“A listless and alienated teenager decides to help his new friend win the class presidency in their small western high school, while he must deal with his bizarre family life back home.”
Napoleon Dynamite was co-written by Jared & Jerusha Hess after the two met at BYU film school. Produced on a budget of only $400k, this goofy indie film danced its way into the hearts of millions, earning over 115x its budget to become a cult classic still quoted today.
Here are three lessons I learned from reading the Napoleon Dynamite screenplay:
- By writing with purpose, rippling actions become clear.
- Kindness reigns. Don’t let bullies win.
- Heroes learn from mistakes.
#1. On the following page of the Napoleon Dynamite screenplay, Napoleon’s creepy Uncle Rico lies to Deb — the girl Napoleon is interested in — behind his back in the hopes of making money:
BY WRITING WITH PURPOSE, RIPPLING ACTIONS BECOME CLEAR — The above page is uncomfortable on the page and on screen and to me, felt like an instilled karma moment. The last time Napoleon and his Uncle Rico interacted, Napoleon threw a grapefruit at his car and Rico chased him through a field. This was Napoleon’s angry response to his Uncle passing out fliers to the girls at school in an attempt to sell breast enlargement supplements, leading to Napoleon getting bullied further. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” according to Newton’s third law which seems to be at play here, whether or not Jared and Jarusha Hess intended for there to be a connection between these two moments. I noticed. I like it.
Our actions have both negative and positive consequences. Ripples.
#2. On the following page of the Napoleon Dynamite screenplay, Napoleon offers protection to a bullied boy at school and follows through:
KINDNESS REIGNS. DON’T LET BULLIES WIN — I know it isn’t always true in real life but I’m an idealist and want heroes to triumph and bullies to lose. The above scene contains one of my favorite lines from the film, “Pedro offers you his protection.” Napoleon isn’t able to fight the bullies himself and finds a way to scare them off. In pursuit of helping his friend Pedro, he utilizes Pedro’s connections to protect classmates from the sharks within their midst.
Togetherness and support are powerful values. Nobody likes a bully. Protect one another and in regards to screenwriting, have your characters protect and support one another. Kindness reigns.
#3. On the final page of the Napoleon Dynamite screenplay, we see the contrast between two characters, one tragic, one heroic:
HEROES LEARN FROM MISTAKES — Most readers and viewers don’t think about character arcs and changes. However, if absent, the consumer likely feels that something is missing. Heroes learn from their mistakes. They grow and change and choose to make better choices. Tragic characters do not. As stated in #1 above, our actions cause ripples beyond our perception. We affect others. Napoleon uses this to his advantage. When his Uncle Rico pisses off Deb with lies and backstabbing, Napoleon directly suffers the consequences. Rather than continue to react angrily, Napoleon makes a shift, choosing to perfect a dance routine and help his best friend Pedro…in turn winning back the girl.
Rico suffers consequences of his creepy actions, getting beat up, losing the respect of his family, etc. and yet…learns nothing. He continues on as he started, in front of a video camera beside his van, throwing footballs and living in the past. We all know someone like this, who lives in the past and refuses to grow. These are considered tragic characters in storytelling.
Don’t live out a tragedy. Be a hero. Learn, adapt, grow.