There’s a saying I like about writing a screenplay: “Simple plot. Complex characters.” 1917 does a spin on that: Simple plot. Simple characters. Complex production.
I don’t mean simple characters in a derogatory way, it’s just that Schofield’s journey which is simple — find Colonel Mackenzie to give the order to call off the attack — has at its core a simple emotional dynamic: By calling off the suicide attack, they will save Lieutenant Blake’s life. This task becomes all the more compelling when Schofield’s erstwhile partner (Lt. Blake’s brother) is killed during the mission directly due to a decision Schofield makes. Thus, he carries with him a heavy dose of guilt and remorse. That is not a complex emotional dynamic, rather it is basic and upfront, in other words, simple.
The script offers a compelling read because in many ways, it enters into the inner lives of the two main characters, Blake and especially Schofield, through some moments of what I call psychological writing, dipping into the character’s internal emotions and thoughts. But mostly, it’s about the continuous action interspersed with well-placed interaction moments between a set of characters who appear for a few scenes, then disappear as Schofield continues his mission.
I suspect the complexity of the ‘one take’ approach to the production, everything happening in ‘real time’ contributed to the decision to strip down the characters to the simplest emotional dynamics. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a story which such a frenzied pace allowing for exploring characters to any sort of complexity.
I think 1917 is a case where the level of character depth matches well the propulsive narrative drive. Make clear to the reader what the emotional stakes are, pure and simple, then hang on for a wild ride through World War I.