M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening started off slightly differently – until studio feedback altered the project.
Back in 2007, writer/director M Night Shyamalan was looking to set up a production deal for his new screenplay, The Green Effect. Somewhat infamously, the script leaked, critical buzz appeared online, and Shyamalan left his studio meetings without a hint of a green light but instead a pile of notes.
What he did next was nothing but commendable. He took those notes, and he rewrote the script. He took the criticism and created a new draft to address it. Presumably this evolution of his screenplay played some part in attracting the necessary finance, though it’s possible Shyamalan just looked under some other, different rocks this time.
Whatever the reason, the screenplay for The Green Effect became the screenplay for The Happening and somewhere later in the year, Shyamalan was in production, following his newly revised vision for the picture.
The most public-facing change, of course, was the new title. Whereas Green Effect shines a light straight at the film’s plot, The Happening is far more ambiguous. So what does it mean? Why call it that?
In the late 1950s, Allan Kaprow coined the notion of ‘a happening’ as a noun in an article about Jackson Pollock. Kaprow’s concept describes an art event of some kind, an unrepeatable, in-the-moment occurrence. This new use of the word caught on, likely boosted by its use in one of the popular print ads for Maidenform bras with its “I Dreamed…” slogans.
The meaning of the word gently expanded as it became more popular, and by the end of the 60s, the notion of something like, say, Woodstock or the Altamont Free Concert being ‘a happening’ was quite a widespread, graspable one. Stop a buzz-cut zombie movie sheriff in the street and he might tell you that a happening is where the pot smoking and free loving goes on.
Kaprow’s original coinage refers to a moment that is, in and of itself, art. This doesn’t really sit squarely with Shyamalan’s application of the word. The very loosest sense of a happening being an out of the ordinary event translates across, but anything more specific to artwork doesn’t carry over.
But could Shyamalan’s train of thought have traced ‘happenings’ from when the term was entangled with so-called ‘flower power’ practitioners later in the 60s? That’s a real possibility, even if he did so unconsciously.
Shyamalan was not the first to call a movie The Happening. Faye Dunaway made her debut in Eliot Silverstein’s 1967 crime caper of that title, alongside Anthony Quinn and Michael Parks. It’s an almost-accidental kidnapping story in which a group of youths with a late 60s counterculture bent hold a gangster-turned-businessman for ransom. It’s an overtly political film which uses its title to fuel some of its meanings.
Today, that movie is mostly forgotten but you’ll still hear its theme song quite often, especially if you go rummaging around in my Spotify account. The Happening by The Supremes was a number one hit in the US and made it to number six in the UK. It’s extremely catchy and has a lovely, simple pop lyric.
This song makes an altogether different use of ‘a happening’ that has nothing to do with Kaprow, hippies or, really, the film. Here, it refers to a bolt out of the blue, a sudden, dramatic event that has great impact, and also the emotional analog for this, a ‘happening inside’.
As per the lyrics:
It happened, suddenly it just happened
I saw my dreams fall apart
When love walked away from my heart
And when you lose that precious love you need
To guide you
Something happens inside you
When I first heard that Shyamalan’s screenplay was getting this new title, my mind went directly to this song. Was he making an explicit, deliberate reference? I’ve since managed to get my hands on his unproduced script and, straight away, I thought the first scene provided strong evidence that, actually, he might well be.
This original scene has not made it through into the finished film. In the movie as produced, the vengeful botany takes centre stage up front. We’re not introduced to the protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s Elliot, until over seven minutes have passed and several people are dead. It’s over ten minutes until Zooey Deschanel’s Alma, his wife, is drawn into the plot, and a couple more minutes until she appears on screen.
On the page, we instead start with Elliot and Alma in an instantly readable, high-stakes moment of conflict. They’re having an argument at home which establishes, in a fairly heightened way, that she thinks they should separate and he does not.
She’s thrown something at him – and missed; he argues that she missed on purpose. She says that she had doubts as early as their wedding day; he claims she’s making this story up.
I read the scene that she’s in touch with their failing relationship, and being honest about it, while he has been in denial. This clearly establishes the central relationship of the film and sets up the real problem that Elliot and Alma will have to fight their way through as their story unfolds.
In effect, cutting this scene and going straight to widespread catastrophe places the personal story of Elliot and Alma inside an overarching disaster storyline. In the screenplay, the opposite is true: we start in Elliot and Alma’s story, and the big sci-fi action-horror plot comes up as the second note in the chord, the ‘jungle gym’ of plot in which their character conflict can be played out.
What’s more, the personal drama highlighted by this scene, and later explored by the screenplay, and to some extent finished film, is an extremely good match for the lyrics of the Supremes song.
Here’s Eliot, being sure, feeling secure, until Alma’s actions here put him on a detour. He’s riding on top of the world until ‘love walks away from his heart.’ He wakes up, suddenly, into ‘The Happening’ – in this case, that being both his dramatic relationship shift and the, um… vegetable uprising. He had a tender love that he didn’t take care of, now he has to beware of The Happening.
Did Shyamalan know the song and make the connection on purpose? Well, pop songs have a tendency towards big, universal emotions that map quite nicely onto all sorts of storylines, so he wouldn’t have to. Maybe he was just using a word that appears very often in the script – don’t play an “Everytime somebody says happen, happened or happening” drinking game if you want to make it to the end of the movie.
What strikes me here, really, is that looking at this new title through the prism of the song is a good way to focus on the emotional, character-driven heart of the thing; the stuff that, sadly, got compromised somewhere on the way from Green Effect pages to finished motion picture.
I don’t think The Happening is quite the disaster some have alleged. Most of its less well-received scenes would seem perfectly acceptable in the context of a 1950s B-movie, which leads me to suspect that, in time and with distance, it’s going to play much better for audience.
Sadly, I know it also doesn’t really live up to its own potential. Some of the rewrite points were sensible ones, but I’ll certainly always miss the original introduction to Elliot and Alma, and what it did for our overall sense of what is really happening.
Thank you for visiting!
If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.