Friday, 20 September 2013

No-one Ever Really Dies

I've blogged about story franchises before, but they've been very much on my mind again this week. As I'm sure you've seen, J.K. Rowling is undertaking some franchise extension of her own, by screenwriting a Newt Scamander movie for Warner Bros. Although there's technically already a book version of this, it sounds like the film will be significantly different, and it's interesting to speculate that Rowling - who, let's remember has already made a ton of cash from book sales - sees movies as the real money-spinner.

Anyway, to wander back to the point, I watched two of the big summer franchise movies this week (I'm not going to name them to minimise spoilers) and in both of them, a major character dies at the climax of the story, thus motivating the protagonist to battle with and defeat the antagonist at the final showdown. But in both films it was blindingly clear to me:
  1. That they were going to resurrect the fallen character before the end of the movie
  2. How they were going to do it
And lo and behold, that was exactly what happened. I should note that my thirteen-year-old daughter was slightly behind me in predicting the outcome, but she still guessed the details before the resurrection scene occurred. Which means that even those in the films' core demographic aren't fooled by such a plot twist.

So, what to make of this bit of apparently lazy screenwriting within two actually pretty good films? Well, I think it demonstrates a major weakness of the story franchise model - it's the characters that audiences get attached to, not the plot. So in order to keep stoking the fire and rolling out new product, those characters must be present in each new adventure. As a result, the element of surprise is lost and with it, crucially, the jeopardy that comes from not knowing who will be alive at the end of the story.

This isn't a new problem - we've all known for fifty years that James Bond could never die. But at least every other character was up for grabs (see Skyfall for proof of that). If you look at a big ensemble movie like Avengers Assemble though, you could pretty much predict that all of the superhero characters were going to make it through, because they each had their own films to go back to. And the only key character they did kill off is being resurrected less than a year later in the SHIELD TV series.

For all this, however, there's something weirdly addictive about these story franchises, as each installment digs deeper and deeper into a fictional world. And the writers do manage to fill them with tension and excitement, despite the artificial limitations of the form. But overall, perhaps this is a moment to feel glad that you're writing children's books and not screenplays for blockbuster movies. And if you want to follow that thought into action, why not kill off your favourite character in a horrible way and never, ever bring them back to life? That'll show everyone you mean business!

Nick.

5 comments:

  1. Yes! In fact I'm starting the next FT book with a death. Coming soon to a critique group near you!

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    1. Sorry Lorraine! I hit the wrong button and deleted your comment by mistake (oops).

      To paraphrase, you were approving of J.K. Rowling's ability to dispatch characters, especially the fact that she killed off Dumbledore.

      My reply is to wonder whether she would have been allowed to do that, if Harry Potter had started out as a film series? After all, what about the Dumbledore spinoffs?

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  3. So Nick, you tried to kill me off with the delete button but as you say "noone ever really dies!" so I'm back.
    I think the HP series would have been quite different if it had started as a film because movie producers have a different agenda to writers. They need their films to make money and as much as possible and spin offs certainly help!
    However despite what I said about JK being good at killing off her characters she did cheat a bit. All the characters come back in some way - from Voldemort who is reborn, and then Harrys mum and dad, Lupin, Sirius, Cedric etc all come back as ghosts. Even Dumbledore. It takes the edge off all the death. Could discuss this for ages but will save it for when we next meet!

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    1. I have to say, I was quite impressed by the way she "had her cake and ate it" regarding Harry's death. There was such a feeling of doomed finality all the way through the last book and then she switched and brought him back to life for the big finish.

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