So there’s a new Conan the Barbarian movie. And, if the previews are any indication, Conan spends the movie on a quest for revenge against the villain(s) who destroyed his village and murdered his family.
I won’t go into how many ways this deviates from the original Robert E. Howard character (short answer: a lot). Instead, it got me thinking about screenwriters and how they think.
Consider the idea of “motivation.” In movies, heroes are usually motivated by either love or revenge. And they must have a definite, solid, entirely personal reason for doing anything. I first became conscious of this trope watching The Skeleton Key, eighty percent of a great horror movie. Caroline, played by Kate Hudson, talks about how she became a geriatrics nurse after watching an elderly relative slowly die from Alzheimer’s.
Really? So she couldn’t be a person who looked at possible careers and chose one that sounded good, or wanted to have a job with security, or any of the reasons most of us choose our jobs? No, there had to be a hyper-dramatic, entirely personal reason so that the audience will “sympathize” with her.
Giving Caroline such a background smacks of a “Screenwriting for Dummies” lesson. Sure, characters need motivation. But screenwriters seem unable to accept that “earning a paycheck,” “providing for my family” or most crucially “the satisfaction of a job well done” are acceptable motivations. If the line “this time it’s personal” doesn’t apply, then it isn’t valid.
Except that it is.
Here are two examples from the work of Oscar-winning director/screenwriter William Friedkin. In his 1986 film To Live and Die in L.A., FBI agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) sets out to bring down villain Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) after Masters kills his partner. He even blatantly states, “I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.” It’s a textbook–well, a screenwriting textbook–character motivation. This time it’s personal, and it encompasses both love (of the bromance kind) and revenge. It keeps an otherwise excellent movie from being truly great.
Conversely, in Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection, New York cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) stays tenaciously on the villain’s tail because, simply, it’s his job. He needs no ulterior motive, nothing that says “this time it’s personal.” Through the course of the story it becomes personal, but only because the villain’s success reflects badly on his professionalism. His ego is tied to his job, and he simply can’t let the bad guys win. There’s no hint that a childhood trauma caused this, or that a gangster (or Frenchman) once killed his family, or any sort of trite justification. It’s realistic, and it’s one of the elements that helps make the film a classic.
There are many useful things novelists can learn from screenwriters: get to the point, keep the action moving, craft witty dialogue and so forth. But this is one lesson they should skip. So make sure that you take away the right lessons, and stay grounded in reality where there are many other motivations besides love and revenge.
As I read over the above, I realized my perspective is entirely one-sided. So for another point of view, I asked writer and USC film graduate Melissa Olson to comment on what I’d written so far. She responded:
“When I was at USC, nobody dreamed of being the next Michael Bay (well, maybe in the directing track(:). Everyone dreamed of telling the story they wanted to tell, to make the statement they wanted to make. But once you get out of school, the film industry is a tough business.
“Screenwriting is complicated, and in many ways it’s much more restrictive than novels. Maybe the screenwriters of Conan (there were three) didn’t want the movie to be about motivation; they wanted to get that out of the way and tell a different story. Shortcuts aren’t terrible things, they’re just easy ways out. Sometimes you gotta take one to get to where you want to go.”
So there’s two sides to this. What do you, the reader/filmgoer, think?