I’m a fan of the science-fiction blog Io9. A few weeks ago, they posted a pretty nifty piece of forgotten versions of famous movies. Among the list were several children’s literature adaptations, all of which are free watch on YouTube. (Hooray for the public domain!) Highlights include silent versions of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as well as a saxiphone-laced Finnish adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Click any of the below images to read the whole list:
I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about the importance of specificity in action scenes. Namely, four things:
1. You do not have to be super to be a hero
Many writers make the mistake of thinking that action sequences are about showcasing a hero’s strengths … but for my money, the drama is found in exposing their weaknesses. A while back, a good friend of mine wrote a NY Magazine piece on this very subject entitled Are Martial Arts Ruining Action? The article traces the origins of the martial arts explosion in Hollywood action movies and laments how every actor now goes through months of training in order to make the wire-Fu look authentic in their cop movie. Why is this bad? Because no matter how well executed and thoughtful the fights may be, no character in a cop movie has any business doing backflips.1
2. Superhuman action is low-stakes action
So what about stories where the superpowers are already built into the plot? Shouldn’t the X-Men be able to do backflips? Perhaps, but it’s still important to make the super-punches mean something. If characters can take an unlimited (or even undefined) amount of damage, it’s hard for audiences to care about the outcome. Screenwriter and friend Matt Bird has a great piece about this subject over at his blog, The Cockeyed Caravan. Check it out!
3. Above all, action should make sense
Last week, movie critic Jim Emerson launched a great series examining how action sequences can go wrong simply by ignoring the 101 of filmmaking. His first example? The Dark Knight Returns. Emerson goes shot-by-shot through an epic car chase, revealing how careless editing can lead to a needlessly disorienting experience. This reinforces my longstanding belief that James Cameron is the greatest living director of chases for the simple fact that he makes sure that at all times the audience knows the following three things:
1) where the good guys are
2) where the bad guys are
3) where the exits are
Don’t believe me? I invite you to watch for yourself.
4. Sometimes no action is the action
While I generally think it’s bad for writers to summarize action scenes, there are some stories that deliberately do so because its essential to their overall message. A good example of this is Tolkien. Despite having written an epic trilogy about the battle between good and evil, Tolkien keeps his action scenes infuriatingly short — usually under a page. Roger Ebert observed as much when he reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he points out that the central action set piece of the movie (the fight with the Balrog) takes up less than 500 words in the original book. So was Tolkien being lazy with his action writing? I’d say in this case, sidestepping the action was the action — the author was signaling to readers that the meaningful events of this particular story were found in the journey itself, not the skirmishes.
- The Rush Hour franchise, of course, gets a pass on this particular gripe. ↩
In theatre, descriptive action sequences are almost non-existent. Hamlet may talk a big game, but at the end of the script, all we get is: “dies” (Not even a definite article for the poor Prince of Denmark!) This works in playwriting because specific action is limited to the capabilities of specific actors, budgets, and stages — why write a death scene that a director will just have to change anyway?1
The same is not true for novelists and screenwriters. Books and movies are stories fixed in time — if every reader is seeing a different thing during an action scene, that’s a problem.2 Unfortunately, I often read action sequences that give me the feeling that writers are going on autopilot: instead of writing a tightly constructed series of dramatic events, they simply write “and here we get an awesome chase sequence!”
I’m ashamed to say I’ve done it myself. Writing action scenes is hard, and it’s nice to think that those difficult bits can be reduced to a few lines of summary. But summarizing fights and chases is like a comic carefully setting up a joke and then replacing the punch line with “hilarity ensues!” (To be fair, “hilarity ensues” is sort of an awesome punch line in its own right.)
And when you get down to it, truly funny moments don’t even have traditional punch lines — watch your favorite comedy and write down the laugh-out-loud moments. I guarantee you that the biggest laughs will fall on generic lines like “Actually I quite like it” and “I can imagine.”3 Such lines are not funny in a vacuum; they’re funny because that character said it in that specific moment.4
I’m going to make a confession that I might regret. About a year ago, I joined some of Mary’s colleagues in a weekly “tabletop gaming” group … which is a dressed-up term for Dungeons & Dragons. This was a pretty smart bunch of people (our game master has a PhD in comic books!), and I learned a lot from the experience — not only about roleplaying games, but also about the give-and-take of corporate storytelling.
One of the central aspects of any roleplaying game is combat. Generally speaking, most roleplaying games are pretty conversational and free-form … but when a bad guy shows up, everyone pulls out dice, and charts, and (in my case) a calculator! Suddenly, there’s an order of operations, and a series of rigid rules to help choreograph every movement of a battle.
I sort of became obsessed with the details of these “encounters” and started taking copious notes about every move in the hope of unlocking some secret about how to write action scenes. I wanted to figure out what separated the so-so encounters from the ones that sucked us in — inspiring recaps, arguments, and in-jokes.
What I discovered is that blow-by-blow, the actions in a fun encounter were no different from those in a boring encounter — sometimes you landed a hit, sometimes you missed. What made a difference was when those ordinary actions were a reflection of the personality of individual character: a hothead fighter dives into a suicide battle right after the rest of the group has agreed to retreat; a vengeful character murders an enemy who has already surrendered; a noble character sacrifices herself so that others can escape.
That is to say, the actions are dramatic because that character did them in that specific moment.
- One could argue that the unique appeal of theatre is this infinite variety in staging possibilities — no two productions are alike. ↩
- I am not objecting to ambiguous ideas or themes in books and movies, but I would argue that the basic questions who/what/where/when should be universally understood … because only when those things are clearly established can readers effectively debate the why behind those actions. ↩
- These are actual examples taken from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … I find such human moments far funnier than the digressions on multiple heads and improbability engines. ↩
- This is something my MFA director Milan Stitt was fond of saying — credit goes to him for the observation. ↩
The other day I was having trouble with a script and so I took a long walk. We have a dollar theater about eight miles from the house, which is a perfect distance (provided you have a ride home1). I love dollar theaters because they stop me from being picky: how can I resent a movie that only cost a buck? Even when the movie is terrible, I can at least spend the time productively by analyzing why the movie is terrible … Which is exactly what I did while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis’ fantasy series2. One of the books’ most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery … some might even say allegory. I’ve spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several.
I’m starting to think that the discovery that the Chronicles of Narnia are about something is the bookish child’s version of learning that [SPOILER ALERT] there’s no Santa Claus. It is the moment when we discover that authors aren’t just nice men and women trying to entertain us with a story; instead they’re trying to communicate some lesson to us — which makes them no different than every other bossy adult in our lives. Perhaps even more important, it is usually a discovery we make on our own.
I have re-read (and now watched) The Chronicles of Narnia with this question in mind. And the more time I spend with these stories, the less I think that the outrage is justified. Certainly Lewis has created Narnia as a moral universe — where every new place and challenge is a proving ground for personal integrity. But what good story doesn’t do that? Why do we roll our eyes at the heavy-handed moralizing of Eustace’s avarice, but thrill at seeing Ofelia approach the table of the Pale Man? Or seeing Harry Potter discover the secret of the mirror of Erised?
I suspect that the anger concerning The Chronicles of Narnia is less about Lewis’ specific message and more about the fact that he has a message at all. It is outrage at the very notion of authorial intent.
- 1. I tend to prefer walking all my miles in a straight line … which invariably results in my phoning Mary to pick me up. The woman is nothing if not patient. ↩
- 2. I have long harbored an irrational hatred for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe … The Magician’s Nephew, however, is one of my favorite stories of all time. ↩