March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it a B+

Remember the scene in Traffic where Michael Douglas’ drug-czar character smokes cocaine? You know, after he finds his addicted teenage daughter’s crack gear and, desperate to understand what she sees in drugs, tries it himself, right there in her bedroom?

Before you pop a ginkgo biloba pill, relax: There’s no such scene in the finished movie. But you can find this jaw-dropping interlude in Traffic: The Shooting Script, one of a passel of Academy Award-nominated screenplays now playing in bookstores. It’s part of a general flood of published scripts currently filling shelves like so many pint-size movie posters (which, frankly, is one of their primary functions; they’re as much ads as books). And since publishers’ galleys often have to be ready long before a movie leaves the editing room, what’s on the page can differ wildly from what’s on screen.

In Stephen Gaghan’s script for Traffic, scores of differences show up as you scan the typewriter-text pages (a sea of print capped by a few black-and-white stills). The scene of Douglas’ character navigating a Washington, D.C., cocktail party, for instance, runs to several times its length in the film, and has a much more satirical, Alice in Wonderland feel. Reading rather than watching also lends more weight to certain details. For instance, it’s impossible to guess by simply watching the movie that when a Mexican soldier tortures a drug-cartel assassin, what he forces up the victim’s nostril is soda water laced with chili powder. As an indictment of torture as government policy, that’s stronger than the finished scene.

Of course, these are tangential pleasures. Is poring over a work-in-progress movie blueprint generally worthwhile for busy folks who aren’t aspiring screenwriters? Probably not. But anybody who treasures terrific dialogue and sharp descriptions should curl up with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous — it’s full of good scenes that were heavily abridged or simply chopped out.

Crowe has a great facility with characters who alienate each other while endearing themselves to us. Like Elaine (Frances McDormand), the single mom who’s afraid her 15- year-old son, William, will become corrupted chronicling the rise of a rock band. The script gives Elaine a much fuller accounting than the movie does, from her irksome college-prof habit of correcting people (”There is no word in the English language ‘Xmas,”’ she tells a storefront workman, ”it’s either ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays”’) to her dismay when William petitions against her hatred of rock (”Lo, that which I have feared has come upon me”).

In every way, Crowe’s script feels like the beating heart of his movie. In contrast, Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script, like many a film on the page, lacks something crucial. There’s every reason to admire the shaping job Susannah Grant did with the real-life story of a poor, single-mom legal crusader who wrestled masses of money out of Pacific Gas & Electric in a water-contamination case. But this is a transcript. There’s virtually no deviation from the movie, currently available on DVD with an annex of fascinating outtakes (including an entire subplot in which Erin gets ill from chemical-drenched soil and water samples). Besides, the sheer star wattage of Julia Roberts and Albert Finney is too crucial a part of the final alchemy to make a silent read-through very engaging.

The sense of magic evaporating in your hands also hovers over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film and Gladiator: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic. The former gives screenplay authors Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung every reason to be proud — they hammered a complex novel into a graspable framework — but, hey, descriptions on the order of ”Fox and the masked figure leap away” are worlds removed from the thrill of the movie’s martial-arts action scenes. The glossy Gladiator tribute, which shunts the script (by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) to a series of excerpts at the back of the book, can’t compete with DreamWorks’ overstuffed DVD, which covers the same ground with engaging audiovisual dexterity.

All of which underscores further that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous screenplay is an anomaly to be treasured: A word-centric entity in a town that runs on images. Somewhere, his fictional mom is smiling. Traffic: The Shooting Script: B+ Almost Famous: A- Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script: B- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film: C Gladiator: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic: C+

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