The Stanford Prison Experiment

the-stanford-prison-experimentThe draft of today’s script that I read is dated August 7, 2006. The credited writers are Tim Talbott and Christopher McQuarrie. I’m not sure how much the script changed in between then and this year—when it was screened at Sundance. The IMDb page now lists only Talbott as a writer, and some of the character names are different, but I’ve not seen the film.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is very well-written. There is no doubt that it deserves a full five question review; there is much that we screenwriter’s can learn from its example. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this script that you can’t find in fifty other well-written scripts… except the subject matter. For that reason, I would like to spend this review talking about two things which interest me more than the technique under consideration.

1. What it means [to writers] to choose a story from the historical record
2. The actual events [and meaning] of the historical Stanford Prison Experiment

First things first:

I’ve recently reviewed a number of scripts which claim [in varying degrees] to derive from facts. Quickly listed, these would be:

American Sniper
The Imitation Game
One Fell Swoop

And now

The Stanford Prison Experiment.

This topic has become interesting to me because I realize how my knowledge of the facts influenced my feelings about the scripts listed above.

American Sniper suffered the most damage [in my estimation] by rewriting history to make it’s protagonist a hero. Whatever label you feel fits Chris Kyle, it’s very clear from the historical record that he was not an unsullied hero. The script stripped all of the negatives from the version of humanity he represents, and painted him as someone you could root for as a hero. I found this to be a disservice to writers because it encourages us to lie in order to get a cogent story with mass market appeal. [As noted in my review, I also feel that this “painted” version of Chris Kyle does not deserve to be lionized any more than the actual version of the man, but that is, strictly, my opinion. I wrote the review in order to argue for my interpretation, but it remains just that—an interpretation.]

I also remember how I felt when I finished Foxcatcher. I thought that was an absolutely brilliant script. I was so impressed that I closed the pdf and immediately searched for the story on Wikipedia. There I found that the writer had bent the truth to make his story more dramatic. This reduced my jubilation about the brilliance of the script. Some of the details I found most poignant were exaggerations of actual events. On top of this, the writer cut and pasted from the historical timeline to accentuate themes in his story. This brought my estimation of the script down from a near masterpiece, to a very good effort.

The Imitation Game likewise struck me as very near the genius level when I finished it. I am no Turing scholar, but my knowledge of the man parallels what was written. While discussing the script on the site, however, I had to admit that the movie version did not exhilarate me the way the pages had. It seemed to me the literal capture of Tuirng’s life lacked something when given cinematic expression. In other words, in this case, it felt like exaggeration of historical details might have made for a better viewing experience. (1)

One Fell Swoop, on the other hand, tricks its audience into thinking it’s fiction when it’s actually based on a true story. I finished this script and felt that it had potential to be a very interesting take on the comedy genre. As soon as I discovered the trick, my opinion flatlined. I think it is morally wrong for a writer to cash in on the suffering of other people—ESPECIALLY if that writer isn’t even going to acknowledge the suffering. Were I related to the girl on whom the script is based, I would be upset—to say the least.

Which brings us to today’s script, The Stanford Prison Experiment. We will talk about why [what I’m about to contend] is so in the discussion of point 2 from above but, in spite of the fact I loved this script, I think the story is hampered by its attention to the historical details. I’m sure that, like TIG and Foxcatcher, there are exaggerations in the details. My issue is that this topic requires a conclusion OTHER than the one provided by history. There is way too much at stake, psychologically and ethically, to record these events as they happened. Again, we have a script whose estimation dipped [in my eyes] because of its relationship to historical truth.

If we collect the data, we see that all five (2) of the scripts I’ve happened to recently review were made worse to me, because they could not walk the tight rope of truth. Two [TIG and TSPE] were worse because they did not exaggerate enough. The other three were worse because they exaggerated too much. Of course, this leaves us with a non-generalizable result.

I can’t leave you with a prescription when it comes to your biographical script.

What I notice, however, is that these biographical works break cleanly along a divide which may serve as a replacement generalizer. There are those scripts [TIG, TSPE,] where the actions of the individuals, whose portraits are being drawn, are LESS important than our reaction to these individuals as a society.

I don’t think TIG is ABOUT Turing; I think it’s about how society accepts difference. Similarly, I don’t think TSPE is about Zimbardo, Eschelman, or Prisoner 416; I think it’s meant to be about how we wear our labels in society.

On the other hand, American Sniper is ABOUT [love him or hate him] the actions of Chris Kyle. Change these actions [whatever your reasons], and you change what the story is about.

You could make an argument that Foxcatcher is about societal reaction to excellence. [I do make this argument in my review.] However, it’s also abundantly clear that the wrestling careers of Mark and David Schultz would never have been the subject of a movie if not for the insanity supplied by John du Pont’s emergence in their lives. Foxcatcher is ABOUT a very specific insanity that afflicted du Pont and that insanity’s effect on a couple of Olympic brothers.

I think this [hastily sketched] breakdown leads to a generalizable result after all. There aren’t enough instances for it to be a good induction, nevertheless, it’s interesting enough to list the conclusion anyway:

If your biographical script is about the world’s reaction to an historical figure, feel free to take liberties with the truth. If your biographical script is about an historical figure’s reaction to the world, take no liberties with the truth.

So much for point 1. I’ll list point 2 again to keep you from scrolling up the page:

2. The actual events [and meaning] of the historical Stanford Prison Experiment

Let me get right into it by noting that this “experiment” has been shown to be improperly designed at every step throughout its implementation. I won’t argue for that because actual scientists have done a much better job of showing how carelessly Professor Zimbardo handled the scientific method than I could ever do. Neither will I argue for the idea [which I believe to be true] that Zimbardo influenced his experiment to get the conclusion he was hoping to prove. Namely:

Labels are the real drivers of behavior and not individual human persons.

In spite of the fact that his experiment was shown to be irreparably faulty, it is still cited as support whenever someone wants to justify Zimbardo’s conclusion about labels. My point here, is that more work needs to be done striking this experiment from the psychological record, but I am not qualified to do this work. [As example: A few years ago, Zimbardo was called as an expert witness at the trial of the guards at Abu Ghraib. His experiment and conclusions were offered as evidence for the defense.]

Everything I’ve written in the preceding paragraph is INTENSELY interesting to me, but I’m not academically qualified to make pronouncements.

What does interest me, however, is the “character” of Eschelman. Particularly this, the final line in the script, about HIM attributed to:

I think I would’ve been a guard…
I don’t think it would’ve been such a masterpiece.

Because this points to what I think TSPE should have been about. Whatever the experiment means to science, it isn’t arguable that the sadism exhibited by Eschelman is remarkable. You can’t draw any conclusion from it in terms of labels, but you can say that there exists a certain type of person who will become a “leader” by being willing to be the most extreme example of humanity in any group.

Zimbardo built cruelty into his prison. He all but demanded that the guards threat the prisoners with no decency. It is, therefore, no publishable RESULT that the guards ended up treating the prisoners without decency. However, at no time during the experiment did Zimbardo tell the other guards that Eschelman was to be treated as the leader of his shift of guards. He became the leader because he had a certain amount of natural charisma, combined with a willingness to be the most extreme example of the cruelty that Zimbardo requested.

I feel like TSPE ended up proving something, just not the foregone conclusion about labels Zimbardo had in mind when he desinged it. TSPE tells us about THE quality a person must have to be followed.

She has to be charismatic and more devoted than anyone else to achieving the goal.

We normally think of leaders in positive terms. TSPE revealed to me the possibility that leadership isn’t declinable into good and bad examples. Perhaps, Luke and Vader are related by more than just their genes. Perhaps:

All leaders are just charismatic fanatics.

It’s probably clear by now what I think the real problem with TSPE is: it should have been ABOUT Eschelman. It should have bent the truth to show us how a society reacts to its leaders.

In the end, there is no denying that this is a well-written script that has much to teach about our craft:

Rating: Recommended


1. I saw an article online about inaccuracies in the script, but I didn’t click the link. It is possible that The Imitation Game treats Turing with the same latitude Foxcatcher treated du Pont.
2. I decline to make the argument for OFS. I think it’s obvious why this script is bad.


2 responses to “The Stanford Prison Experiment

  1. Another great read, Joel.

    How fortuitous that you’re discussing biographical scripts, as that is something I want to tackle next (with no small amount of trepidation).

    The decision to exercise exaggeration versus historical accuracy is a difficult one. I’m happy to have read your thoughts on the matter.

    • Biography is a tough genre for film. I’ve thought of tackling it too. So far, I’ve been intimidated by the challenge.

      Love to hear which way you step on the accuracy tightrope once you get your story settled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s