The Wilhelm Scream—Hollywood’s Inside Joke

I’m in total movie mode this week. We’re six days from the Oscars, and I’m keyed up. I’ll go into exactly why the Oscars excite me so much later in the week, but suffice it to say I’m thinking movies nonstop—making my predictions for Oscar night, reading about upcoming movies (strangely excited to see how Gone Girl turns out when it hits theaters October 3rd), and I came across a gem of a story about how one second of sound became one of the longest-standing traditions in Hollywood.

First, here—listen to this.

What started as a simple sound effect in 1951 has turned out to have a legacy no one could have ever predicted. In the film Distant Drums, a scene was shot where a character is bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater. As is usually the case, the character’s scream was recorded separately and inserted later. In post production, six screams were recorded in a single take. Three of the screams were then used for various scenes in the film and that was that. Then, as future movies were made and screams were needed, sound editors referred back to the ones already in the bank and continued using them in several Warner Brothers films over the years. By 1976 the scream had already been used in some manner in 18 films and a few episodes of TV shows.

Which brings us to 1977. Ben Burtt was the sound editor for Star Wars, and a huge movie buff. He was doing research for the film, looking for sound effects, and stumbled across the original recording  of the screams from Distant Drums. Having already noticed the recurrence of the scream throughout the years as a film student, he decided to make it a cross between an inside joke and signature of sorts. He named the scream the Wilhelm after the earliest character he knew of to utter the cry, and included it in all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Willow, Poltergeist, and several others.

A friend and colleague of Ben’s, Richard Anderson, began using the scream liberally as well, and by the 2000’s they had an impressive number of films peppered with their now-trademark wail, ranging from Planet of the Apes to Madagascar. Future generations of filmmakers also began to use the scream once it was discovered that the classic version was free to use without penalty or fines, and regardless of studio attachment.

In recent years, noted filmmakers to use the Wilhelm in their films include Peter Jackson (2 of the 3 Lord of the Rings movies) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Inglorious Basterds). Once I realized what the scream was and how often it was used, I realized it was like that road sign you pass a thousand times and don’t notice until someone points it out. I’ve unknowingly heard it probably hundreds of times, and every time I hear it from now on I can’t help but chuckle.

For a much more detailed account of how the Wilhelm came to be the stuff of legend, including a theory of whose voice is actually providing the scream, click here for the full story. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating about how much it’s been used, click here for the most recent list of movies that feature some variation of the scream (last updated in 2010 with over 200 films). There are also some compilations on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. I guarantee you, you’ve heard it before.

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Sometimes, The Book Isn’t Better

Over the past month or so I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I know some people out there don’t like audiobooks, but I really enjoy them. As someone who’s always been fascinated by voice acting, I love hearing a good performance of a good book. I thought Gone Girl was pretty good. Not great, but good. Having already known that David Fincher is attached to direct the film version when it hits theaters in 2015, as soon as the audiobook was over I had one thought – I’ll bet the movie’s better. Which is kind of backwards to popular opinion, isn’t it?

We’ve all heard it before. Most of us have probably said it ourselves, and probably more than once.

“I saw _Insert Movie Title Here_ the other day.”

“Oh yeah? How was it?”

“It was okay. The book was better.”

I used to think (and sometimes still do) that some people would say that no matter how good the movie was, just as a sort of humblebrag to let people know they’ve read a book. But there’s a reason all of us have heard that and most of us have said it – it’s usually true. There are things in books, be they physical descriptions, what characters are thinking, etc. that can be hard to convey on film. Then there’s the matter of the story itself. Some stories just lend themselves to the written word better than any other medium. So the movie that really is better than the book can be a rare bird indeed.

The Ground Rules

First off, as usual with my “list” posts, I’m limiting this to five. Also, I’m keeping it honest by only ranking books I’ve actually read. It would’ve been easy to include books I hadn’t, as the same books populate every other similar list – Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, The Godfather and many others. And seriously, is there any way humanly possible the book Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi could be better than Goodfellas? But I resisted temptation. Finally, I’m limiting the list to just one Stephen King book/movie adaptation. I’ve read his work far and away more than any other author, and could easily devote an entire post solely to films based on his work.

The Honorable Mentions

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986) vs Red Dragon (Thomas Harris, 1981)

manhunter                          reddragon

This was a tough call for me, so I decided list it as an honorable mention just to give it some recognition. Although I haven’t read it in several years, the first of the Hannibal Lecter books has long been one of my favorite thrillers. When you take a book that good and adapt it with Michael Mann directing, you’re going to get a good movie. And you do. Manhunter is very good, and it may very well have made my list if it weren’t for one thing: the ending. Some people consider the end of the novel to be a bit cliche, but I liked it. The movie changed it for whatever reason, and it left me disappointed. That being said, Manhunter is still a great movie. Although Anthony Hopkins would eventually claim the character as his own, it’s very interesting to see how Brian Cox plays Dr. Lecter.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) vs The Shining (Stephen King 1977)

jack                         shiningbook

Like I said, I’ll keep the list limited to one Stephen King adaptation, but if I’m doing honorable mentions I may as well go ahead and mention The Shining. It is my all-time favorite horror movie, and I usually end up watching it every October when channels start running horror marathons leading up to Halloween. Thing is, I really like the book, too. It’s scary in its own right, and I think over the years the movie has overshadowed it, which kind of sucks. But, as much as I hate to disagree with the master, I like the movie better. King purists (which are a rabid bunch) vehemently disagree with me, but I’ll stand my ground. The film is actually much darker and funnier at the same time. The movie is a bit like the book on LSD. So what Stephen King work did I rank higher? Funny you should ask, because that brings us to…

The List

5. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) vs Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King, 1982) *from the book Different Seasons

shawshank                 differentseasons

This is a case where the movie really didn’t change too much; just some small tweaks like combining multiple characters into one, adding the death of a character to heighten the drama, that sort of thing. The story itself was really not altered. It’s just that the movie was that damn good.

As big a fan of movies as I am, I don’t always notice things like cinematography, art direction, lighting, etc. After writing, acting, and directing the other technical aspects of a film can go unnoticed. When I watch Shawshank I may not necessarily recognize exactly what it is that sets it apart from so many other movies, but I know it’s special. It’s a bit like eating a delicious plate of food. You may not be able to pick out each specific ingredient, but when you taste all of it together you know it’s something extraordinary.

This movie is also the very, very rare exception where I wholeheartedly approve of the “Hollywood ending.” Honestly, was there any other way this movie could’ve ended other than with Andy and Red meeting up on the beach?

4. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) vs No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy, 2005)

nocountryfilm                   nocountrybook

I have a confession to make: I’m not a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. When The Road came out to such acclaim, I thought I should give it a look to see what all the hubbub was about. I think I made it about 35 pages, then gave up. A couple months later I picked it back up and finished it. It was a challenge, though. I guess his writing style is just not for me. I obviously see the talent Mr. McCarthy has, but it’s lost on me. It’s like listening to Mozart when you’d rather just crank The Ramones.

That being said, even after my experience with The Road I wanted to give him another shot. I had already seen the Coen Brothers film and really liked it a lot, so I decided to try the book. I did like it better than The Road, but something about it just never really grabbed me and pulled me in. Like Shawshank, the movie barely changed a thing story-wise, but it just heightened everything to a new level. I felt a tension and sense of dread watching the movie that I didn’t feel with the book. Maybe reading the book first would have had a different effect on me, but after reading a few pages of Blood Meridian, I think it’s safe to say my Cormac McCarthy collection will never take up much space on my bookshelf.

3. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) vs Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, 1996)

fightclub                 fightclubbook

Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors, easily in my top 5. The thing about his books, though, is they don’t necessarily make for an easy transition to the big screen. Which makes Fight Club that much more remarkable. David Fincher took a very complicated story and managed to make it easier to follow without dumbing it down at all. He turned a good book into an excellent movie. The casting and direction were also top notch, and I can’t imagine the book being adapted any better. Palahniuk himself has said that the film is superior to his book, and I have to say, he’s not wrong.

2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) vs Rum Punch (Elmore Leonard, 1992)

jackiebrown                 rumpunch

Again, an author in my top 5. Elmore Leonard has a gift for writing dialogue that sets him apart from most other writers. I got a box full of Leonard paperbacks for Christmas a few years ago and tore through most of them in no time flat. Writing this reminds me I need to go back and read the rest to remind myself why he’s a master.

At this point in the list we reach movies that really made some changes. In the case of Jackie Brown, some pretty significant changes. For one, the ethnicity of the main character. In Rum Punch, Jackie is white. Casting Pam Grier, changing the character’s last name to Brown, all the awesome music, creating an homage to ’70’s Blaxploitation films? All Quentin Tarantino.

He still could have made a good movie without making those changes, but it’s those changes that make the movie what it is. Following the blockbuster success of Pulp Fiction, I think this movie let some fans down who were perhaps looking for something a little more violent. That’s really a shame, because I think Jackie Brown is nearly flawless. Robert Forster was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, but lost to Robin Williams for his performance in Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams was great in that, but part of me feels Robert Forster was robbed.

1. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) vs The Prestige (Christopher Priest, 1995)

prestigefilm                        prestigebook

This film tops my list for two reasons: it’s my favorite film of the five, and it changed the source material the most. Christopher Priest’s novel is intriguing to say the least, but Christopher Nolan took that novel and made something truly awesome.

I should mention here that I really can’t stand period pieces. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a dude, or because I’m American, maybe both; all I know is if a story is set before, say, the 1950’s I’m generally not interested. So when I heard the plot of The Prestige – two rival magicians in nineteenth century London feud while trying to one-up each other performing the ultimate illusion – I was less than thrilled. But given Nolan’s track record (Memento is another one of my favorites) I decided to check it out.

I loved this movie, and I feel it’s one that practically demands repeat viewings. The way elements of Priest’s novel are taken and tweaked are so masterful that I felt like it made the book seem vastly inferior. The way the film unfolds in the same manner as a magic trick blew me away, and I think is something that may be lost on a lot of people, which is why the film asks you, “Are you watching closely?”

Like with No Country for Old Men, I read the book after seeing the film; reading the book first may have changed my opinion.

Well, there you have it. As always, these are just the subjective opinions of some geek on the internet. Feel free to agree or disagree as you please by leaving a comment below. If you’ve read one of the books but not seen the movie, or the other way around, do so and see what you think, and please, let me know.