Sunday, 24 May 2015

The golden rule of blockbusters: how to break it, how not to break it

There is a golden rule for writing a blockbuster.
The hero (the protagonist) must end up fighting for what (s)he believes in, alone, and against insuperable odds. And of course the hero must win. In order to win, they must go up against their own darkest fears, overcome their main weakness. As readers we like conflict - no conflict, no interest. So the conflict is maximized when it's both internal and external. In a book, there has to be a lot of internal conflict, because we as readers have to imagine it, and on the page that can be easier than imagining big explosions and car chases. On film, the reverse is true - for blockbusters, there are more special effects and carnage than internal conflict, That's ok, books and films are different media, and we can all make up our minds what to see/read.

The latest blockbuster, Mad Max Fury Road, is extremely high on the external conflict, less so on internal conflict, since we don't get to know the characters well enough. But it breaks the golden rule. How? First, let's dig deeper into the golden rule itself, what lies underneath.

One of the most successful blockbusters of all time is the Lord of the Rings. A bunch of characters go up against the embodiment of evil, Sauron, who has marshaled a terrifying army to drag the world into chaos and despair. Each of the fighters has their own internal conflict, for example, Boromir, and in his case it is his undoing, though it leads to his brother doing the right thing when it counts.

And look at the photo of Frodo. Is he confident, or is he scared? He's about to enter Mordor, and he's just a Hobbit, not a Ranger. Do you get the point? He's like us. We see us in him, facing terrible odds. We are glued to the page, and to the screen.

Think Harry Potter. Sure, he has his friends, but how many times does he end up against Voldemort alone, especially in the grand finale? And he's been told he must die in order to win. He has to sacrifice himself as his mother did the first time, to protect him. How would you feel? Again, he is like many of us, a normal person who feels unexceptional, thrust into a destiny with huge consequences.

I just watched Mad Max Fury Road. I liked it. It's a blockbuster, sure, but it does something a little different. It breaks a golden rule. First, as already mentioned, there is not much internal conflict. The two protagonists are both damaged, internally scarred by events we don't get to see, though they are hinted at. But that's okay, this is high-octane adrenaline-pumping action, it's relentless without being breathless, and the choreography and special effects are flawless.

It's also reminiscent of the original series of films which I loved (well, the first and second, at any rate). It also, as an aside, paints an interesting vision of post-apocalyptic Earth, the screenplay sublime in resisting of the urge to explain anything, including the very obvious question of 'Who killed our world?', as is asked in the film, and so plunges the viewer into the heart of what life in this desert world is all about, survival, where the past is gone and largely irrelevant. The survivors don't know what happened - why would they?

What's interesting is that the film is about an unlikely partnership, rather than being about Max himself. This means that at the end they both face extreme jeopardy. Arguably, the Furiosa character played by Charlize Theron, faces more, and to my mind she steals the show. So, this breaks the golden rule, because the protagonist (Max) does not face the highest risk alone. Does it work? For me yes, and it's more realistic. Our world is very complex, and it's becoming increasingly unlikely that one person alone will save the day. In fact, in the film other characters - who incidentally the viewer might relate to more easily - also do their bit in saving the day.

But breaking this rule can go wrong. For me, the latest Avengers film (the Age of Ultron) tried to do more 'internal conflict' than it could handle, and got bogged down. Usually, although these films are about 'teams', the one character who you would reckon is the central protagonist is Iron Man, because he's more like us, rather than say, Thor, and because he's also the best actor. However, the way he and all the rest of them faced their own personal demons got too complicated, and dispersed any emotional attachment the viewer might have for them. Scarletta Johannson (Black Widow) saved the film for me - just - as her character handled both internal and external conflict well. I began to care less about what happened to the others.

In a book, it could have worked, but then the Avengers is not based on a book, but on comics, and it should stick to the medium; maybe one character can have strong emotional turmoil, but not all of them.

In my last book, Eden's Endgame, I went down the 'Harry Potter' road, so that at the end the protagonist faces his own inner demons and also the galactic equivalent of Tolkein's Sauron. But in my latest work, a thriller I've just finished called Sixty-Six Metres, I have two protagonists who both end up in equal jeopardy, as in Mad Max. I've just sent it off to a literary consultancy, so it will be interesting to see what they say about it, and the fact that it is breaking one of the golden rules...

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