Charles Alverson writes (April 2000)

Charles Alverson

It is gratifying that anyone is still concerned with a low-budget film nearly 25 years old. This would probably not be so if it hadn’t been directed by Terry Gilliam, but what the hell. From my point of view as first writer, the writing process was one of almost total enjoyment. It got a bit frustrating when Gilliam asked the impossible (to me, at that time) of me, such as creating a dialogue between Dennis and one of the ambulatory puppetshow’s puppets. I could probably do it now, but then it seemed impossible.

Although I take credit for a vast amount of the original writing on Jabberwocky, I was also responsible for a lot of the red herrings which Gilliam had to chase down and destroy when he shaped the shooting script from our unwieldy first draft. For instance, we had a running joke about wooden legs. Though this convulsed us, it had to go. As did so much more that I cannot remember now. And it was Terry who was able to take badly or barely written scenes (such as the Dennis/Wat Dabney scene) and make them work with economy which dazzled me. On the other hand, it was frustrating to see some of my brilliant scenes completely ruined on the screen either by the fact that the dialogue simple could not be played or because Gilliam was still cutting his directorial teeth and was not yet a genius. It was also frustrating to sit there and watch Gilliam-staged scenes (the fight between the Black Knight and the Jabberwocky) that I know damned well I could have done better. But, since the screenwriter has about the same role in directing a film as the father has in giving birth to a baby, there was little I could do.

Quite aside from my brilliant script and Gilliam’s brilliant direction, for me, the best thing about Jabberwocky is the cast. It was a great privilege to see our words delivered by Max Wall, John Le Mesurier, Warren Mitchell, the actors who played Dennis’s father (Paul Curran), the chief merchant (Peter Cellier), the Bishop (Derek Francis), Wat Dabney (Jerrold Wells). These people made the film. And if the odd miscasting (Harry H. Corbett as the Squire) took years off of Gilliam’s life, it also made him a better director.

When I receive the odd small check for Jabberwocky royalties, and I note that aside from Mike Palin I get by far the smallest slice of the pie, it not only makes me realize the humble position of the screenwriter, but convinces me that film is the most scum-sucking medium in the world and makes me glad to be a novelist.

Read more by Charles Alverson at ChasOnline 

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