Green Lantern: the 2006 script vs. the 2011 movie

Jack Black was once set to play Green Lantern in an R-rated script written by Robert Smigel. Mark compares that concept to the film that ultimately emerged…

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Green Lantern. You might wish to postpone reading until after you’ve seen the film.

It would be fair to say that Green Lantern hasn’t been met with quite the response that Warner Bros might have hoped for. The superhero flick underperformed at the box office in its opening weekend, and further contributed to the perceived decline of 3D, despite seventy-one percent of US theaters playing the 3D edition.

Furthermore, it’s been met with scathing reviews from the large majority of critics. Not least of all, from Bob “MovieBob” Chipman from The Escapist, who opined, “Every second of Green Lantern is bad. Every moment is bad. Every frame is bad,” and that “It charts entire new galaxies of bad, for superhero movies, and for movies in general.” Ouch.

But whether you loved or hated Green Lantern, an interesting story has resurfaced in the wake of some viewers’ disappointment and annoyance. Robert Smigel, a writer known for his work on Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, was once hired by Warner Bros to pen a comedic take on Green Lantern.

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The script, which is available online, if you know where to look, was inspired by the comic series Emerald Dawn. However, it follows an all-new character called Jud Plato, a reality TV star who’s chosen by Abin Sur’s ring to become the Green Lantern of Sector 2816. Smigel was instructed to write Jud with Jack Black in mind as the star.

The fans baulked at the idea, and the script was discarded by Warner Bros at the first draft stage. Greg Berlanti and Michael Green, better known for the short-lived US TV series, No Ordinary Family, eventually signed up to write the film now playing in cinemas.

It might have crossed some of the more disappointed fans’ minds that they might have been better off with Smigel’s version. So, it seems like a good idea to compare and contrast different aspects of the earlier script and the finished film.

Just to establish the rules of this thing, I’m operating based on Smigel’s first draft, and first drafts usually aren’t the best possible version of a script, and my own assessment of Martin Campbell’s film, which I don’t believe is the best possible version of Green Lantern.

So, let’s first look at our heroes…

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Hal Jordan vs. Jud Plato

As mentioned, Plato stars on a reality-TV show, The Dare Diner, in which contestants progress through the series by eating disgusting delicacies such as coyote heads and gopher haemorrhoids. And, as imagined by Warner Bros, he would have been played by Jack Black.

Sorry for those Lantern fans who are baulking all over again, but here’s a thing. Ryan Reynolds is a good actor, so whatever problem I had with the film’s version of Hal Jordan, it wasn’t him. As with most of the film’s problems, I blame the script, which has far too much going on and not enough stuff that actually makes sense.

Hal consistently makes decisions that make him less likeable than the film’s supposed antagonist, Dr. Hector Hammond, including, but not limited to, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft just to prove a point, and quitting the role of Green Lantern altogether at the merest discouragement.

As much as Jud is a stock Black character, more of the kind we saw in Gulliver’s Travels than School Of Rock, Hal is a well established character in the comics, who doesn’t translate very well in the actual film. It’s odd, really, but the film I was most reminded of by Hal’s arc was Kung Fu Panda, in which Black voiced the schlub fated to defend his home from evil, despite the scepticism of his peers and superiors.

At least Smigel’s version has a sound idea behind him. Says he, “Basically, just the premise that the wrong guy gets the ring and can do all kinds of goofy visual jokes-because the visuals are so potentially ridiculous. What appealed to me about it on a comedic level was that, in order to be a superhero, this requires no physical skill or talent. All it requires is owning this ring. Automatically, that’s a comedic premise.”

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This isn’t the only time that I’m going to argue that neither version has it completely right, but the consistency of Jud’s character and development is more than equal to whatever Reynolds has going on.

The Supporting Characters

Another interesting thing about Smigel’s script, as opposed to Green Lantern 2011,is that it’s set in a continuity where the Green Lantern exists in comics. Jud’s geeky friend, Seth, is wise to the mythology, and has at least a modicum of wild-eyed wonderment at everything that’s going on.

Indeed, there’s more wonderment here than in the film. This, from a script where the public is familiar with Green Lantern, and a running joke denotes him as “like, the ninth most important superhero” with the rank ever-decreasing from there on out.

In the film, Hal, Carol Ferris and Thomas Kalmaku never seem to react with any particular awe to the idea that Hal is now a space-cop. Thomas, whose role is essentially to be Moss from The IT Crowd and deliver rubbish expository dialogue, is a less enjoyable best bud-type character than the scripted Seth.

Then again, Smigel’s script is very bloke-y, and so Jud’s love interest, Corrine, isn’t as developed as Blake Lively’s Carol. On the plus side, this allows more time towards the film’s underserved Corps characters, even if they’re painted in a more comedic light.

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Yes, this would have been a film where the Guardians tell Jud to “Shut the fuck up” and deliver basic orientation through a Muppet musical number, generated in green. If that failed to get the fans, then they might have been repulsed by the scenes where Kilowog trains Jud. Although the montage scenes are more extensive than the ones on-screen, their humour is hit and miss.

It’s still not the space opera that the actual trailers for Green Lantern promised, but it certainly goes some way towards fleshing out the characters in its own terms than the film did with a straight face.

The Villains

Amongst the charges levelled at Green Lantern is that the CGI doesn’t quite live up to the filmmakers’ confidence. One of the more dodgy pixellated creations is Parallax, who’s been described in various quarters as a big, yellow smokey turd monster. Still, I concede that his mode of killing was very well executed.

Smigel’s equivalent is Legion, “an enormous yellow robotic monster” with the usual “we are many” thing going on for him/it/them. The whole thing about yellow energy is passed over pretty quickly in a world where dorks know all about the ins and outs of the mythology. Legion’s goal is to bring down the Lanterns who contained them, Abin Sur and Sinestro.

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Abin Sur bites it at the beginning of the film, and Sinestro is pretty much set up as a secondary antagonist, fixated upon maintaining moral order, with an obsessive-compulsive opposition to chaos. In a nice scene, we get a pretty straight reveal of his dictatorial rule over his home planet, Korugar, which was missing from the film.

Still, the film wins this one for two reasons, the first of which is Mark Strong’s portrayal of Sinestro. Even though he’s not particularly villainous, except for in the obligatory post credits sting, Strong is the only one who carries off proper gravitas in a film that has over heavy leanings towards the tone of the Fantastic Four movies.

The script eventually reveals that it was due to Sinestro’s meddling that the ring picked Jud over “a courageous test pilot”, which is a nice touch in the heel turn. But it’s only in this script that you’d find Sinestro making over Jud’s disgusting apartment and, yes, uttering the immortal line “Whatever you do, don’t think of Elmo titty-wanking Barbara Walters,” to distract Jud.

If that didn’t make you smile, be reassured that there’s nothing in the script as funny as Peter Sarsgaard’s film portrayal of Dr. Hector Hammond, the second reason why the film has better villains. Despite being sympathetic, Sarsgaard’s histrionic screaming brought gales of laughter all the way through, as he camped it right up. My favourite part of the film, by far.

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The Action

Though perhaps not as important to the success of Smigel’s comedy script as it is to two-time Bond helmer Martin Campbell’s film, the action is better as currently seen on the big screen, CGI be damned.

Smigel has the most fun with Jud’s situated culture, conjuring up constructs that often seem more based in Looney Tunes than in the real world. The whole plot is resolved by Jud conceding that he’s not Superman, and thus proceeding to imagine a green Superman turning back time by flying around the Earth and saving the day for him.

The film’s script is of limited imagination, which sucks for a character whose power is only limited by what he can imagine. That said, all of Smigel’s setpieces seem to be reminiscent of other movies, even if the lateral thinking in the solutions is more enjoyable.

The two scripts have a race car construct in common, with Hal’s rescue of a crashing helicopter and Jud’s memory of his childhood bed giving him a soft landing when his ring fails mid-flight. But neither film gets the action quite right for a film about the Green Lantern, whether it fails in imagination or in setting.

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My Verdict

Maybe it’s just a bad idea to make a live-action Green Lantern film. The film we actually got is thoroughly mediocre, and almost seems to have escaped from the 1990s. Smigel’s comedy script reads just as CG-heavy, but I suspect the fans would have been out for blood if it had ever been produced.

The crucial problem with Smigel’s script is that it didn’t make me laugh all that much, which is okay for an unpolished first draft, but less so when you consider it’s meant to be a comedy. It’s dated June 20th 2006, but it’s also just very dated, already. Its pop culture references are of the kind that DreamWorks Animation was pulling out at the time, and it’s sometimes cringe-making stuff.

To the devoted fans of Green Lantern, I’m sure the idea of Smigel’s Green Lantern is an abomination, but I’m already seeing many posters on the Internet hoping for a reboot to the character after last Friday’s release.

To me, The Green Hornet is a film that comes closest to the misfire that the comedy version Green Lantern could have been, seeing as how this was even aiming for the R rating, rather than the slightly more family friendly PG-13. Whereas the apparently darker film often errs too close to Tim Story’s Fantastic Four, trying to be too modern and po-faced.

Given the potential for the material to be unintentionally silly, it feels like the best treatment would be somewhere between the two. There really should be some happy medium between Smigel’s brightest day and Berlanti and Green’s blackest night, in which the character could finally be done justice.

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Have you read the Robert Smigel script? Did you like the new Green Lantern film? Are you thinking about Elmo doing bad things? Add your comments below.

More of our Green Lantern stories are found here.