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Tag: movies

Weird Food Messages In Children’s Stories

There is a lot of bowdlerization when it comes to stories for young children: Publishers and writers sanitise them, make them more obviously didactic, punish bad characters, remove swear words, guns and cigarettes, all in the name of getting books past the gatekeepers of children’s literature: Parents, teachers and librarians.

There’s one thing that should be part of this bowdlerization however, and isn’t: The use of fat and overweight characters as a short cut for morally lacking. Some authors do this, others always avoid it, but some of the best-selling authors are still doing it. The situation is even worse in children’s film.

 

WHEN BODY SIZE IS MENTIONED AT ALL

There don’t need to be any fat characters in a book for the book to be saying something about body size. When a character is constantly described as slim/slender/size six etc for no good reason in the story, the ideology is that body size is important outside every other achievement.

If you read the Sweet Valley High series, you can probably tell me off the top of the head that the twins were ‘perfect size sixes’, because it was mentioned a lot.

Those who read the Baby-Sitters Club series will remember that Claudia is always described as thin with good skin  — all this even though she eats lots of forbidden junk food, like the Gilmore girls.

The Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club series were retrograde even in their heyday, but this trend hasn’t gone away.

In the young adult novel Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan (2011), the main female character is described as ‘slender’ in the introductory thumbnail description. When the mother is introduced, we are told that mother and daughter look similar, but the mother is ‘not as slender’. Then again, at the beginning of chapter five we’re told:

One moment Kieran had been staring at Waverly’s slender back, imploring silently, Don’t go. Get off the shuttle.

Not only is the ‘slender’ thing mentioned again for no good reason to the plot, the reader is treated to yet another vision of a girl through the pervasive male gaze. Even in fiction — stories set in wholly imagined futuristic worlds, no less — girls can’t escape this constant judgement on their bodies.

 

 NORMALISATION OF EATING DISORDERS, OR A HOW-TO GUIDE?

Gossip Girl Take A Chance On Me

 

A series of Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar has recently appeared in stores. These stories feature a group of girls from New York City who live a pampered lifestyle and whose concerns revolve around fashion, friendships, and boys. Bulimia is framed as just part of the lifestyle:

Fudge-frosted brownies on little white plates sat temptingly on a shelf at eye-level. [Blair] picked one up, examined it for any defects, and then put it on her tray. Even if she actually decided to eat it, she could always throw it up later.

It wasn’t much, but at least she had that much control over her life.

For girls who are unhappy about their body image, this normalization of a symptom of a psychiatric illness is surely dangerous. This narrative privileges disordered eating as an expression of control and offers bulimia as as sort of twisted recompense for disappointment.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT AS A SHORTCUT FOR BAD CHARACTER

YA fiction often positions fat as shorthand for countless negative qualities the writer is too unmotivated to develop – like presenting bullies as fat kids, which reinforces fatness as something sinister and deserving of scorn – or as the genesis of a butterfly story, which reinforces fat as a quality one must jettison to uncover the true self (which naturally is thin and beautiful). Of course there are other ways in which fatness is portrayed, but those two immediately came to mind.

Shapley Prose

 

If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

— Adventures in Storyland

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)

captain pirate parrot spatula

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Pirates Misfits Queen Victoria

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.

THE FAT MAN BY MAURICE GEE

The Fat Man cover

This book is widely studied in Year 9 throughout New Zealand high schools.

Maurice Gee’s description of Muskie’s obese body in The Fat Man evokes disgust and abjection. His gross rolls of fat seem to provide evidence of contamination by the (unhealthy, fat-laden) foods he has eaten. He embodies excess; his body shows that he has consumed more than his fair share, suggesting that somewhere, someone has gone without. Obesity is, in Western culture, indicative of exceesive appetite, of a lack of self-control, of laziness, and of an unwillingness to conform to accepted paradigms of beauty. Arguably it also signifies a lack of morality. Susan Bordo argues that the firm, developed body has become a symbol of “correct attitude;” that one “cares” about oneself and how one appears to others. While muscles express sexuality, it is a controlled, managed sexuality that is “not about to erupt in unwanted and embarrassing display.” In contrast, the obese body signifies the wrong attitude and a lack of care about body image. It connotes voracious and uncontrolled (sexual) appetite.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT PHOBIA IN THE WORK OF ROALD DAHL

Fantastic Mr Fox (film adaptation)

Roald Dahl did not like fat people. (I wonder what he made of his granddaughter becoming a plus-size model.) The man himself was ‘rakish’. I mean, he looked like a rake, which is what ‘rakish’ should probably mean. In fact it means: Having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance. But I’m not going to let common definitions stand in my way here.

One could argue that Roald Dahl didn’t much care for little people either, or any kind of person at all, really, especially short men (‘You might say he’s kind of a pot-bellied dwarf of some kind’), but Dahl makes sure to specify that Walter Boggis is fat because he eats three chickens at every meal, perpetuating the erroneous message that fat people are fat because they eat a lot. (The descriptions of the farmers are what makes Fantastic Mr Fox what it is, and Dahl’s descriptions are quoted verbatim in the film.)

The science behind weight-gain is complicated, this simplistic view of overweight and obesity — the view that fat people get fat because they eat a lot — is simplistic and flat out unhelpful. Robert Lustig, who knows a lot more than most people about this topic, being an endocrinologist, takes a far more modern approach toward cause and effect when it comes to obesity: fat people eat a lot because they’re growing. If this is true, then blaming fat people for eating too much is like blaming a strapping teenage boy for eating too much.

Back to the film, Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s unbelievably fat — which may be genetic — but he also eats three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch, supper, and dinner. That’s twelve in total, per diem’. The phrase ‘which may be genetic’ smacks to me of self-consciousness, since the filmmakers understand full well that this is not a very nice thing for Badger to point out. These filmmakers steamroll right over the complexities, however, and sure enough, Boggis is a greedy, unpleasant man. His overweight body correlates with general slovenliness: ‘never takes a bath’. The audience sees him picking his ear.

But then of course we have Farmer Bean, who provides comic effect by being the opposite. So are Dahl and the filmmakers really poking fun at fat people, if they’re equally willing to have a go at skinny ones?

Well, I don’t know if they’re having a go at skinny ones, or at the eating disordered. Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s probably anorexic, because he never eats anything. He’s on a liquid diet of strong, alcoholic cider, which he makes from his apples’.

Sure, ‘not eating’  is technically the definition of ‘anorexic’ (babies are ‘anorexic’ when they fail to drink milk), so Farmer Bean is unquestionably anorexic, but I squirm a little at this, because the popular interpretation of ‘anorexic’ is of ‘anorexia nervosa’, a serious mental health disorder which is more deadly than any other mental health disorder. Especially for young women.

So was that line really necessary? Really? When food related disorders are at an historic high? And if it’s really a case of sticking to the original story without politically correct modifications, is this really the sort of story that we need to bring back to life from 1970? As it turns out, I’m a big fan of modernising classic tales. Politically correct re-written versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five? Gimme that any day. I loved those tales, but I don’t want my daughter to think that boys and ‘tomboys’ have all the fun.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book)

Charlie wins the golden ticket

Roald Dahl believed that adults have a relentless need to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” His story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, drives home his views. Charlie is a polite, passive child. He respects his elders, is hard working, unselfish, thoughtful, and he knows how to control his appetite. Every year on his birthday, Charlie receives from his poverty-stricken family “one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself”.

He would place it carefully in a small wooden box that he owned, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold; and for the next few days, he would allow himself only to look at it, but never to touch it. Then at last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble — just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on, and so on. And in this way, Charlie would make his sixpenny bar of birthday chocolate last him for more than a month.

This passage exemplifies the qualities Dahl apparently appreciates in a child: civilized manners, frugality, and, most importantly, restraint and control. It is interesting to note, however, that Charlie finds his golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory through an act which is ostensibly transgressive. When Charlie’s father loses his job the food situation at home becomes “desperate. Breakfast was a single slice of bread for each person now, and lunch was maybe half a boiled potato. Slowly but surely, everyone in the house began to starve.” “Every day Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner…The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath. It seemed doubtful whether he could go on much longer like this without becoming dangerously ill”. Charlie finds a fifty pence coin in the snow and, instead of taking it to his parents so that they can buy food for whole family, he goes straight to the nearest shop and buys a bar of chocolate. (Incidentally, the shopkeeper strikes Charlie as being particularly “fat and well-fed”. Charlie “crams large pieces” of the chocolate bar into his mouth. Significantly, he is described as “wolfing” it down. “In less than half a minute, the whole thing had disappeared down his throat”. Charlie buys a second bar, reinforcing his transgression, and it is under the wrapper of this Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight that he discovers the Golden ticket. Roni Natov points out that questing heroes often have to “break some taboo” and “revolt” against the familial/social structure in order to create change. Tradition must be subverted so that evolution can occur. This, she reveals, is at the heart of the hero’s quest. It is significant that Dahl carefully constructs Charlie as being in extremis before his transgressive act takes place.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Charlieandchocholatefactory

In contrast, all the other children in the story who find golden tickets, have excessive appetites and desires, and show the deleterious influences of consumer-media culture. Veruca Salt is an acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She is acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She screams at her fahter, lying on the floor for hours, “kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way” until she gets what she wants, producing the ultimate display of “pester power.” Nine-year-old Mike Teavee, on the other hand, is described by Dahl as a “television fiend”. He is an avid consumer of gangster films, the more violent the better. He wears “no less than eighteen toy pistols of various sizes hanging frombelts around his body” and indignantly resists being deprived of the TV even for a short time. He thinks that gangster movies are “terrific… especially when they start pumping each other full of lead, or flashing the old stilettos, or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters! Gosh, what wouldn’t I give to be doing that myself! I’ts the life, I tell you! It’s terrifice!” The Oompa-Loompas’ song provides the vehicle for Dahl’s critique: television is a “monster”; chldren should be kept away from “the idiotic thing”. It hypnotizes them, making them lethargic and mindless to the point of being “absolutely drunk”.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniel points out that Dahl was an early writer to hold this view, which has since become a lot more common. Though Mike Teavee is an example of an over-consumer of media, it is Augustus Gloop of course who is an overconsumer in the most literal sense — he eats too much.

Gloop’s body, and his face in particular, seem to embody the food which produced it. His head is a currant bun! Furthermore, reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s raw-cooked dualism, which he aligns with nature/culture, suggests that Augustus’s doughy face evolkes notions of precultural primitivism and irrational mindlessness.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Also of note: Dahl blames Gloop’s mother for overfeeding her child and making him fat.

In psychoanalytic terms, it could be argued that Augustus has failed to properly separate from his mother, signified by his insatiable and transgressive desire for food. He is stuck in the oral phase, the phase of maternal influence. Food is the wrong object for his deire; he ought to have turned to the father/phallus in order too achieve proper masculine subjectivity. Augustus is connoted as monstrous and denied agency by his inappropriately directed and excessive desire.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The more modern version of Augustus Gloop is of course Dursley from Harry Potter.

Issues of Class

With regard to Dahl;s construction of these characters…notions of class and race are also implicated. Although Charlie has middle-class manners and mores, he is an idealistic representation of the British working class. Veruca Salt belongs decidedly within the despised nouveau riche category and is presumably American, since her father is “in the peanut business”. Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are also affiliated with America; Violet by her incessant gum-chewing and Mike by his penchant for American Westerns and gangster movies. Augustus’s last name suggests he might be German. The class and race issues implied here are significant in relation to the nuances of excessive and vulgar appetite and childish monstrousness. There are marked differences between historical notions of childrearing in britian and America. The austere diet of British children was deemed to have character building properties while, in contrast, American childrearing methods were seen to be vulgar and overindulgent and associated with the nouveau riche. Dahl’s cultural conservatism marries with Dick Hebdige’s claims that populist discourses about culture and taste in Britain in the 1930s-60s tended to focus on the “leveling down” of moral and aesthetic standards and the erosion of fundamentally British values and attitudes. This perceived decline in standards was believed to stem from “American ization” (an influx of American mass culture encompassing good,s production techniques, music, etc.), and reflected fears of the homgenization of British society.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The modern reader can even make the link between the hammering down of Gloop’s body in the story and the American trend for plastic surgery, which has also crossed the Atlantic.

RELATED TO FAT PHOBIA: THE MAKEOVER TROPE

At TV Tropes you’ll find a breakdown of various types of makeover scenes which are very common in ‘ugly duckling’ stories. Many of these are coming of age stories.

[Many narratives feature] the transformation or makeover of children’s bodies so that they comply with accepted paradigms of beauty or, in the case of the younger children, properly controlled childhood. John Stephens has shown that, semiotically, the trope of the makeover, so often used in contemporary teen fiction, is frequently framed as a central metonym of growth and a movement toward subjectivity and maturation. It supposedly demonstrates to the character concerned that “she can transform her life and thus realize her full potential.” On the one hand, such discourses reiterate the notion that bodies, especially female bodies, are transformable, and on the other, they act to endorse cultural beauty paradigms and the imperative that female bodies should be transformed. … The changes… reflect the individual’s movement toward a more mature self. Thus “what appears inscribed on the body’s surface [is seen to] function as a pointer to the depths within. In countless movies, magazines, and teen (or young adult) novels, aimed at girls, the make over is shown to be the way to transform the self and notably, to achieve agency and happiness through social acceptance. Most significantly, even when a range of body morphologies is confirmed as “natural”, it is always the slimmest body types that are valorized.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

HAVE THINGS CHANGED LATELY, THOUGH?

The Modern Taboo

Anorexia seems to be considered an acceptable topic for young readers. Obese children, on the other hand, are rarely featured in contemporary children’s literature and are unlikely to be explicitly condemned as they often are in the classics. …Dudley Dursely…proves to be an unusual exception.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Voracious Children was published 10 years ago, and in good news, the fat acceptance movement and some exciting new authors seem to have had a positive impact on the young adult landscape in particular. Until recently the standout examples of fat characters in children’s literature were:

  • Blubber by Judy Blume — fat bodies used as learning tools for others
  • The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger — but the sequel completely undoes any fat-positive messages
  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements
  • The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Madeleine L’Engle only ever has fat characters in her books who are bad

Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the best YA novel I have had starring a fat protagonist* because:

  • Eleanor is still fat even when she doesn’t get enough to eat, which to me reads as a sign of poverty, which it is in the real world, rather than a symptom of greed or bad character
  • Eleanor is not depicted as a ‘beautiful girl’ but in a fat body and there is never any ‘If only she lost weight she’d be hot’ sentiment
  • She ends up in a romantic relationship with someone who does not have body image issues. It’s not a Shrek-like ‘Know your level’ sort of message.
  • Eleanor has a fulfilling teenage sex life and her overweight is a non-issue when it come to that.
  • [SPOILER ALERT HIGHLIGHT TO READ] Rainbow Rowell also avoids that thing where every fat girl has to find her true love by giving us a bittersweet ending.
*It is never actually clear in the story whether Eleanor is genuinely fat or if she just thinks she is, which might be seen as problematic.

Eleanor & Park is a part of a new wave of YA novels written by (mostly female) authors who have a much better handle on fat politics than authors who came before. Some examples from around the Internet (which is probably mostly to thank for fat acceptance in the first place):

  • Sweet by Emily Laybourne
  • Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
  • Looks by Madeline George
  • Earthly Delights by Kerry Greenwood
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
  • Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff (about a boy rather than a girl)
  • Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
  • Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Hungry, Crystal Renn’s memoir
  • This Book Isn’t Fat Its Fabulous by Nina Beck
  • All About Vee by C. Leigh Purtell
  • Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina

One of the problems with the marketing and packaging of books about fat girls, though, is that the book covers often depict food, whereas almost every YA novel with a beautiful protagonist shows the protagonist, or at least a part of her body on at least one of the cover versions. (Often headless, admittedly.) Where are all the headless fat girls on book covers?

Modern Books To Avoid (due to problematic/conflicting messages)

I have not read many of these. Some I have tried reading and given up partway through. Others I do appreciate as stories, but when I look more closely at the fat politics I definitely know what people are talking about. If you’re looking quickly for a book a fat kid might love, perhaps make use of this list as a rough shorthand?

  • Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky
  • Everyday by David Levithan
  • Sugar by Deidre Riordan Hall
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Huge by Sasha Paley
  • Artichokes Heart by Suzanne Supplee
  • Looks by Madeleine George
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
  • Shrink to Fit by Doner Sarkar
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green

RELATED

If you’re au fait with the film of Tim Burton, check out: 10 Examples Of Tim Burton Hating On Fat People from Film School Rejects

They say one of the gifts of getting older is you don’t care as much what other people think of you. And as I come to the end of my 30s this does seem true, with one notable exception. All the women I know, and I include myself, still spend far too much time engaging in ”confessional” food talk.

– SMH, Would You Like Some Stigma With That?

Calling Melissa McCarthy a “Female Hippo” isn’t being a critic; it’s being a bully, from Hello Giggles

Where Are All The Fat Female [American] Politicians? from Jezebel

Fat Jokes & Chris Christie: What If He Were a Woman? from The Broad Side

James Gandolfini: An “Unlikely” Sex Symbol? Yup; Men Get Fat-Shamed, Too from Bust Magazine

Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. From Women on TV Step Off The Scales

FAT BODY POLITICS: THIN PRIVILEGE VS. “THIN SHAMING from Fuck Yeah Feminists

Are Thin Women The Enemy? from BBC News

Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity, an abstract from PLOS One

Fat from The Rumpus is a long read written about the experiences of being a lifelong overweight male.

female-beauty

Body Size Stereotypes.

Obesity Campaigns: The Fine Line Between Educating and Shaming from The Atlantic

The truth about fat women and self control from Live Science

The Privilege Of Assuming It’s Not About You from Sociological Images

Girls Like Humour And Slapstick Too

I just watched Yogi Bear, the movie, with our five year old daughter. She loved it. Bears, slapstick, what’s not to love. (I on the other hand have some issues — the same issues I usually have about movies for children: one female character, the love interest, who exists only as  a ‘prize’ for a shafted male character, who is consistently referred to by Boo Boo not by her name but in dismissive fashion, and is actually listed in dialogue at one point as a kind of prize, along with food items. There.)

I have not yet seen Frozen. I’ve listened to Slate Culture Gabfest talk about Frozen and now I’ve listened to NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour crew talk about Frozen and there are a couple of reasons I don’t want to pay for box office tickets:

  • Frozen is apparently reminiscent of Tangled, of which I am no fan (because it contains the wrong kind of slapstick)
  • The lead animator said something dumb about how hard it is to keep girls looking pretty through a range of emotions (and his fans subsequently said he only said that because he was tired and he’s actually a brilliant genius etc)
  • Slate’s Dan Snyder has two daughters and didn’t think the sister relationship in Frozen was very well done at all
  • Two of the men on NPR’s Pop Cuture Happy Hour said that Frozen just isn’t funny enough.

Which brings me to my main point:

Stories starring girls don’t actually have to be earnest.

Feisty princesses don’t need to improve the world in serious fashion a la Brave. There’s no reason, Pixar et al, why you can’t make a film starring a girl who is genuinely, consistently funny. Where are the stories starring girls in which humour is the main point?

This is not to say that Frozen doesn’t have any funny moments at all. NPR explained that Frozen is a bit different from most similar films in that the jokes are not all jammed into the start — the film does in fact become more funny as the film progresses. However, it’s interesting to note that the men on that podcast didn’t think it was sufficiently funny.

Maybe this is the real reason why boys apparently don’t want to watch films starring girls? (Apparently.)

 

Film Study: Thelma And Louise (1991)

“While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.”

— Callie Khouri, who has more recently written Nashville (2012) and the film Mad Money (2008)

Why Thelma And Louise Strikes A Nerve

Time Magazine asked why this film struck a nerve with the wider culture.Above all else, Thelma and Louise is a perfect example of story structure. Some people think of stories — especially films — in terms of three act structure.  I prefer John Truby’s more detailed 22 Step Structure, and this film is a perfect example of that. Whatever else can be said about the feminist zeitgeist of 1991, the story structure definitely has a large part to play in the box office success of this film and its enduring appeal.

Genre Blend

Myth, Drama, Crime >> Road Movie

Story Structure

As the film starts, the two women are embarking on a camping trip. Stopping off at a roadside bar is a very clear step into a world different from their own. As they both start to let their hair down, they begin to shed more of their former selves — but this is drama; every action has a consequence. Thelma attracts the attentions of a local redneck who brutally assaults her. The crisis is precipitated. Given the choice to kill him or warn him off, Louise — provoked — shoots him in the head and they flee from the scene. Both are thrown into a completely alien world — into the woods again.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Self-revelation, need, desire

When we first meet Thelma and Louise, they are living in darkness, mortgage holders on a conservative American society.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

If either of the two central characters is the main character, it is Thelma. Thelma has more of a character arc, whereas Louise starts off strong and stays strong, though there is room in the story for Thelma to take over, as explained by Howard Suber in The Power Of Film:

In the first half of Thelma and Louise, the older Louise uses her knowledge and experience to lead. Halfway through the film, however, she succumbs to despair, and Thelma becomes the leader.

— The Power Of Film

Thelma needs to learn to live outside the control of her husband.

Thelma desires a fishing trip with her older best friend.

Her self-revelation will be that she is better off without her no-good husband and she can do amazing things under her own steam.

louise old fashioned diner

In the first part of the film, before the inciting incident, the women look like they stepped straight out of the fifties.

In the first part of the film, before the inciting incident, the women look like they stepped straight out of the fifties.

Ghost (backstory)

Thelma has only been with one man and we find out when she picks up the thieving hitchhiker that she has been with him since she was 14.

Louise had something horrible happen to her in Texas and refuses to go back. Thelma guesses that it was rape.

Storyworld

A detailed explanation of the American setting and stopovers can be found over at Twelve Mile Circle.

Thelma and Louise Roadtrip map

Here’s the caution John Truby offers about journey stories in his book Anatomy Of Story:

DON’T: have too many arenas in a journey story. A major reason journey stories feel fragmented, besides having too many arenas, is that the hero encounters a number of opponents in succession on the road. That’s why one of the keys to making the journey story work is the vehicle in which the hero travels. A simple rule of thumb is this: the bigger the vehicle, the more unified the arena. The bigger the vehicle, the easier it is to bring opponents along for the ride. These are the ongoing opponents, and with the hero, they create the single arena within the vehicle.

Khouri avoided fragmentation in Thelma & Louise with the Brad Pitt character, who turned up over and over again. If that guy had been separate people it would have felt fragmented to the audience. The masterful thing about that particular thread is that J.D. has a good motivation for following the women. (A couple, actually.)

thelma and louise car

There are often lots of storms in road trip movies, to the point where a storm is cliche. This film doesn’t have storms but it does have a lot of rain. Pathetic fallacy. It never rains on Thelma and Louise themselves, however. It’s raining back home where the men are, and J.D. gets rained on, but Louise and Thelma stay dry inside their convertible.

Weakness & Need (Problem)

Thelma needs to escape for a while from her controlling, dismissive husband of many years. But  more deeply, she needs to learn to believe in herself and in her best friend (rather than in her useless husband).

Thelma doesn’t stand up to anyone, not even her own life partner. She can’t even bring herself to tell him she’s going away for the weekend, leaving him a note instead, and a frozen dinner in the microwave.

Desire

Thelma’s desire is to gain a little independence from her husband, but by taking the mini-step of going fishing with her friend for the weekend.

Inciting Incident

A sleazebag at the bar where they stop tries to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him dead.

Louise shoots

As Truby says, “The best inciting event is one that makes your hero think she has just overcome the crisis” (which has often been happening since the beginning of the story but not in this particular case). Sure enough, Louise has just saved Thelma from violent rape but this is just the beginning of their troubles.

Here’s the thing about this confrontation as an inciting incident: This scene has created what writers call the ‘obligatory scene’. (John Yorke prefers the term ‘obligatory act’.) Now that Louise has shot this guy with a gun, the audience must see a battle between Louise and the law. The audience won’t feel the story is finished until they see a showdown between the women and the police.

Ally/Allies

thelma louise cowboy gangsters

Thelma and Louise are each other’s strongest ally, but their relationship doesn’t start off all that close at the beginning. They will grow closer as the story progresses.

Most of the world is against them, mostly men.

Opponent

Surprisingly in a cop drama, even the detective is on their side. In fact, he’s an opponent, for the purposes of plot. But this is the character who is most closely aligned to us, the audience. We see what he sees, as he sees it. We know the women have done wrong, but can’t help but be impressed by them anyhow, just like him. In the final scene when the detective is running for dear life towards the women’s car, trying to get them not to drive off that cliff, that’s how the audience feels too, after spending an entire movie with these characters.

Detective Hal

Mystery

There is a strong opponent in this story and there doesn’t need to be any mystery, but the mystery of what happened to Louise in Texas is introduced. Thelma basically confirms our suspicions near the end.

Attack by ally

This happens earlier than usual, with the cafe scene in which Thelma has just been assaulted. Louise almost blames Thelma for getting them both into this terrible mess.

Fake-ally opponent

J.D.

J.D. is an unambiguous example of this. The clever thing about the scripting is that he is upfront about his thieving, and still steals from Thelma and Louise. He unwittingly tutors Thelma in armed robbery with the intention only of showing off. Did he really rob a petrol station using those words, or are those words what he wishes he’d said? Thelma, being part impressionable, part naive, quotes him verbatim nonetheless.

The audience sees him before he is properly introduced. Thelma trips over him. He’s overly apologetic, but since she is still traumatised and temporarily suspicious, Thelma doesn’t reply.

Changed desire and motive

They now want to stay out of trouble with the law. The fishing trip has been abandoned. Louise wants to travel to Mexico. Thelma doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

First revelation and decision

They need money. Louise decides to call her musician boyfriend.

Jimmy

Plan

Louise will call back in an hour and the boyfriend will tell her which bank to pick her money up at in Oklahoma.

As for Thelma, she calls her husband who is annoyed that she left without his permission. She tells him to ‘go fuck’ himself, which we sense is the first time she’s ever said such a thing to him. This is the start of her character arc.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

jd in the wing mirror

This particular shot makes the audience feel uneasy — J.D. is sneaking up behind Thelma.

J.D. plans to rob the women so he asks to hitch a ride with them since he’s a student and has no way back to school after his ride fell through. That doesn’t work at first, but does eventually. Then he turns up yet again (in the rain — deliberately not standing under the eaves, I notice, to look even more pathetic) to have sex with the vulnerable Thelma, who he may or may not have planned to rob from the get go.

J.D. is savvy enough about human nature to recognise that the way in with Thelma is to begin by playing schoolyard games.

J.D. is savvy enough about human nature to recognise that the way in with Thelma is to begin by playing schoolyard games.

Apparent defeat

We learn that all of Louise’s life savings are gone. What’s left to do now, when they don’t even have money for petrol?

Drive

Thelma feels responsible for the money going missing so she tells Louise ‘Don’t you worry about the money’. She is newly hardened and resolved to get money by robbing a store. Or, as TV Tropes would put it, she Took A Level In Badass.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

The successful and easy robbery has a galvanising effect on Thelma. She feels she can do anything and is having a good time for the first time in many years. I’m reminded of the elation experienced by Walter White just after he ‘breaks bad’.

Second revelation and decision

In Thelma and Louise, Thelma initially refuses to accompany her friend to Mexico. Only after a patronizing, misogynistic phone call from her husband forty minutes into the film does she commit to the journey.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

When Thelma calls home and immediately realises the police are there the women realise just how much trouble they’re in.

Audience revelation

Louise has been raped (or similar) in Texas, and the anger she holds about this would have motivated her shooting Thelma’s rapist in the carpark.

TV Tropes calls this a Noodle Incident.

The Noodle Incident is something from the past that is sometimes referred to but never explained, with the implication that it’s just too ludicrous for words, and the reality that any explanation would fall short of audience expectations. Questions about it are often met with “You Don’t Want To Know…

TV Tropes also points out that this noodle incident trope is generally used by trickster characters.

Don’t be surprised if it was caused by a trickster-type character. If there’s a noodle incident and a trickster happens to be in the main cast, the trickster is almost always responsible for it, or at least blamed for it.

Louise is not the stock trickster character but she is certainly an extended version of it. So is Thelma — they are constantly getting themselves out of tricky situations by doing underhanded things. Audiences love main characters who do this.

Third revelation and decision

Talking to the detective again on the phone, Louise is told that they won’t get into Mexico. She puts two and two together and realises that Thelma has told J.D. where they were headed, and that J.D. must have told the cops.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

Louise gets pulled over by a cop, who knows all about them. Thelma is now given the opportunity to show the audience how much she has genuinely changed. Whereas before she was simply parroting the words of J.D. when robbing the bank, we now get to see that she can hold her own as a criminal. We see her act calmly and confidently as she gets the cop to climb into his trunk.

The same scene is used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When the two guys are pulled over by a cop we think, they’re certainly done for now. There’s also a cop-pulling-over scene in Little Miss Sunshine and another in No Country For Old Men. It’s very common in road movies, and interesting to see the various ways in which the writers get their characters out of this situation.

Battle

I’ve always thought that truck explosion was overdone. I mean, there are a lot of stock characters in this movie, and Thelma’s husband is almost overplayed, but the guy who plays the vile truck driver really does seem overacted. But there is a very good storytelling reason for that very Hollywood truck explosion — it makes for a great battle scene. The explosion, of course, symbolises their entire mess.

Self-revelation and Moral decision

Now that Thelma and Louise have become emancipated and liberated they are truly free.

something's crossed over in me

New equilibrium

This part of the film has been left out with the express purpose of leaving the audience in a state of shock. At this point there is what TV Tropes call a:

Cerebus Callback: Thelma and Louise take a polaroid photo of themselves at the start of their trip and stick it to the rear view mirror in the car. The photo flies off the mirror just as the car goes plunging into the Grand Canyon.

final scene

RELATED

Are you writing a road trip story for younger readers? I recently watched Amanda at Book Riot talk about a book called Done Dirt Cheap, which she describes as being ‘a cross between Sons of Anarchy and Thelma and Louise’. It’s interesting to see books being promoted using films as examples. I guess this is because there are so many books in the world it’s hard to find anything that everyone has read, whereas there are a few tent pole films which almost everyone knows something about, even if they haven’t seen them. It’s not a bad marketing strategy.

Film Study: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Today is Curmudgeon’s Day, according to Twitter. (Un)happy Curmudgeon’s Day! In that spirit I will take a close look at a film in which a curmudgeonly old man learns to soften up with the help of an earnest and humble young woman. I first saw this film around the time it come out and in my memory it was a pro-woman film, but watching it again now I can see that although Hilary Swank becomes the boxing champion in the story, this is nevertheless a narrative about the Clint Eastwood character, who does curmudgeonly very well. (In certain fonts his name looks very much like ‘Cunt Eastwood’, just by the by.)

Million Dollar Baby

The film Million Dollar Baby is directed and produced by Paul Haggis, who also gave us Crash. The script is based on a short story by boxing trainer Jerry Boyd, who wrote under the pen name F.X. Toole.

It strikes me given recent Hollywood political news that perhaps the reason female actors are getting paid far less than male actors in Hollywood can be justified within the industry by the fact that women only have to read a few lines. (This even applies in films for children.) Swank’s character gets comparatively little to say throughout, with the vast majority of dialogue happening between the two old men, or via Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration.

If in doubt about who is the hero of a story, ask which character changes the most. At first glance this would be Hilary Swank’s character, who goes from ‘trailer trash’ to ‘boxing champ’, but this is deceptive; a ‘change of circumstance’ does not equal a ‘character arc’: a fundamental shift in worldview. The character arc belongs firmly to Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie, who ‘learns to love again’ after past rejection from his own daughter.

None of this is to say that this particular story should have been written differently, simply to say that this is no ‘Female Rocky’, as Warner Brothers tried to market the film as.

Designing Principle: An ageing boxing trainer learns to love (and lose) again after a brief paternal relationship with a young woman who becomes his stand in for an estranged daughter.

Theme Line: When you truly love somebody, your actions speak louder than words.

Story World: The battlefield of a boxing gymnasium and its surrounding underworld. (This is a story set in an ambiguous decade — it’s unambiguously American, but could be set in any number of decades of the past 70 odd years. There are few technological clues. In other words, this story takes place over Frankie’s whole lifetime — it’s a purely psychological story.)

Symbol Line: The boxing ring as a metaphor for inner turmoil

Arc phrase:”Always protect yourself” >> “I shouldn’t have dropped my hand “, in which hands held up to protect the head in boxing are a symbol of Frankie’s tendency to not get hurt by others in relationships.

 

INTERESTING STORYTELLING TOOLS USED IN MILLION DOLLAR BABY

REFLECTION CHARACTER

frankie and scrap reflection characters

Truby calls them allies and breaks allies down into true allies and fake-opponent allies. Within the first group, Michael Hauge writes specifically of ‘reflection characters’.

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation. […] 

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

— David Hauge

Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupree is of course the reflection character for Frankie Dunn. The reflection character is often a teacher, though in this case Scrap is lower in status due to being financially reliant upon Frankie. He nevertheless demonstrates the qualities that Frankie himself needs to learn. He sees the champion quality in Maggie before Frankie does and is in fact instrumental in the pairing.

Frankie and Scrap

CONTRAST CHARACTER

Danger

Why does the character of Danger exist? Why is he needed in the story? While all of the other characters are acted in mimetic fashion, the character of Danger is hammed up, played for laughs in a comic fashion which seems almost wrong for the film. But Danger, and his over-the-top presentation, are necessary for building the storyworld. The audience needs to know that all the odds are stacked against Maggie’s succeeding in this male-dominated fighting world. As a welter weight who has never actually had a fight, this guy is at the bottom of the pecking order in the gym, but is still more accepted than Maggie is because at least he’s not a girl. He’s as close as it’s possible to get to a girl, however, symbolised by his tights and the way the bigger guys hassle him for them. This demonstrates (as if it’s not already obvious) the machismo of the world of boxing.

danger in tights

There is another reason for the character of Danger: Frankie is exasperated by him. He’s a bumbling fool. This elevates Maggie in Frankie’s eyes. She may be clueless, but it’s not because she has delusions of grandeur — she is clueless only because she hasn’t had the privilege of coaching.

USE OF CHARACTER NICKNAMES

In the case of ‘Danger’, there is a pleasing ironic juxtaposition between the character and his nickname which serves to highlight how very non-dangerous he is as a boxer. The character of ‘Scrap’ has obviously been formidable in his younger years. The world of boxing is a natural story arena in which to make the most of nick names, and other boxers are referred to briefly by theirs. The nick names function as a shorthand for their backstory.

The most significant use of a nick name is that which Frankie gives to Maggie: Mo Chuisle. We don’t learn until the end of the film that this means ‘my blood’, and that when Frankie gave her this name it meant he had accepted her as his own daughter.

In YA fiction, John Green also makes much use of nicknames as a way to say a lot about a character without saying anything at all. (The Colonel, Eagle, Pudge etc.)

USE OF A STORYTELLER

the cleaner

Scrap is also the storyteller, in a film which makes heavy use of his voice over narration. As Robert McKee says:

There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration.

Incidentally, this aspect of film shares a lot with picture books — in a picture book, if the words simply explain the pictures, it’s not working as a picture book. Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott use the phrase ‘ironic counterpoint’ in their excellent text How Picturebooks Work. Likewise in film, if the voice over narration simply describes the scenes it is talking down to the audience. 

Morgan Freeman is well-established as a certain type of narrator. In The Shawshank Redemption, too, he plays a character/storyteller who has already been through his own version of character arc before the story of the (white) hero begins. In his narration he has generally these characters have had much time to reflect and to therefore offer insight the characters themselves don’t yet have.

Have we ever seen a white man narrating the character arc of a black man come out of Hollywood? Sometimes the insight of a black storyteller character is so deep that he almost tips over into Magical Negro territory — a familiar trope in American stories. However, compared to Freeman’s characters in The Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, Azeem and Batman Begins, the holey-socked, down-and-out Scrap doesn’t exactly subvert this trope, but perhaps narrowly side-steps it.

Part of the reason the voiceover narration works in this film is because there is a reason for it within the world of the story: At the end of the film it is revealed that the narration is a letter Scrap is writing to Frankie’s estranged daughter, explaining the true nature of his character and hoping the two of them will make amends.

FAIRYTALE/FANTASY SYMBOLISM

In fairytales, a character often bears a curse and comes up trumps despite this curse. Although in fairytales curses might come about due to a witch who wasn’t invited to a party, in modern stories the curse has morphed into some lack of privilege. In Maggie’s case she bears the curse of being female. She also happens to bear the curse of being 32-33 years old in a sport best suited to the young.

The boxing robe given to Maggie by Frankie is symbolic and marks a turning point in Frankie Dunn’s character arc. In fantasy, robes often mean ‘invisibility’, or ‘blending in’, but here it signifies ‘initiation’, and is therefore more akin to the fantasy ‘crown’. (It’s a hooded cloak, after all.)

maggie's cloak

 

GHOSTS

This is Truby’s term for ‘backstory’ because it’s a specific kind of backstory — it’s the bad thing that’s happened to the main character that makes them the way they are and explains the way they act in the story. The ghost is generally hinted at and then revealed in full sometime in the middle part of a film.

We learn in a very brief scene outside church that Frankie has a daughter. We don’t know if she’s still alive or anything about her. This explains why Frankie is uncomfortable getting involved with a young woman as a fatherly figure — he’s scared of being hurt again.

Frankie also has another ghost in relation to Scrap, which explains why he’s reluctant to promote Maggie up through the ranks even though she seems more than ready. Scrap explains this to Maggie on her 33rd birthday at the diner: Frankie feels responsible for the game in which Scrap lost his eye.

we learn of eastwood's ghost

The other characters have their own ghosts — we see what a horrible background Maggie’s come from when she buys her mother and sister a house only to have them complain about it.

FORESHADOWING

“I should’ve kept my hands up,” Maggie says from her hospital bed. This has been an ongoing issue, with Frankie refusing to progress her through the ranks until she can learn this properly. Ironically, since it was an illegal punch that lead to Maggie’s injury in the first place, the advice wouldn’t have helped her anyhow.

“Fly there, drive back,” Maggie requests, when Frankie asks how she’d like to travel to and from the championship round. ‘The storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing,’ reads an article in The Atlantic, comparing it to a device such as metaphor, which exists in the real world as well as in fiction. Why does this kind of foreshadowing exist so regularly in stories?

“We try to predict the future all the time,” Pasupathi says. She speculates that the reason there’s foreshadowing in fiction in the first place is because of this human tendency. The uncertainty of the future makes people uncomfortable, and stories are a way to deal with that.

“The future is never a direct replica of the past,” Adler says. “So we need to be able to take pieces of things that have happened to us and reconfigure them into possible futures.” For example, through experience, one learns that “We need to talk” rarely foreshadows anything good. (Life has its own clichés.)

The Atlantic

 

SIDESHADOWING

Sideshadowing happens in stories when a character or narrator posits a series of possible events which never have any consequences in the story. Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken.

A conversation in the hospital between Maggie and Frankie posits an alternative ending for the two of them. They discuss maybe moving to a cabin somewhere, where Frankie can read his books and look after Maggie.

Another possible ending is posed by Frankie just before Maggie asks him to finish her off; he’s been thinking he can get a wheelchair which can be operated by blowing through a straw and she could go back to school.

These two alternative endings serve to heighten the sadness of the actual ending. Those are both the happiest endings an audience could wish for, but the popularity of this film should put paid to the idea that successful Hollywood stories have happy endings.

What is required for the ending of a film is not happiness; it is justice. The bad force may not totally overcome the protagonist, but it always takes its toll. The endings of the vast majority of popular films are, in fact, Pyrrhic victories. […] Happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

— Howard Suber, The Power Of Film

 

7 STEP STORY STRUCTURE

 

frankie dunn

Note the symbolism of Frankie behind those bars ^^. The character arc will see him come out of his psychological cage. Note that this film is based on some short stories, one of which was originally titled ‘Rope Burns’. (It has since been retitled to match the film.)

WEAKNESS/NEED

Frankie Dunn, boxing coach and gym owner.

Psychological Weakness: His relationship with his own daughter has soured and he is unable to relate to any female around his daughter’s age. His only real confidant is the pastor at his church where he is only ever in a verbal sparring match anyhow.

Moral Weakness: He discriminates against Maggie because of her gender even though she is obviously the most committed boxing student he could hope to find.

He needs to learn how to get close to people again, and in particular how to relate to women. He also needs to learn to become a true Christian rather than simply going through the motions of attending daily mass.

DESIRE

Frankie wants to take Big Willie Little, pro-level boxer who he has trained for years, right through to the big-time.

OPPONENT

Mickey Mack, big-shot manager poaches Frankie’s protégé. Big Willie goes with Mickey Mack because he feels Frankie isn’t advancing him quickly enough.

Scrap is Frankie’s sometimes opponent, functioning as his reflection ally.

PLAN

His plan doesn’t work when Big Willie Little is poached by a manager. Frankie is especially devastated at Big Willie’s parting comment that Frankie has taught him all he needs to know.

Needing a new focus, Frankie reluctantly settles upon Maggie, so he starts coaching her, meaning to palm her off at the first opportunity.

He does this, but doesn’t like that her new manager is coaching Maggie to lose so that his other fighters can win, so he takes Maggie on again. He will train her to be the best or not at all. He will also protect her from injury by refusing to advance her through the ranks quickly.

BATTLE

There are a series of actual battles — this is a storyworld which includes boxing matches, after all — culminating in a title fight with an illegal shot from the opponent which breaks Maggie’s neck. She is now a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator.

SELF-REVELATION

Frankie goes through the first three stages of grief: denial, then blaming Scrap in anger and later trying to bargain with God through prayer. (Note that when films have a reflection character such as Scrap they always ‘scrap’ with the hero at some point — it’s a screenwriting rule.)

Frankie has the self-revelation that he would give his own life (freedom) for his daughter (or his symbolic daughter) and he’ll do something illegal and against his own ethics to save Maggie from continuing misery.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

At the end of the film there is a small chance that Frankie and his daughter will reconcile their differences, with Scrap’s quiet intervention. Nobody knows where Frankie has gone, so we know at least that he hasn’t ended up in jail. That may be him through the window of the diner — perhaps he’s bought a diner, or maybe it’s not him at all. His face through the glass is wraithlike — having lost not one but two daughters, he has become his ‘ghost’.

 

RELATED

I hope I’ve argued that Million Dollar Baby is not ‘the female Rocky’.

Here’s an article wondering if Rocky is ‘the most successful bad film ever made’.

The article makes some interesting points:

  • The story indulges in some Cinderella-style wish fulfilment
  • It was sold to adult movie goers as a gritty urban drama but is more like a feel-good Walt Disney children’s film
  • The storyline of Adrian is horribly misogynistic — the shy girl bullied into ‘dating’ a man who ends up falling in love with him is replicated all over films of this era, including Star Wars. (Remember when Princess Leia gets her head smashed against the wall in a ‘passionate’ kiss?)
  • Creed’s laziness saps the film of tension. Rocky really actually wins because he does some exercise.
  • The terrible dialogue and problematic construction give it the feel of an indie film, which works on its favour.

 

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

Film Study: Gravity (2013)

gravity-movie-poster

Logline: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Tagline: (seen above) Don’t let go.

Arc word: ‘let go’. “You’ve got to learn to let go,” Matt tells Ryan. We’ve also got the visual motif of Ryan letting Matt go irretrievably into space.

Designing Principle: A middle-aged space engineer learns to appreciate life again and believe in herself after a series of narrow escapes in space.

Theme Line: When you feel all alone and about to give up, fortify yourself by finding some imaginary person to give yourself some comfort.

Story World: Floating around in space

Symbol Line: ‘Tethered’ (grounded) versus being ‘untethered’ (lost and all alone, with nothing to hold onto).

Mooshing The Science

See: Getting Science Right In Film: It’s Not The Facts, Folks

This is a good example of a SF story in which the writers hired a science advisor, then picked and chose which parts of actual science would help and which would hinder their storytelling. They ended up with a film which can really annoy scientifically literate fans of mimesis, but for viewers who are able to suspend disbelief, and who enjoy predictable plots, this is a well-crafted sci-fi thriller with a satisfying character arc.

Gravity hair

The writers of Gravity seem to be following the advice to ‘dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics’ as a way of hiding the improbabilities, which Michael Hauge offers as one screenwriting technique in his article on how to create believable stories, but as he says himself, ‘This is definitely the last resort solution to the problem of credibility.’

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The Study Of Film Equals The Study Of Picturebooks

In juxtaposing a series of pictures in order to imply the sequence of a story, picture-book artists act much as filmmakers do. Andre Bazin [film critic] suggests that montage, assumed by many to be the essence of film art, is “the creation of a sense of meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition”. In films, the arrangement of a succession of shots provides the events depicted with their significance; not surprisingly, filmmakers often prepare themselves for shooting by using storyboards, sequential drawings of the various shots they intend to make of the scenes they will film that look much like picture books.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

1. Media Study – Studying Feature Films, while not particularly attractive as a website, and targeted at the GCSE syllabus (England), this website has useful links for resources which are not specific to GCSE.

2. PBS has a list of activities with the aim of better understanding a film.

3. Artemis Film Guides are classroom resources created by English and Art History teacher of many years’ experience, Judy Lewis. I have worked with Judy, used her resources and can vouch for their quality. Judy knows which films will appeal to teenagers. Schools can purchase these resources through the site, with no further worry about breaking copyright by photocopying.

4. Movie vocabulary used by directors from Wordnik

5. 30 Camera Shots Every Film Fan Should Know, and also these ‘shots’ come in handy when talking about the art of picturebooks, I might add. From Filmmaker IQ

6. Infographic shows the most common problems with 300 screenplays, from io9

7. Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli) offers six filmmaking tips which could equally apply to the making of picture books, from Film School Rejects

8. Seven Teaching Resources on Film Literacy from Edutopia

9. Form Cuts (or Match Cuts) are a film technique quite often used in picture books, for example in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburgh (round back of old sofa, curved bridge) Nodelman notes that Pat Hutchins depicts the same tree in each picture of Goodnight, Owl, but adds a new set of birds each time. Form cuts are good for making the differences in each picture really clear — the fixed position of objects anchors changes that are significant to the story.

Pat Hutchins Goodnight Owl Tree

Pat Hutchins’ Goodnight, Owl

10. The dynamic frame is even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by thte audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change. For an example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

In The Amazing Bone by William Stieg, there are two pictures on each page that depicts frantic activity.

In The Amazing Bone by William Stieg, there are two pictures on each page that depicts frantic activity.

But for the relaxed scenes, there is only one scene per page.

But for the relaxed scenes, there is only one scene per page.

The change in frame sizes is not annoying in picturebooks as it can be in films — instead, this is an accepted picturebook convention. It’s fairly common to place more pictures on a single page when there’s a lot going on.

11. Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand is one of the few picturebooks to use many of the very common film shots. Most picturebooks make heavy use of medium close ups.

The Story Of Ferdinand cover

 

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Ferdinand is only one of many picture books that, in its choice of vantage points, its quick cuts, its total flexibility, would have been unthinkable before motion pictures.

Barbara Bader

 

For all the similarities between motion pictures and modern picturebooks, Perry Nodelman notes one big difference:

Even when picture-book illustrators do vary from eye-level middle-distance or long shots, the effect of the variation is not cinematic. In films, we see the same scene from a variety of angles; in most picture books, indeed even in Ferdinand, every picture marks a different point in the story, in effect a different episode….almost every picture in most books represents a different scene. The whole point of film montage is that we come to understand action by means of the various ways the action has been broken down into smaller bits. But that does not happen in picture books. That, I believe, is the major difference between the depiction of action in picture-book narrative and in all other sorts of visual media; we see only a few carefully selected moments out of numerous possibilities, whereas on film we see many different ones of those possibilities, and on stage in any given scene, we see all of them. Because picture-book artists are restricted in the number of moments they can depict–usually it is fewer than fifteen, including the title page– they must choose their moments carefully and vary them more than do film-makers. If the angles remain the same, the actions depicted are always different; Max may make mischief in two different pictures, but they are two different sorts of mischief…Comic books can be located somewhere between picture books and films; they almost always show many different pictures of the same sequence of actions, and they tend to make use of every conceivable sort of shot, every possible angle…When picture books show more shots, they tend to take on the conventions of comic books and films.

– Words About Pictures

 

From Christian Metz

In a discussion of the semiology of film, Christian Metz suggests that films demand from their viewer knowledge of at least five different systems of signification, most of which can also be found in slightly different ways in picture books: culturebound patterns of visual and auditory perception (such as knowing how to understand a perspective through drawing), recognition of the objects shown on screen (labeling), knowledge of their cultural significance (such as knowing that black clothing stands for mourning), narrative structures (knowledge of types of stories and how they usually work out), and purely cinematic means of implying significance, such as music and montage. Metz suggests that each complete film, “relying on all these codes, plays them one against the other, eventually arriving at its own individual system, its ultimate (or first?) principle of unification and intelligibility.” In other words, filmmakers make use of the differences between various means of communication in the knowledge that each medium they bring into play will finally merely be part of the whole along with all the others; consequently, they deliberately (or sometimes, given the varying narrative capabilities of different media, inevitably) make each incomplete so that it can indeed be part of a whole and so that the meaning will be communicated by the whole and not any specific part of the whole. What the clothing and gesture do not reveal to us, the music or the narrative structure might; and what the clothing and the music communicate separately is different from what they communicate together. So each medium that filmmakers use always communicates different information differently, and all of them express their fullest meaning in terms of the ironies inherent in their differences from each other.

– Words About Pictures

 

 

Endings 05: Film Endings

A film where the story is entirely resolved doesn’t exist.

– BILLY WILDER

Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.

– ROBERT MCKEE

On the ending to the Sex and the City movie, from John Truby:

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

On the ending of Pretty Woman:

The original script for that film (then called 3,000 after the amount the prostitute is paid for the week) had a much darker ender — where the couple didn’t get together. Says Gere of that original ending, “It does exist, but I’ve never seen it. It was a dark movie,” he adds. “But I think Jeff Katzenberg saw something in it and didn’t want to make that movie, but he saw this other movie in it.”

Richard Gere

And on the ending of Black Swan:

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.

Related Links:

  1. Perfectly Happy, Even Without The Happy Endings from Go Into The Story
  2. Movies struggle to find ‘the end’ from the LA Times
  3. The Worst Movie Endings Of 2012
  4. Script Pages From The Shining Reveal Kubrick Had A Different Ending In Mind, from io9
  5. Realistic/Better Movie Endings, Oh Noa
  6. 12 Movies That Filmed Happy Endings You Never Saw from io9
  7. What happens to Disney princesses after their movies end from 22 Words
  8. The Director of Three Hunger Games Movies on Resisting a ‘Squeaky-Clean’ Ending from Time
  9. Unfinished Business: how Disney and Marvel killed happy ever afters by Nicholas Barber at The Guardian

The Animation Look… no such thing

I remember asking a friend what his favourite music was. “Indie,” he replied.

He was expressing a political preference rather than a genre, because the fact of being independently produced is in itself a defiance of established norms, but at the time I was perplexed. How can anyone so broadly say “Indie” as a genre.

Then I knew someone who listened to a lot of different indie artists and sure enough, I knew what he’d meant: ‘indie music’ has a certain feel to it. My knowledge of music isn’t strong enough to encapsulate exactly what that is, but I’ll go with ‘complaining male voice almost drowned out by instrumentals’ and you might get a sense of it.

Have you seen Pixar’s short animated film The Blue Umbrella yet? I haven’t, but I’m looking forward to catching it sooner or later because unlike a lot of the most recent animated films, that sounds original and the screenshots look stunning.

Here’s what the creator says, remembering his pitch to the two guys at the head of Pixar:

 “They are the strongest proponents of ‘animation is not a specific look.’ It feels like animated movies have a certain style, but there is no reason for that. Animation nowadays can be whatever it wants to be. With the first Toy Story, you could only do plastic, metal, stone, but you couldn’t do people. It took until The Incredibles–the first time there were humans in digital animation. Now you don’t really have that barrier anymore, it’s just that everyone got used to what animation looks like. Everyone [here at Pixar] really likes the idea of pushing animation into areas no one has thought of yet, at least in mainstream animation.”

And here are a couple of animated movies which have caught my eye lately. Unfortunately, they’re not always that easy to get a hold of here, but I have these on my to-watch list simply because they look animated in a completely original kind of way:

A CAT IN PARIS

THE ILLUSIONIST

PERSEPOLIS

THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE

Related: It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster, from Hollywood and Blake Snyder at Slate

We could argue that all movies are ‘animation’, but yeah, let’s not do that. Life is already confusing.

 

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