What Works & What Doesn't: 'Lost in Translation'

Discussing the craft of screenwriting by analyzing (modern) classic film scripts, and asking the essential question: what works and what doesn't?

Welcome once again to What Works & What Doesn't, a monthly column dedicated to the craft of screenwriting. Last time, we talked about Chinatown, which is one of the best examples of a classic three-act structure. This time around however, we'll be looking at a film that is quite different from Robert Towne's seminal work: Lost In Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola. As far as creative approaches go, Coppola couldn't be further away from Towne, as we will see, but while Lost In Translation and Chinatown are two very different kinds of films, they both stand out as examples of engrossing narrative storytelling. 

After all, Coppola's script, just like Towne's, won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, which is surprising given how non-mainstream the film is. In an article/interview from Creative Screenwriting Magazine called "Honoring the Little Moments," Peter N. Chumo II writes:

Unafraid to luxuriate in the long silence of a moment rather than filling each scene with meaningless noise, Lost in Translation is a film that defies Hollywood Convention.

Let's jump right in and analyze just how Coppola manages to create such a fantastic narrative experience, and identify the moments (if any) from her script that fall flat.


A Minimalist Approach

In the previous column, we discussed Robert McKee's book Story —identified by many as one of the best books on screenwriting craft out there (an opinion I agree with)—particularly the author's identification of Chinatown as an Archplot (or Classical Design). In fact, McKee believes all narratives can be categorized into one of three types: Archplot, Miniplot and Antiplot. Lost in Translation falls into the second category, Miniplot (or minimalism), which is characterized by passive and perhaps multiple protagonists, internal (as opposed to external) conflict, and open endings. 

Make no mistake, however, the basics of storytelling still apply, it's just that the beats aren't as big and punchy as in something like Chinatown. Lost In Translation's beats are quiet and internal. Chumo II writes in his aforementioned article that the film is concerned primarily with "searching out the 'details that feel like a bigger deal' to build the delicate relationship of Bob and Charlotte," the two main characters of the film. 

McKee himself further clarifies his definition of a Miniplot as such:

Miniplot does not mean no plot, for its story must be as beautifully executed as an Archplot. Rather, minimalism strives for simplicity and economy while retaining enough of the classical that the film will still satisfy the audience, sending them out of the cinema thinking 'What a good story!'

Given this explanation, let's go back to the main elements that characterize Miniplot, and match them up with the details of Lost In Translation.

Passive/Multiple Protagonists: As mentioned before, we have two main characters here, Bob and Charlotte, both existentially stranded Tokyo. 

Bob, a middle-aged actor shooting commercials for whisky brand Suntory Time instead of "doing movies," feels disconnected from his life and his work. His wife is a faceless antagonist, sending him shelf diagrams and paint swatches that fall from envelopes and scatter across his hotel room floor— disjointed and vague evidence of a house undergoing a superficial makeover (but is the foundation sound?).

Coppola gives us a story that is universally relatable because it touches upon emotions we all harbor throughout our lives.

Charlotte contrasts Bob in age only. Just out of college with a philosophy degree, she has no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Added to this, she feels a widening distance between herself and her photographer husband John, whom she has accompanied to Japan. While he shoots promo images for a band, Charlotte meanders in their hotel room, or else wanders around the city aimlessly.

The inciting incident comes when Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel's restaurant, sparking up what at first they think is a friendship, but which quickly becomes a romance of sorts. 

Overall, I wouldn't call either one of them passive; Bob and Charlotte both have desires, it's just that neither one of them know what their desires are. Once they see that they can find this thing they're after together, they pursue it—perhaps not as aggressively as in an Archplot like Chinatown, but they are active in this pursuit.

Internal Conflict: There is little in the way of outside factors keeping Bob and Charlotte apart. His wife is in America, wrapped up in her remodeling project; her husband is too preoccupied with his photography and conversing with a ditzy blonde actress. All that stands in the way of their pseudo-romantic friendship is their respective actions. The genius of Lost In Translation is Coppola's ability to capture these quiet, internal struggles in a way that feels just as big and important as more plot-centric films, without resorting to melodramatic explosions or meltdowns (see the excerpt below for an example).

Open Ending (SPOILER): Lost In Translation doesn't end with Bob and Charlotte getting together; nor does it end with them ending their relationship. We see the pair have an awkward goodbye in the hotel, followed by a race by Bob through the streets of Tokyo to catch Charlotte and say a proper goodbye. He does catch up to her, and he whispers something in her ear. The audience isn't allowed to hear what he says, but it makes Charlotte smile. It makes her beam. It makes her cry. They share a real kiss, an affectionate hug, and then depart. What the future holds for either one of them, together or separate, is left uncertain. This scene is not only effective, but it is the perfect execution of a moment that could have otherwise been cliché—how many romantic comedies end with the last-minute chasing down of the guy or girl and a teary profession of love?

One may argue this is strictly an open ending, but I actually think it wraps up Coppola's story perfectly. Bob and Charlotte's crisis can be linked to a fear of the unknown—neither one of them know what they want. This ending represents an embracing of the unknown, an acceptance on the part of both characters that they do not know what lies ahead, and this uncertainty is okay, because it means anything can happen. In this way, Coppola's ending is both closed and open.

Little Moments

Because Coppola relied heavily on improvisation during the filming of her script, and because the scene descriptions read more like prose than traditional screenwriting, one might think the script itself isn't worth reading. To some degree this is true—overall, Lost In Translation is a superb viewing experience, a deeply personal film that culminated from a bare bones script, actors committed to spontaneity and in living in their roles, a director with a keen eye for those "little moments," as Chumo II calls them, and stunning photography, montage sequences and music. As such, much of the audio/visual impact of the film—as well as the chemistry between Bill Murray as Bob and Scarlet Johansson as Charlotte—is lost on the page.

Still, looking over Coppola's threadbare words, one can detect the simplicity of poetry loaded with subtextual meaning. Consider this scene from early in the film:


Charlotte lays close to her young husband, John. She looks
to see if he's awake, but he's sleeping soundly. She leans
her chin on his shoulder.

               Are you awake?

He doesn't answer.


He grumbles something, opens one sleepy eye to look at her,
and grabs her under the covers. He kisses her.

               Go to sleep.

He holds her close, but she can't sleep.

                                                     CUT TO:

Charlotte sits on a ledge looking out at the big buildings.
The sun is starting to come up. Below she watches cars going

There isn't word one in this scene that blatantly states "Charlotte is lonely and in need of something, but she doesn't know where to find it, and she doesn't even know what it is," but this transmission reads loud and clear on the page when you read between the lines. Consider the fact that Charlotte sees John is "sleeping soundly," and yet still asks him "Are you awake?" Also notice that her two lines of dialogue are questions, whereas he merely "grumbles something" and makes a single declarative statement—a command really. And then, this simple but telling line:

He holds her close, but she can't sleep.

There is closeness and tenderness to this scene, and yet it couldn't be more obvious that for Charlotte, John just isn't enough.

Finally, the last line of this scene subtly suggests Charlotte's directionless feelings and depression. The spatial distance of Charlotte and the city below represents her isolation from the rest of the world, while the sentence "Below she watches cars going places" contrasts with the sense Charlotte is at an impasse. Note that Coppola doesn't say she watches the cars streaming by, or traversing the road; they are "going places," and Charlotte is not.

(Note too that at the end of the film, when Bob embraces Charlotte, Coppola writes, "He holds her close," and this is a joyous moment...)


The biggest criticism I've heard about Lost In Translation is that it is boring. If you've read everything I've written up to this point, I'm sure it's obvious that I couldn't disagree with this sentiment more. If the ultimate litmus test of a screenplay's quality is whether or not it features two to three big, punchy beats on every page, then yes, one could argue that Lost In Translation fails as a narrative. But if we only ask of a screenplay that it entertain and engage, then Coppola's script meets this criteria and then some. 

I am hard-pressed to find anything that doesn't work in Lost In Translation. The characters are all well-balanced and realistic. They make mistakes but ultimately they try their best to be good people. The relationship between Bob and Charlotte is sweet and engaging, but they are fascinating individuals when presented alone with their internal crises. All in all, Coppola gives us a story that is universally relatable because it touches upon emotions we all harbor throughout our lives—fear, regret, desire, malaise, the excitement of falling in love, the hollowing effect of falling out of love. It is a timeless masterpiece, perfect in every way from beginning to end.

Tell us your thoughts on Lost In Translation as it relates to the craft of screenwriting in the comments section below. See you next time.

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Olaf Brouwer's picture
Olaf Brouwer September 4, 2015 - 12:27pm

"What works and what doesn't work in Lost In Translation"

Hmmm sounds interesting, I'd like to see some criticisms!


Oh. Turns out everything works. Not that I disagree, but I expected more with that title.

Chris Neilan's picture
Chris Neilan September 4, 2015 - 7:59pm

The writer of this article says LOST IN TRANSLATION has an ending which is both open and closed.  This is impossible and inaccurate.  What he's trying to get at is this: the protagonists (there are two) FAIL to achieve their active goal (some kind of fulfilling relationship with the other protagonist) but SUCCEED in achieving their inner need (to feel loved).  Since the active goal always functions as the protagonist's method of resolving their inner need, the failure to achieve the active goal but the success of resolving the inner need can be a very satisfying bittersweet ending, suggesting a broader world philosophy wherein people might not always get what they want but the act of trying to get it fulfills them.  In essence, actively going after what you think you need is enough - actually getting what you think you need might not be the answer to your problems.  This is not an uncommon type of resolution (active goal failure, inner need success) and it's one of my favourites, but it IS a closed ending: the active goal is NOT achieved.  Other examples of this type of resolution include Andrea Arnold's excellent FISH TANK and, arguably, another superb Bill Murray indie, Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS.