Read Carl Sagan's letter (politely) telling Warner Bros. their Contact script sucked

Illustration for article titled Read Carl Sagans letter (politely) telling Warner Bros. their emContact/em script sucked

You may have recently encountered Carl Sagan's 1954 reading list out in the internet. But the Library of Congress has posted some much more interesting papers from the scientist, novelist and all around fascinating guy: a draft of the 1995 letter he sent to Warner Brothers about the adaptation of Contact.

The first two pages of what seems to be an even longer letter give a glimpse into just how complicated the production of a science fiction film can be. Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan wrote an earlier screenplay adaptation of the novel and (unlike virtually every screenwriter ever) had the opportunity to comment on seems to be at least a third draft of the script by Michael Goldenberg. Goldenberg and James V. Hart would both be credited by the WGA for the final screenplay, suggesting even more drafts would follow this letter. Sagan and Druyan have concerns about the problems that plague every screenplay, as well scientific accuracy.

Illustration for article titled Read Carl Sagans letter (politely) telling Warner Bros. their emContact/em script sucked

We can see from the comments written in blue at the bottom of page one that character consistency –- what Ellie would or wouldn't do –- was at risk of becoming more anodyne and mealy mouthed. Lower on the page, Sagan mentions losing "the documentary" and its ability to economically express elements of the story. You can almost imagine how quickly both "the documentary" and the "carp/ant/squid POV" were removed from the original screenplay due to Hollywood's complete and utter terror that someone in a theater might be bored or confused for a moment. On page two Sagan raises important questions about emotional resonance and truth. Shouldn't, or wouldn't, the death of a character the protagonist loved be a big deal?

Illustration for article titled Read Carl Sagans letter (politely) telling Warner Bros. their emContact/em script sucked

But it's when they get to their explanation of the line comments that it's clear that they're not just worried about getting a solidly told, emotionally resonant film to the screen. They don't just break down their comments into "major" and "minor." Nope, they've got a whole third category for "scientific points." Like that the Ring Nebula is not "along the line of sight from Vega to the Earth" and what transmitting surfaces can be made out of.

Unfortunately, the letter seems to end at the bottom of page two, making it hard to know much else about this draft of the screenplay (except that it seems to have done away with some thriller plot elements involving the Vatican) or what Sagan envisioned for this adaptation of his novel. Carl Sagan never saw the film, since passed away before it was finished, so its great to have even this little glimpse into what he felt was important for the story. Hopefully, when the Library of Congress finishes archiving his papers in late 2013, we'll get a fuller picture of the Contact production and Sagan's life.


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Whether or not Uncle Carl was or wasn't wholly enthusiastic about the final draft, the product is still one of my favorite movies, and I always felt like I could hear him in it. It's one of only three or four films about extraterrestrials that treat their mere existence as the impetus of the plot, rather than as backstory for military derring-do, and it is by far the best at inspiring a sense that sense of profundity that Sagan always tried to tease out of his audience when they looked at the universe. It never fails to attract some dust to my eyes.