by Matt J. Popham
Blake Snyder subtitled his trendy screenwriting guide, SAVE THE CAT, “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need,” but it’s unlikely the double-entendre was intentional. While his hipper-than-thou how-to might offer a few common sense essentials, it’s hardly essential in itself. Of course, it’s hard to imagine why a writer of any worth would ever really NEED an instruction manual in the first place but, to be fair, SAVE THE CAT is not so much about how to write a GOOD screenplay as how to write a SUCCESSFUL (read: lucrative) one. That’s not a distinction that Snyder, himself, is capable of making, but it’s an important one for a reader to keep in to mind, since it throws a little light on some of his more dubious pronouncements (such as proclaiming himself the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood, despite having only two writing credits – both on very poorly-received films – to his name; or championing Miss Congeniality over Memento as a model of exemplary screenwriting) and contextualizes the “creative” approach he lays out.
Less a guide to WRITING your screenplay than SELLING it, what SAVE THE CAT really offers are formulas and strategies for maximizing your work’s marketability and mass appeal, even if those methods are often dressed-up in the guise of aesthetic improvements. While Snyder’s down-to-earth, dollars-and-sense mindset can occasionally give rise to one or two useful tidbits about navigating the wilds of the Hollywood system, it more frequently results in some bafflingly backwards suggestions, such as perfecting your sales pitch first and then designing your screenplay accordingly. Even when he does discuss the actual craft of screenwriting (story structure, character development, etc.), his technique – a recycled pablum of dumbed-down Joseph Campell, Syd Field, and Robert McKee, sprinkled liberally with odds and ends from development executives, agents, and even Georg Friedrich Hegel – is focused primarily on adhering to tried-and-true formulas that have proven popular with producers and audiences alike. Codifying the patterns observed and explored by the likes of Campbell and Field into inflexible rules, anything that doesn’t fit Snyder’s narrow framework is summarily dismissed as bad (see Memento, above). Quality means taking the safe, paint-by-numbers path towards consensus, popularity, and, ultimately, profitability, and if, at any point, you disagree with him, well… He’s open to argument, but as he never fails to remind you, he’s made a lot of money doing this.
And in the end, the real problem with SAVE THE CAT is not its uninspired insights, narrow-minded instruction, or aesthetic void. All of that would make the book merely dispensable. What ultimately makes it thrown-with-great-force-worthy is the smug, smarmy, self-congratulatory tone with which Snyder benevolently hands-down his wisdom from on high. SAVE THE CAT is a short book, but a long read because Snyder is so infuriatingly self-satisfied, you can’t get through a chapter without wanting to beat him AND his fucking cat to death with a Louisville Slugger. His methodology isn’t necessarily flawed or faulty, but it IS misdirected, creatively limiting, and presented better elsewhere. And in that respect, SAVE THE CAT might be the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.