing the world is really, really hard. But we can, as screenwriters, have a little bit of an effect, we can have an effect on people’s experience of what truth is, we can start a new conversation).
So one of the really brilliant moves of Barbie is to meet the audience where they are. And the way Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach do that in their adaptation is by telling a big portion of the story not through Barbie but through Ken.
Barbie creates a reversed world, where women are in power and living their perfect women’s utopia, and where Ken is possessed of all the insecurities, who feels like and has been taught that (like so many women in our society), he exists only to attract the female gaze, that he exists only in the eyes of Barbie.
By putting the problem that so many women face in our society, and have historically faced in our society, into Ken, these brilliant writers meet the audience where they are. And they help the audience understand their theme.
Even if you’re not a feminist, even if you’re relatively conservative, even if you’re one of those people who somehow believe sexism no longer exists, or even if you’re downright sexist, watching Ken’s journey puts you in a situation where you have to realize, “Oh, this feels uncomfortable. I wonder if that’s what women feel like?”
Even if you’ve literally never had this thought before, you cannot watch Ken’s journey and not think, “Oh, I wonder if that’s what women feel like.”
This is such an important concept. Meet your audience where they are. Give them a surrogate.
You’re almost always at least one step (and usually many steps) ahead of your audience as a screenwriter. Even if you didn’t start one step ahead, or 10 steps ahead, in the process of writing the movie, you’re going to be 50 or 100 steps ahead of your audience, or at least the most of your audience, just by spending so much time with the subject.
You’re going to know the subject matter better, you’re going to know the political matter better, you’re going to know the theme better than most of your audience.
And if you start telling them what to think, from the point of view that you know better than they do, the part of your audience that doesn’t already think like you do is going to be highly resistant.
But if you go show up at the beginning of your screenplay like, Hey, here’s where you are. Here’s someone you can see yourself in… isn’t that great? And oh, by the way… here’s why this is problematic, you’re giving people the ability and the time, rather than being preached at, to actually come to a realization themselves, to join up with you by coming to their own understanding.
I’m not saying everybody is going to do that, but some will. And that makes your film much more politically viable. If you want to actually effect change, you have to reach some people who don’t think like you. And you do that by gentling them into it. Come on in, the water’s fine.
This principle of meeting the audience where they are connects to both the structure and tone of the Barbie screenplay.
Barbie is a wild, ridiculous joyride of a script, told in primary colors.
Why? Because that is what the doll feels like. But also because if you make Barbie serious as opposed to goofy– the moment Barbie gets serious, you have lost a huge part of your audience. Suddenly they’re back in school.
This movie needs to feel like a joyride, even though it’s dealing with serious political stuff.
And because it’s a joyride, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach get to break a million rules.
We get musical numbers, we get magical realism, we get expressionistic sequences, we get a portal to the kitchen where the creator of Barbie lives, we get ridiculous magic, we get rules that don’t totally need to make sense. We get all of that stuff as the goofy, fun, primary-color container for a serious message.
This is the process of adaptation.
Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for Oppenheimer goes exactly the opposite in both tone and structure.
Oppenheimer is a freakin’ serious script and you better know it from the very beginning.
Oppenheimer is not designed to make you laugh. It is not designed to make you escape. It is not designed to take you on a joyride.
Like Barbie and Ken, who don’t really know who they are, Oppenheimer doesn’t really know who he is either.
He’s a complicated, complicated character. And the movie is permeated by his obsession with the wrong fear.
The adaptation is built around a quote from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer was fond of,“I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer’s problem– or at least the biggest threat he perceives early in the project–is that he’s afraid that he’s going to destroy the world by accidentally igniting the atmosphere when the Bomb goes off.
Similarly, he is afraid that failing to beat the Nazis in creating the Bomb will mean the destruction of the world.
He doesn’t realize that he’s potentially going to destroy the world by setting off a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation that cannot be stopped.
Oppenheimer is afraid of the wrong thing.
Throughout the movie, he is pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed to decide who he really is and what he really believes in. What is his belief about the use of the weapon he’s developed?
And he has a million different defenses against this question. I’m a theorist. I’m not the guy who gets to decide…
He can’t even own his own Socialist or Communist leanings. What is his belief about the Communist Party? He has to deny any political belief because it could get in the way of the important work that he believes is the only thing that is going to save us from the Nazis..
Oppenheimer believes the Nazis and the brilliant quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg are ahead of the U.S. in creating an atom bomb., But for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, they would have already won the race. Oppenheimer believes that the Manhattan Project is the Allies’ only chance to defeat the Germans and win the war.
Oppeheimer believes he’s stealing fire from the gods to save the world.
But, of course, in May 1945 Germany surrendered without the Bomb! And on August 6, the U.S. dropped the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and another one on Nagasaki three days later. And Oppenheimer is culpable and complicit in all that suffering..
All of this pressure comes to a head as Oppeheimer announces the victorious destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, ending the war in the Pacific.
Oppenheimer makes an incredibly powerful speech, which is the culmination of all his work and his moment of greatest success. But what Christopher Nolan is so brilliantly doing in the construction of the scene is visually dramatizing not what Oppenheimer is saying but what he’s feeling.
We’re watching Oppeneheimer say these incredibly inspiring words, but we’re watching him in his mind’s eye, imagining the faces burning off of people, stepping into the charred corpse…
We’re watching Oppeneheimer feel the blood on his hands, even as he projects these words of victory.
We’re seeing the complicated pieces of this man who has not yet synthesized who he really is.
In fact, we, as an audience, are not going to synthesize all of this until we get to the final line, until we come back around to Albert Einstein. Until we hear the question that was asked:
“Remember when I showed you the math? And I was afraid we’re going to set up a chain of events that was going to destroy the world?”
Einstein responds, “What of it?”
And Oppenheimer replies with the haunting last line of the movie. “I think we did.”
What follows is a series of images that are propelled–maybe from Oppenheimer’s visions or fears, or maybe from where our world could potentially go–of complete nuclear annihilation.
It’s a threat that we are still dealing with today, most recently exacerbated during the Ukraine war.
By absolving himself of his own opinion in search of a theoretical and and war victory, by saying, “I don’t get to choose,” by ignoring his wife’s constant telling him, “Why don’t you fight?” and by trusting the powers-that-be to do the right thing, Oppenheimer realizes that he may, in fact, have set off a chain reaction that’s going to destroy the world, just not with fire but with ice (to reference Robert Frost).
It’s not going to be the atmosphere igniting in fire that is going to destroy the world. It’s going to be the ramifications of the Cold War, which we’re still seeing now…
This is what Oppenheimer built, too.
And here’s what’s interesting about that structural choice in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer adaptation and how that relates to the choice to bounce around time and between framing devices:
If the final scene with Einstein in Oppenheimer actually happened in chronological order, if we actually saw that in the middle of the movie, we would lose all of that emotional and thematic value.
We wouldn’t feel the culmination. The meaning wouldn’t land.
Some critics have suggested that Christopher Nolan made the structure too complicated, that he should have just told the story in chronological order. But doing that would have destroyed the very story he was trying to tell.
Theme is why Oppenheimer has this crazy, convoluted structure. Theme is why it has the frames. Theme is why we are following these flashbacks and flash-forwards and the first frame of the hearings that happened after the Trinity Project, and the second frame of the meeting with Einstein that happened after the Trinity project, but before the hearings…
That’s why we are seeing the event come out of order! So that we can culminate the film with the realization at the same time in the movie that Oppenheimer has the realization.
The structure grows out of the theme.
In fact, if you think about it, why are we even watching Strauss? Why are we watching his confirmation hearing? Why are we watching what he did to Oppenheimer?
Are we doing it just to watch how mean people can be to a hero? No!
We’re watching it because we’re watching how the selfishness and the self-serving political goals and the petty idealistic differences and the hurt egos of people have put us in a situation where we have lost control of potentially the most deadly weapon in the world.
Both movies, both Barbie and Oppenheimer, are about characters who don’t totally know themselves coming to a deeper realization of who they are and what they have done.
The theme of your movie is always going to be contained in your character’s journey from first image to last image.
And of course, this is true in Barbie as well.
In Barbie, we’re going to watch Barbie and Ken go out into the real world, where they both discover patriarchy.
Barbie discovers patriarchy and it devastates her. And Ken discovers patriarchy and is captivated by it. He’s like, this is awesome!
Because in this world, it’s Ken who’s been objectified his whole life, who’s had no meaning outside of women, who’s had no role.
So Ken goes back to Barbie Land and turns it into Ken Land.
He brings patriarchy to the Kens.
What brilliant social commentary this is.
The filmmakers are walking such a really complicated line around the question of what happens when people are oppressed, and the ways that we overcompensate, and the ways that even the oppressed can “other” their oppressor, taking on the worst qualities of the people who have oppressed them, which we’ve seen throughout history.
You can actually see what this goofy, silly primary-color movie is doing, and how it’s meeting the audience where they are around a really complicated issue.
Meanwhile, as Barbie unfolds we’re going to meet the “real” women: the America Ferrera character, Gloria, and her daughter, Sasha.
And they’re going to go on a mother-daughter journey. In fact, they’re going to hijack the structure a little bit. Our point of view is going to shift a little bit away from Barbie and on to Gloria, and we’re going to watch mother and daughter come back together, but we’re really going to watch Gloria build to this incredible monologue about what it means to be a woman, and how women are straining towards this impossible ideal.
Just like in Ken Land, where we’re seeing perfectly empowered Barbies get brainwashed, in Gloria’s monologue we’re coming to understand the brainwashing that’s happening in our world on so many different levels, which is keeping us from actually being human.
Here’s that whole monologue:
It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.
You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.
But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.
It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.
I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.
Now, if you’ve read literally any screenwriting book, you know you’re not supposed to write long monologues like this. But Gloria’s monologue in Barbie works.
This monologue works because it is central to the theme.
If even the ideal doll can’t be a woman in our society, if even a woman with all the ideal attributes of a woman cannot live up to the ideal of being a woman, then what is a normal woman supposed to do?
If even in Ken Land, even in a world of total patriarchy, Ken is left empty, then what is a Ken supposed to do?
What we’re going to watch on the other side of all that is Ken and Barbie reaching a different kind of understanding.
We’re actually going to watch Barbie Land change, not into a perfect utopia, but certainly toward a more real one.
And then, on the other side of that, we’re going to watch Barbie decide to become a real girl.
And yes, maybe this is just a Pinocchio story, but it’s also something else.
Structurally, the final sequence of Barbie becoming a “real woman” is what the theme of Barbie is actually about. What does it mean to stop being an ideal and start being a woman?
While Oppenheimer culminates with its last image of destruction, Barbie is also going to culminate with its last image of Barbie… and a last little joke.
It looks like Barbie’s shown up for a job interview, having finally become a real woman. But instead, it turns out, she’s there to see her gynecologist for the first time.
This is a joke, of course, because Barbie the doll was famously not anatomically correct. It’s a joke. But it’s also not a joke. Because it’s really about the character stepping into the complicated reality of being a woman and making sense of that.
The dream, the wish that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have for their audience in Barbie, whether you’re a Barbie or a Ken, or someone in between, is to allow people to stop trying to be an ideal and start getting real.
You can see that both of these movies are built around their themes.
If you’re writing Oppenheimer and you’re not Christopher Nolan, you may doubt yourself: Why is it so complicated? Why so many frames? Why so many flashbacks?
If you’re writing Barbie and you’re not Greta Gerwig or Noah Baumbach, you may doubt yourself: Can I really get away with this monologue?
Just as Gloria has a long monologue in Barbie, Strauss has a long monologue in Oppenheimer.
The reason Christopher Nolan goes with that monologue and figures out a way to make it work, is theme. Strauss’s monologue elucidates for the audience the complexity of who Oppenheimer is,= and the complexity of making sense of any of this. It defines the forces of ego that have put us in this situation, the mess they’ve created, and the out-of-control chain reaction that is unleashed ]when we step out of the theoretical and into the real. The messy human factors, that are not rational, and just may lead to the destruction of the entire world.
So as you think about Barbenheimer as a screenwriter, this is what I want you to think about. Your adaptation is about what you want to say. Whether you’re adapting a draft of your own script, a dream, a true story, a novel, a doll, a board game, another piece of IP, a short story, a couple of lines of dialogue, an image, a question you can’t get out of your head …
Your adaptation is about what you want to say.
It’s about what you want to say on the thematic level and what you want to say on the hook level. All of the rules of screenwriting, even the ideas that you hear on this podcast, are only there to support your theme and your hook.
Your choices are not about conforming to some kind of formula that somebody’s told you is the way you write a screenplay.Your choices are actually about What do I want to build? What do I want to say? What effect do I want to have in the universe?
So if you want to learn more about this, come study with me. We have foundation classes in screenwriting and TV writing for those of you who are building your skills as writers. We have the ProTrack mentorship program that will pair you one on one with a professional writer who will read every single scene you write, every draft you write, every revision that you revise, and mentor you through your entire career– all for the tiniest fraction of what you would pay for grad school.
You can do it all live, online, from the comfort of your own home. So come check it out.