Kevin Costner’s “The Postman”

I recently read the book “The Postman” by David Brin. The novel is good and worth reading, especially when you realize that Kevin Costner turned the book into a three hour movie that bombed at the box office in 1997. While I don’t want to waste three hours watching a bad movie, I did read the script and found that the script was actually pretty decent. Like the novel, the script was good, but not great, but it shouldn’t have turned into a three-hour box office flop. So what happened?

The first mistake was when Eric Roth, the screenwriter for “Forrest Gump,” Munich,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” wrote the first drafts and according to David Brin, totally rewrote the story so it reversed every moral point that he was trying to make in the novel. Unfortunately, it’s common for Hollywood screenwriters to totally ignore the original author and write a script with no feedback whatsoever. I suppose this is to maintain as much credit as possible for the screenwriter, but it seems pointless to completely ignore the person who wrote the story in the first place.

After nobody seemed happy with the drafts that Eric Roth kept turning in, the studios turned to another screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, who wrote “LA Confidential.” Brian took the seemingly obvious approach of basing the screenplay on the actual novel. If you read the final script, it’s a decent story that had to change much of the novel to keep it focused on the main points.

In the novel, the postman character discovers a supercomputer that’s actually a fake and learns of military genetic experiments designed to create super warriors. Both of these story plots wisely got dumped in the screenplay to keep the story focused on the main idea of the hero pretending to be a mailman and giving hope to survivors around the country.

Where I suspect the movie went wrong was in stretching a decent story into a three-hour epic. Critics also disliked the jingoism praising the United States, although that’s actually the point of the novel that we don’t realize how much we take for granted until it’s taken from us.

“The Postman” only got a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and got savaged by the critics. Until I see the actual movie, I’ll have to reserve judgement, but I suspect the movie dragged a two-hour story into three hours unnecessarily. The basic rule of writing is to say as much as possible using as few words as possible.

Imagine telling a brief story like this: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Just those few words can stir up your imagination on what might have happened, yet those few words say so much. Compare this to the three hour running time of “The Postman” and you suddenly realize that taking more time to tell a story is rarely a benefit. Cut, condense, and edit as much as possible. Tell as much as possible as quickly as possible and your audience will want more. Waste time telling too much and your audience will get bored and restless, which is likely the problem that sank “The Postman” and Kevin Costner’s acting/directing career in 1997.

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