Word Wars

July 26, 2004

Word Wars

This weekend, Susan and I went to see Word Wars, a documentary on the competitive Scrabble circuit that just opened here in Chicago. The movie focuses on four players who hoped to win the 2002 National Scrabble Championship; like such recent documentaries as Spellbound (the story of the 1999 National Spelling Bee) and Scrabylon (another Scrabble movie), it seeks both to introduce viewers to an unfamiliar subculture and to tell the story of how a small group of competitors sought to win a high-profile competition.

I wish I could say that I was a big fan of Word Wars: the movie's subject matter is fascinating, and it's a nice companion to the 2001 Stefan Fatsis book Word Freak. At its best, Word Wars captures the thrill of high-level competition and the excitement of all sorts of high-stakes tournaments; moreover, the four players at the center of the story are all colorful, eccentric, and complicated people. Nevertheless, Word Wars was rarely more than a pleasant diversion. The movie's directors tried far too hard to be cute and clever, spent too much time emphasizing their characters' eccentricities, and ended up with a movie that was shallow and predictable as often as it was entertaining. The movie wasn't bad, but it could have been much better.

The makers of Word Wars set themselves an ambitious goal when they decided to produce a film about the Scrabble world, given that it had been documented so well by Fatsis's book. The biggest strength of Word Freak, I'd argue, is that it's complex and hard to categorize; it does a very good job of simultaneously telling three compelling stories. First, Fatsis's book is a fascinating look into the competitive Scrabble subculture, where eccentric and colorful personalities abound. Second, it's an intriguing portrait of the game of Scrabble itself; it tells the history of the game, its creator, and the many people who've become involved in it over the years, while giving us sidebars on the strategy and philosophy of the game. Third, and perhaps most notably, Word Freak captures the thrill of competition and conveys the competitors' drive to win.

What made Word Freak so compelling, I believe, was its author's background: Fatsis actually became a competitive Scrabble player himself, travelling to tournaments, memorizing lengthy word lists, and spending hours playing anagram games. His passion for the game and his participation in the Scrabble community make everything in the world of Scrabble seem very real--the competition seems thrilling (in a way that only an insider could convey) and the personalities involved seem extremely vivid. The story Fatsis tells, moreover, is complex and intriguing. Scrabble never comes across as an intellectual game--after all, why spend hours memorizing seven-letter words whose meaning you don't care about, just so you can spell them out with tiles in a Scrabble match? But the philosophy of the game, and the nature of wordplay, come across as topics worthy of intellectual discussion. Fatsis also shows us how an all-consuming love of the game can become detrimental to its players, even while he makes the game itself look extremely fun and appealing.

I had high hopes for Word Wars going in: the movie's closing credits acknowledge the producers' debt to Word Freak, and one of the directors (Eric Chaikin) is a competitive Scrabble player. Moreover, Chaikin and his co-director, Julian Petrillo, have focused their movie on four colorful players who are a lot of fun to watch. The first, Matt Graham, is a stand-up comedian who's always popping "smart drugs" and trying to play phony words; the second, Marlon Hill, a college drop-out from the mean streets of East Baltimore, loves to discuss his black nationalist politics and has a reputation as a trouble-maker; "G.I. Joel" Sherman, a former world champion, earned his nickname by complaining about his gastro-intestinal difficulties; Joe Edley, the defending national champion, ascribes his success to tai chi, meditation, and acupuncture. Chaikin and Petrillo did a good job picking players who could capture our interest and make the movie compelling.

The makers of Word Wars never seemed confident that their project would really interest their viewers, however: the movie tries to grab the audience's attention with flashy graphics, goofy shots of the competitors, and uninspired jokes. My heart fell near the start of the movie, when the narrator told us that the subject of the film wasn't "your grandmother's Scrabble game" and accompanied that line with an amateurish photo of a little old lady. (A handful of audience members laughed raucously at the image on the screen, which made it feel like the movie was aiming for the lowest common denominator.) I also got a little tired of seeing images of letters flash around , forming anagrams that were kind of amusing, but never terribly clever; this seemed like the sort of humor that would appeal most to viewers who aren't very good at forming anagrams themselves.

What's more, I'd argue that the movie's stylistic weaknesses reflected a shallow look at the world of Scrabble. Where Word Freak is a complicated book that touches on many different themes, Word Wars sometimes seems to have one overwhelming message: those crazy Scrabble players are really funny! For every scene that discussed the passion of the movie's four main characters, there was another scene that seemed designed to make them look silly. One scene shows Marlon smoking a joint and spouting off his theories about black power, his denunciation of the white-run political system interrupted only by his marijuana-induced giggles; several scenes show Joe Edley doing tai chi in a park, and each one seemed like it was playing for laughs. (The tai chi scenes were also a bit repetitive, as were the two scenes in which we see footage of Edley studying word lists while driving. The first driving scene was funny. The second was unnecessary and even a little cheap.) There's nothing wrong with showing these players' eccentric side, of course, but Word Wars seemed more concerned with parading their idiosyncracies than with explaining their love of the game. We get the sense that these players are passionate about Scrabble, and even obsessed by it, but we usually don't get to see why.

As a result, Word Wars has very little to say about the game of Scrabble itself. In the climactic scenes at the National Scrabble Championship, Chaikin and Petrillo show us lots of scenes of players facing each other down over a tile-covered board, and then tell us the score of each match--but they almost never show us what actually happened in any given game. It's a pleasant surprise, then, when Word Wars explains one of the moves in the championship game, showing us the tiles in one player's rack, listing several words he could have chosen, and then telling us the word he decided on.

A few more moments like this would have gone a long way. Similarly, I would have loved to hear more about the players' motivations and personal styles. In one scene, Marlon meets with an elementary school class to talk about Scrabble, and we see the word "logophile" written on the blackboard behind him. But Word Wars has very little to tell us about wordplay or the love of language. Joel Sherman explains that he loves playing Scrabble because it gives him the chance to beat better educated players--but we never, as far as I can remember, get to hear why he loves the game itself. I sometimes had the feeling that if you changed the subject of the movie to curling or mud-wrestling, keeping most of the rest of the movie the same, no one could tell the difference. I'm exaggerating, of course, but the movie's surface interest in Scrabble was rarely reflected in the substance of the film.

I don't want to suggest that Word Wars is a bad movie, mind you. If you've read Word Freak, then you'll probably enjoy seeing the characters Fatsis describes on the big screen. If you haven't read the book, but you have a couple hours and nothing better to do, you may well find the movie entertaining enough. (You can certainly do worse, after all.) Word Wars would probably even make a good TV special, though its more amateurish attempts at cuteness might still wear a little bit thin. In short, my main reaction to the movie wasn't disgust, but disappointment. The makers of Word Wars missed a great opportunity to produce a much better film.

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