The true-life story of John Newton, a former slave ship Captain, who became a clergyman and fought to abolish slavery. STORY COMMENTS A WRETCH LIKE ME is a character driven story based on the true-life narrative of John Newton, who helped abolish slavery and composed the lyrics to the haunting and soulful song AMAZING GRACE. The story centers on John’s emotional and psychological personal journey as he went from commanding a slave ship to championing the abolishment of slavery. His life experiences lead him to write AMAZING GRACE, which is a song based on his own story of redemption.
It’s an important story to tell. The goal is emotional and the stakes are personal. The story is driven by solid themes about repenting, faith, and second chances. The tone is consistently dramatic. The era and the culture feel very authentic and realistic to the time period. The main story is told through a flashback, which works as an effective structure. The script offers some potentially powerful moments that help form John’s transformation. He clearly transitions from a person who believes that slaves are not human to realizing that they are just as human, if not more, than he is.
The story also focuses on John’s conversion from a man with no faith to a man who lives his life for the church and God. Character driven stories based and inspired by true events can make for potent films. However, there are areas that are worth discussing. The opening shows John writing the song AMAZING GRACE and the prejudice that still transpires against Blacks. John is shown preaching his sermon which transitions into the flashback of his life. This nicely sets the dramatic tone. The rest of the first act and second act outline John’s life, as he’s forced into the slave trade and struggles with his decisions and life choices.
Eventually, John arcs as he changes as a person and works against slavery. The story effectively transitions back to the opening. In the opening, however, it would probably be effective to cut the idea that David Phelps is identified as one of the perpetrators that burns Samson out, as this is just left dangling with no resolution. Also, consider cutting John’s outburst towards David in the church (page 3) when he tells him he’s not a member. Just let the visual speak for his emotions. It also would be effective to have a stronger visual or auditory bridge from connecting the present to the past for a smooth transition.
The opening does a nice job helping the audience emotionally connecting with adult John. One can feel his conflict and pain about his past indiscretions. The flashback opening also does a nice job showing John as a young boy and his bond with his mother. It’s sweet and touching. Young John is likable and it’s sad when his mother dies. It’s clear that he gets his conflict about slavery from his parents. His mother saw slaves as humans, while his father didn’t. The story then transitions to young adult John and outlines his journey into the slave trade and his character growth.
Unfortunately, young adult John never fully engages the audience. This John needs to be a much more interesting and he needs to be a more relatable character that the audience can root for. Currently, it’s just challenging to care about or like young adult John. One reason for this is his attitude and somewhat “wretched” presentation. He’s moody and he’s always sad. Granted, the idea is to show his transformation from wretched man to a stronger man, but he still has to be likable. Currently, he’s presented as a man who cries a lot (or is tearful) even though his mother died when he was a young boy.
He’s whiny with his father. Yet on the ship, he has an attitude. The scene in which he becomes angry and kills a rat makes it hard to care about him so late in the script. Around page 79, his dialogue asking for forgiveness sounds a bit melodramatic and he again cries and moans. Because he has cried a lot throughout the entire script, this release of emotion has very little impact for the audience. Thus, these different temperaments make it challenging to relate with a character like this. John falls in love with Polly instantly and his love for her is well highlighted.
Polly nicely challenges him as a character. She doesn’t believe in slavery and this is a personal obstacle that John has to overcome. On the ship, there are several scenes that are potentially powerful, but the scenes have room for more tension. These scenes include: The bar scene in which John is attacked has room to build tension. This happens so quickly that it doesn’t build tension and anticipation. The scene in which John is forced to whip a man can use more tension. The scene in which the slaves attack the crew and John’s reaction to the attack can be stronger.
The scene in which John is forced to push a slave overboard can show more conflict. The scene in which he almost tosses a baby overboard also has room for more tension While one can envision the tension in each of these scenes, they currently don’t convey the tension as well as they could. To enhance the tension find the right words to describe the scenes and creates powerful images. Make sure to focus on John’s visual conflict. The scenes in which the slaves are made to dance to the beat of the music feel powerful. They stand out.
It would, however, be nice if John could find a way to connect to them through music. Another scene that works really well is when John defends Samson and frees the slaves leading to a fight with Pl. It contains nice tension, but because Pl is a minor character in the overall script, the tension is more episodic versus the script building towards a showdown with the main antagonist David Phelps. There is no real climax with David, who has been the main rival and adversary throughout the script. In fact, once John comes back home, there’s no tension driving the third act.
Find more ways to make the third act stronger. Continue to work on John as a character. A possible solution to make young adult John more relatable is to give him a more engaging voice and demeanor. It’s difficult to like a character that always sounds sad and depressed. His charm never really emerges. Certainly, John is complex. He has a strong inner conflict, yet he feels like an immature hero. As mentioned, the idea that he doesn’t think slaves are human is a smart point in which to begin his arc. By the end he realizes how wrong he was.
He does develop an endearing friendship with Samson and his love for Polly feels real. John definitely has potential, but some of his actions and his dialogue make him a bit too stiff as a character. Dialogue works best with John as a child and as a mature adult, but just isn’t as compelling as young adult John. This, again, this might be due to the fact that he’s so moody and sad. In contrast, Polly is very likable. She’s bright and cheerful. She has a very good heart and she sees something really good in John. She challenges him as a person and she makes him a better man.
Her voice reflects her personality and her values. David is strong as the antagonist. He clearly sees John as a rival. His voice is consistent with his personality. However, there just isn’t any real resolution between David and John. Samson is also likable, yet one feels like there’s more room for development. One consideration is to focus more on John’s budding friendship with Samson versus focusing on other features of the script. John’s father’s point of view about John is very clear, but one doesn’t feel as if there is a true resolution in the father-son subplot.
In summary, there’s definitely a story here to tell. Focus on creating more tension in the scenes mentioned and especially in the third act. Also focus on making young adult John more compelling as character. SUMMARY & MARKETABILITY True, dramatic stories can be marketable. They may be more challenging to market, but if produced well, they can make for compelling films that are critically acclaimed. The characters have potential to attract talent, but would suggest more development to make John a more relatable character. Target audience is mainstream drama.