James Cameron's dialogue in Titanic is actually great
Why the director's oft-mocked script is the king of its own world.
Right now some of you are probably thinking that "James Cameron's dialogue in Titanic is actually great" cannot possibly be true and this is clearly a clickbait story, and there's no way you'll be shaken from your belief that the 1997's film's script belongs at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
But you might be surprised by the time you finish reading this.
Because you can be blasé about a lot of things, but not Titanic, which 23 years after its release rightfully remains a pop culture masterpiece and, in fact, contains some rather terrific writing.
Titanic's dialogue is, among some, notorious. "What really brings on the tears is [writer-director] Cameron’s insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities ... it isn’t even close," opined L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan. "Titanic carries some stinkers that wouldn't make the final draft of a Days of Our Lives script," wrote Slate's David Edelstein. "Loads of blockhead dialogue," penned Salon's Stephanie Zacharek.
The issue here is what makes a screenplay "great" in the first place. When movie fans think of great dialogue writers, one of the first names that come to mind nowadays is Quentin Tarantino, who has such stylized, witty dialogue. Or they think of sober, dramatic, award-winning films, like Moonlight and The Godfather. In other words: We tend to think dialogue is great when it shines with originality, personality, and has a beautiful deft touch that's pleasing to the ear.
But there is another — arguably, more important — job that a screenplay has: to be effective. A script isn't meant to be solemnly read aloud in front of a fireplace. Its job is to introduce characters, to make you care about them, to move the story along and keep you gripped and entertained. The dialogue in Titanic largely isn't "great" in the traditional literary sense. But it's absolutely fantastic in terms of its effectiveness.
Within seconds of meeting Jack Dawson, Rose DeWitt Bukater, and Cal Hockley you know precisely who they are and what they want. Vagabond Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) immediately reveals his poverty, lack of education, and gung-ho spirit ("When you got nothin' you got nothin' to lose"); Rose (Kate Winslet) quickly shows her desperation and initial tone-deaf privileged attitude in voiceover ("It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me, it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains"); and her fiancé Cal (Billy Zane) demonstrates his unapologetic douchebaggery ("It's 100 feet longer than the Mauritania, and far more luxurious" and "Your daughter is far too difficult to impress").
Most blockbusters likewise have dialogue that's more effective than literary. To quote another wonderfully effective embellished historical drama, 2000's Gladiator, it's like when Commodus gripes to his father Marcus Aurelius: "I have other virtues … but none of my virtues were on your list." Effectiveness isn't a virtue that's on the list of most moviegoers, especially critics — it's like a commercial dark-side virtue. But it's a component that's essential to making a film that isn't rambling and self-indulgent. And few blockbusters demonstrate effectiveness vs. literary as well as Titanic because the film was, on one hand, so incredibly successful, yet its dialogue is so often teased (I mean: "Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls").
The mockery is partly due to many Titanic lines being pretty on-the-nose. Like, so on-the-nose they punch you in the face. In his first scene, Cal declares (in a line purportedly to have once been uttered by an actual Titanic deckhand), "It is unsinkable! God himself could not sink this ship!" Now, is that subtle? Not at all. But it spells out the drama of what's to come and the theme of man's hubris and sort of makes us want to see the ship sink just to prove this jerk wrong, all in just ten words.
There are so many others; lines not subtle, but ridiculously punchy and effective. Assuming you're ready to go back to Titanic, here are a few:
—First Officer Murdoch: "Your money can’t save you anymore than it can save me."
— Ruth DeWitt Bukater: "We are women, our choices are never easy."
—Wallace Hartley: "Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight."
—Captain Smith: "Well, I believe you may get your headlines, Mr. Ismay."
—Rose: "The water is freezing and there aren’t enough boats. Not enough by half. Half the people on this ship are going to die." Cal: "Not the better half."
Each is a memorable haymaker that dramatically works as hard as those massive churning pistons in the RMS Titanic's engine room. Titanic is stuffed with such quotable iconic lines that fans remember and cite decades later. That sort of legacy is arguably preferable to those of so many esteemed "well written" dramas that come and go each year where you can't recall a single thing that any character said. Author Alex Raizman of the Small Worlds books recently wrote a lengthy and lovely essay about how much just one of those lines, the Hartley quote, has impacted him, particularly while struggling with Covid-19 symptoms ("The immeasurable truth that while the tragic beauty of the music on the sinking ship is, yes, tragic, that doesn’t mean we should forget it is still beautiful"). George Lucas' script for 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope falls into this same category — ridiculed dialogue that's nonetheless effective, quotable, fun and, every once and a while, profound.
Now, one might counter that a highly effective script in a summer blockbuster can exist without containing any outright groaners like those Titanic is known for. Back to the Future, for instance, is regarded as a perfect script yet doesn't have a literary bone anywhere in it. While Titanic has notorious lines, like these:
Jack: "Where to, miss?" Rose: "To the stars!"
Rose: "It doesn't make any sense. That's why I trust it."
Rose: "My mother looked at him like an insect — a dangerous insect, which must be squashed quickly."
Woof-woof, sure. But Titanic operates on its own level of melodrama that most movies could never pull off. It has a specific tone and wavelength, an odd mix of retro Hollywood and 1990s modern that shouldn't work, yet somehow does. A film's success isn't everything, of course, but it's not nothing, either, and Titanic didn't become the highest-grossing film of all time and win the Oscar for Best Picture if the film's spine — its script — wasn't doing almost everything right. It may not be to your taste, but it's tough to argue that it didn't work.
Also, there are a few lines in Titanic that I would defend as being of solid literary quality too. Such as this:
Rose: “I don’t even have a picture of [Jack]. He exists now only in my memory.”
That's a legitimately haunting, romantic line. And the film's final scene of Rose joining the ghosts of Titanic is something most filmmakers would be rightly and utterly terrified to put into a film — the movie abruptly goes from being a historical action drama into the supernatural realm in its final minutes — yet it's profoundly moving, successfully marrying actual Titanic wreck footage with the film's romantic fiction.
Cameron was trying to make a movie that honored a terrible tragedy while still delivering a massive hit. Unlike some box office smashes that flash brightly then fade, Titanic continues to have an ocean of fans who love the movie for precisely what it is. Titanic's script, one might say, has never let go.