Chinatown: Script to Film


For the most part, the final screenplay was shot almost exactly as it was written. 'Once Roman and I agreed on the script, he held everyone's feet to the fire,' Towne says. 'Whatever disagreements we had, they ended when the script was written. Nobody said, 'Well, let's try it another way.' That was the way.'-- Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1999

Towne's statement that Chinatown "was shot almost exactly as it was written" is not quite an accurate statement.

It is true that the majority of the scenes in the film follow the screenplay. Almost all the dialogue in the film is from the screenplay. However, there are at least four deviations from the script that are worth examining because they represent significant shifts in dramatic and thematic focus.

The final scene of the film is radically different from the screenplay and represents Polanski's understanding of the theme of the film and not Towne's. The battle over the ending is well-known and the interviews of Towne and Polanski on the DVD are fascinating in rehearsing the history of the battle. Towne finally acknowledges that Polanski was right.

I am going to discuss the difference in detail, because the changes represent such a fundamental change in the meaning of the film.

However, there are also three additional changes that are worth examining not because they modify character or theme, but because of their change in dramatic focus.

My discussion will be based on the Online version of Towne's Script and my Chinatown: Narrative Structure.

Omission of Jake's flight to Catalina.

The first change is an omission. Of course, in the shooting of the film, Polanski made a number of small omissions and revisions to tighten the dramatic economy of the film. But the omission I want to examine is shots #136-39 in the script, p. 73 ff. in the published screenplay. This is a scene between Jake and the pilot who flies him to Catalina to meet Noah Cross. In Chinatown: Narrative Structure the omitted scene would have occurred between #24 and #25.

The scene is important in the script because it gives Jake the backstory on Evelyn Mulwray. The pilot tells Jake that she was a wild one who ran away when she was sixteen or seventeen. She ran off to Mexico--rumor was she was knocked up and didn't even know who the father was--went there to get rid of it. Cross was looking for her all over the country--offered rewards, everything. Felt real sorry for him, with all his money.

The function of this scene is clear. It's to prepare Jake and us for the climatic moment when Evelyn reveals her family secret. But Polanski was right to omit it because it tells too much. Jake would have been able to figure out why Cross hires him to find the girl and why Evelyn was so involved with Hollis' girl. It's crucial to the plot to keep Jake in complete ignorance about the real relationship between Cross, Evelyn and the mysterious girl so Cross' hiring of him is plausible, and so Evelyn's revelation will carry maximum dramatic shock.

Jake and Evelyn in bed after sex.

The second change is an addition. Polanski adds a scene to Jake and Evelyn's encounter at her house after their escapade at Mar Vista Rest Home. (In my Chinatown: Narrative Structure the additional scene is # 33: Evelyn and Jake in bed.)

What he adds is a scene of them talking in bed after making love. Polanski altered the previous scene #32: Evelyn and Jake in the Bathroom in two major ways in order to integrate the additional scene of them in bed.

First, he turns their physically intimate encounter of Evelyn cleaning his nose wound and his sudden discovery of her eye "flaw" into a moment of sexual passion as they kiss.

Second, Polanski deftly removes the dialogue about Chinatown that takes place while she's cleaning his nose and relocates it as their dialogue in bed.

I believe that the revisions and additions made both scenes much more powerful dramatically.

The script's version of the bathroom scene is too dense. On the one hand it focuses on their intimate physical contact that creates a suspenseful charge of sexual excitement, which is realized at the close of the scene. On the other hand, the dialogue about Jake's experience in Chinatown is of central importance to the theme of the film. Mixing the sexually charged moment with the moment of thematic statement shifts the dramatic focus from the dialogue to the acting out of sexual attraction. The significance of the dialogue gets lost in the physical encounter.

Polanski resolves the issue by separating the moments. By adding the scene of them in bed in a moment of intimacy after their physical passion has been spent, Polanski focuses on the dialogue. He picks up the dramatic suspense of Jake's enigmatic statement about doing "as little as possible" in Chinatown, which was broken off by the trip to the bathroom, and resolves it by Jake's confession about his experience in Chinatown.

Jake calls Cross.

In the film, Jake calls Cross after he hears from Evelyn the truth about the girl and the glasses (Scene #48 in Chinatown: Narrative Structure.). The chronological placement of this scene is an important change from the script. In the script, Jake makes this call to Cross right after he discovers the glasses in the tide pool (#41). He calls Cross because he's working for him and he thinks what he's discovered confirms what Cross had suggested: that Evelyn killed Hollis out of jealousy. Between the time he makes this good faith call to his employer, Cross, and when they finally meet at Mulway's, Jake has learned the truth. But when he makes the call, he actually believes Cross' version.

What's the dramatic difference? In the script, Jake calls Cross because he has completely misunderstood what's going on. That's a nice dramatic point. It intensifies the irony that Jake has unwittingly done Cross's work for him.

I think Polanski changed the position and meaning of the call because he wanted to maintain the suspense of the audience not knowing how Jake interprets the meaning of the glasses. In the script, the phone call tells the audience that Jake thinks Evelyn did it. The film doesn't reveal his misunderstanding until he bursts in on Evelyn and calls the police. So Polanski trades the irony of Jake's call to Cross revealing what he thinks to the real killer, for the more intense dramatic irony of his ignorance in the scene with Evelyn. Polanski was right. The most powerful scene in the film is Evelyn's revelation. That scene depends on Jake being righteously ignorant, angerly demanding the truth. If he had already told Cross what he thought was the truth, Jake would not have confronted her in this way. He would have manipulated Evelyn and the girl into going back to Mulwray's where they would meet Cross, his employer, as he suggested he would in the phone call in the script.

The Final Scene

I'll use my Transcript of the Final Scene and Towne's Final Scene as the basis for analysis.

We all know that Polanski changed the ending of Chinatown, which dramatically altered the meaning of the story. What I want to do is examine in detail the specific changes he made and how they changed the meaning.

First let me list the major differences: